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Pretty Safe Lies

Bryan Caplan wrote . . . . . . . . .

“But is it safe?” Good economists will scoff that it’s a meaningless question, because safety is always a matter of degree. Nothing in the real world is perfectly safe. Even if you spend your day hiding in your house, you could die of a heart attack, an earthquake, or a home invasion.

In contrast, non-economists – and bad economists – love binary thinking about risk. Everything is either “safe” or “unsafe.” This was blatant during COVID. How many times did you hear the sentences, “Is it safe to reopen restaurants?,” “Is it safe to reopen schools?,” and “Is it safe to fly yet?”

What silly questions! Each activity has a positive probability of catching and spreading COVID – and the probability of bad outcomes rises the more time you spend doing the activity. Politically, however, you couldn’t regain your freedom until an authority gave each silly question an even sillier answer. “Yes, flying is now safe again.”

The most ill-formed COVID question of all was probably, “Is the vaccine safe?” What reasonable people wanted to know was, “Is taking the vaccine now safer than waiting until we run more tests?” What policy-makers kept asking themselves, though, was: “Can we get away with pretending that we know for sure that the vaccine has absolutely no negative health effects for anyone?”

Will the vaccine cause horrible problems in twenty years? We’ll know with near-certainty in about twenty years. For now, all we can honestly say is, “The risk trade-off seems very favorable, especially if you remember that contracting severe COVID also has long-run risks.” Which is good enough to justify vaxxing.

What’s afoot? I once again invoke the World’s Most-Underrated Psychological Theory: Social Desirability Bias. The harsh reality is that safety lies on a continuum, and no one is ever perfectly safe doing anything. These self-evident truths sound bad – and when the truth sounds bad, people lie. When the lies become ubiquitous enough, people start to sincerely believe absurdities. Absurdities like, “X is safe; do as much as you like. Y is unsafe; never do Y.”

Politicians, as usual, weaponize these absurdities. If they want to keep the schools closed, they just declare schools “unsafe.” If they want to open the schools, they just declare the schools “safe.” Either way, they pander to the emotionality of the masses – and avoid math. Almost nothing sounds worse than math. As the demagogues who rule us are well-aware.

How are we supposed to cope in this desert of Social Desirability Bias? Do a little math. Compare unfamiliar risks to familiar risks. Start with: How does this risk compare to the risk of driving? Nor should you crunch the numbers in isolation. Do it with your family, especially your kids. If you don’t lead your family with good math, demagogues will lead it with bad poetry.


Source : Bet On It

The Psychology of Manipulation: 6 Lessons from the Master of Propaganda

Ryan Matters wrote . . . . . . . . .

Edward L. Bernays was an American business consultant who is widely recognized as the father of public relations. Bernays was one of the men responsible for “selling” World War 1 to the American public by branding it as a war that was necessary to “make the world safe for democracy”.

During the 1920s, Bernays consulted for a number of major corporations, helping to boost their business through expertly crafted marketing campaigns aimed at influencing public opinion.

In 1928, Edward Bernays published his famous book, Propaganda, in which he outlined the theories behind his successful “public relations” endeavours. The book provides insights into the phenomenon of crowd psychology and outlines effective methods for manipulating people’s habits and opinions.

For a book that’s almost 100 years old, Propaganda could not be more relevant today. In fact, its relevance is a testament to the unchanging nature of human psychology.

One of the key takeaways of the book is that mind control is an important aspect of any democratic society. Indeed, Bernays maintains that without the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses”, democracy simply would not “work”.

We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

According to Bernays, those doing the “governing” constitute an invisible ruling class that “understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses”.

In Propaganda, Bernays draws on the work of Gustave Le Bon, Wilfred Trotter, Walter Lippmann, and Sigmund Freud (his uncle!), outlining the power of mass psychology and how it may be used to manipulate the “group mind”.

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?

I recently explored this topic in an essay about how occult rituals and predictive programming are used to manipulate the collective consciousness, influencing the thoughts, beliefs and actions of large groups of people, resulting in the creation of what occultists call “egregores”.

Here I have extracted some key insights from Bernays in an attempt to show how his book Propaganda is, in many ways, the playbook used by the globalist cryptocracy to process the group mind of the masses.

1. IF YOU MANIPULATE THE LEADER OF A GROUP, THE PEOPLE WILL FOLLOW

Bernays tells us that one of the easiest ways to influence the thoughts and actions of large numbers of people is to first influence their leader.

If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.

In fact, one of the most firmly established principles of mass psychology is that the “group mind” does not “think”, rather, it acts according to impulses, habits and emotions. And when deciding on a certain course of action, its first impulse is to follow the example of a trusted leader.

Humans are, by nature a group species. Even when we are alone, we have a deep sense of group belonging. Whether they consciously know it or not, much of what people do is an effort to conform to the ideals of their chosen group so as to feel a sense of acceptance and belonging.

This exact method of influencing the leader and watching the people follow has been used extensively throughout the last few years. One notable instance that comes to mind is the horrendously inaccurate epidemiological models created by Neil Ferguson, which formed the basis for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdown policies.

Once Johnson was convinced of the need to lockdown and mask up, the people gladly followed.

2. WORDS ARE POWERFUL: THE KEY TO INFLUENCING A GROUP IS THE CLEVER USE OF LANGUAGE

Certain words and phrases are associated with certain emotions, symbols and reactions. Bernays tell us that through the clever and careful use of language, one can manipulate the emotions of a group and thereby influence their perceptions and actions.

By playing upon an old cliché, or manipulating a new one, the propagandist can sometimes swing a whole mass of group emotions.

The clever use of language has been employed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to great effect. An obvious example of this was when the definition of “vaccine” was changed to include injections utilising experimental mRNA technology.

You see, the word “vaccine” is associated in the public mind with a certain picture – that of a safe, proven medical intervention that is not only life-saving but absolutely necessary.

If governments had told people to go get their “gene therapies”, the vast majority of the public would likely question the motives behind such a campaign; they would feel extremely sceptical because the phrase “gene therapy” is not associated with the same images, emotions and feelings as “vaccine”.

The same goes for the word “pandemic”, the definition of which was also changed. The word “pandemic” is generally associated in the collective consciousness with fear, death, chaos and emergency (largely thanks to Hollywood and the myriad virus films it has released over the years).

3. ANY MEDIUM OF COMMUNICATION IS ALSO A MEDIUM FOR PROPAGANDA

Any system of communication, whether phone, radio, print, or social media, is nothing more than a means of transmitting information. Bernays reminds us that any such means of communication is also a channel for propaganda.

There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda.

Bernays goes on to stress that a good propagandist must always keep abreast of new forms of communication, so that they may co-opt them as means of deliberate propaganda.

Indeed, systems that most people would associate with freedom of speech and democracy are none other than means of circulating propaganda. Facebook fact-checkers, Big Tech censorship and YouTube’s Covid banners certainly fall into this category.

Other examples of this include the recent algorithm updates made by various search engines (including Google and DuckDuckGo) to penalize Russian websites. Although this should come as no surprise (Google has been engaging in this type of “shadow propaganda” for many years).

4. REITERATING THE SAME IDEA OVER AND OVER CREATES HABITS AND CONVICTIONS

Although Bernays terms this a technique used by the “old propagandists”, he, nonetheless, recognizes its usefulness.

It was one of the doctrines of the reaction psychology that a certain stimulus often repeated would create a habit, or that the mere reiteration of an idea would create a conviction.

Repeating the same idea or the same “mantra” again and again is a form of neuro-linguistic programming aimed at instilling certain concepts or emotions into the subconscious mind. Indeed, people who are feeling sad or depressed are often advised to repeat to themselves an uplifting saying or affirmation.

There are many examples of this simple, yet effective, technique being used to great effect over the last few years. Think Q’s “trust the plan”, the globalist favourite, “build back better” or the incessant repetition of that twisted phrase, “trust the science”. Included in this category are the 24/7-in-your-face death statistics and case numbers, aimed at promoting the illusion of a pandemic.

There are more obvious examples of this as well, such as news anchors in different areas all reading from the exact same script.

5. THINGS ARE NOT DESIRED FOR THEIR INTRINSIC WORTH, BUT RATHER FOR THE SYMBOLS THAT THEY REPRESENT

After studying why people make certain purchasing decisions, Bernays observed that people often don’t desire something for its usefulness or value, but rather because it represents something else which they unconsciously crave.

A thing may be desired not for its intrinsic worth or usefulness, but because he has unconsciously come to see in it a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself.

Bernays gives the example of a man buying a car. From the outside, it may appear as if the man is buying the car because he needs a means of transport, but in actuality, he is buying it because he craves the elevated social status that comes with owning a motor vehicle.

This idea, too, applies to the events over the last few years.

For example, masks are a symbol of compliance. Everyone knows they don’t work but they wear them because of their desire to “fit in”, and to be seen as an upstanding citizen who follows the rules. Covid-19 injections are also a symbol and many people choose to get them because they have a desire to avoid being called an “anti-vaxxer” or a “conspiracy theorist”.

6. ONE CAN MANIPULATE INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS BY CREATING CIRCUMSTANCES THAT MODIFY GROUP CUSTOMS

Lastly, Bernays tells us that if one wishes to manipulate the actions of an individual, the most effective way to do so is to create circumstances that engender the desired behaviour.

What are the true reasons why the purchaser is planning to spend his money on a new car instead of on a new piano? […] He buys a car, because it is at the moment the group custom to buy cars. The modern propagandist therefore sets to work to create circumstances which will modify that custom.

For example, why all of a sudden does everyone “stand with Ukraine”? According to Bernays, it’s not because there is a war going on and innocent people need our love and support, but rather because it is the new “group custom” to do so.

The process of altering group customs begins from the top down. In every nation or social clique, there are leaders, public figures and influencers. Manipulating those with the most sway eventually filters down into the public mind. That is why when a celebrity decides to wear something extravagant on the red carpet, a whole new trend can arise overnight.

Similarly, at the beginning of the Covid saga and then the Russia-Ukraine war, the media were quick to circulate stories of celebs “catching Covid” and urging people to stay home, or public figures condemning Russian actions and calling for stricter sanctions (which just so happened to hurt the West more than they hurt Russia).

THE PROPAGANDA PLAYBOOK

The world is a volatile place right now. Things seem to change quickly and no one knows what might happen next. However, amid all this chaos there is one thing that has not changed and is unlikely to change any time soon, and that is human psychology.

Because of this, the tactics used to manipulate people’s thoughts, beliefs and actions have not changed either. In fact, most of them were outlined in detail 100 years ago by Edward Bernays in his 1928 book, Propaganda.

That’s right, the Puppet Master’s playbook isn’t a secret. It’s right there, freely available to anyone who cares to understand how the powers that be seek to influence them on a daily basis.


Source : Off G

Infographic: Being Defensive – How Psychotherapy Sees You

Investor Psychology Cycle Applied to the S&P 500

The Psychology of Shaping Another’s Reality

Cynthia Chung wrote . . . . . . . . .

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

– Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

We are living in a world where the degree of disinformation and outright lying has reached such a state of affairs that, possibly for the first time ever, we see the majority of the western world starting to question their own and surrounding level of sanity. The increasing frenzied distrust in everything “authoritative” mixed with the desperate incredulity that “everybody couldn’t possibly be in on it!” is slowly rocking many back and forth into a tighter and tighter straight jacket. “Question everything” has become the new motto, but are we capable of answering those questions?

Presently the answer is a resounding no.

The social behaviourist sick joke of having made everyone obsessed with toilet paper of all things during the start of what was believed to be a time of crisis, is an example of how much control they have over that red button labelled “commence initiation of level 4 mass panic”.

And can the people be blamed? After all, if we are being lied to, how can we possibly rally together and point the finger at the root of this tyranny, aren’t we at the point where it is everywhere?

As Goebbels infamously stated,

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State [under fascism].”

And here we find ourselves today, at the brink of fascism. However, we have to first agree to forfeit our civil rights as a collective before fascism can completely dominate. That is, the big lie can only succeed if the majority fails to call it out, for if the majority were to recognise it for what it is, it would truly hold no power.

The Battle for Your Mind

“Politicians, Priests, and psychiatrists often face the same problem: how to find the most rapid and permanent means of changing a man’s belief…The problem of the doctor and his nervously ill patient, and that of the religious leader who sets out to gain and hold new converts, has now become the problem of whole groups of nations, who wish not only to confirm certain political beliefs within their boundaries, but to proselytize the outside world.”

– William Sargant “Battle of the Mind”

It had been commonly thought in the past, and not without basis, that tyranny could only exist on the condition that the people were kept illiterate and ignorant of their oppression. To recognise that one was “oppressed” meant they must first have an idea of what was “freedom”, and if one were allowed the “privilege” to learn how to read, this discovery was inevitable.

If education of the masses could turn the majority of a population literate, it was thought that the higher ideas, the sort of “dangerous ideas” that Mustapha Mond for instance expresses in “The Brave New World”, would quickly organise the masses and revolution against their “controllers” would be inevitable. In other words, knowledge is freedom, and you cannot enslave those who learn how to “think”.

However, it hasn’t exactly played out that way has it?

The greater majority of us are free to read whatever we wish to, in terms of the once “forbidden books”, such as those listed by The Index Librorum Prohibitorum[1]. We can read any of the writings that were banned in “The Brave New World”, notably the works of Shakespeare which were named as absolutely dangerous forms of “knowledge”.

We are now very much free to “educate” ourselves on the very “ideas” that were recognised by tyrants of the past as the “antidote” to a life of slavery. And yet, today, the majority choose not to…

It is recognised, albeit superficially, that who controls the past, controls the present and thereby the future. George Orwell’s book “1984”, hammers this as the essential feature that allows the Big Brother apparatus to maintain absolute control over fear, perception and loyalty to the Party cause, and yet despite its popularity, there still remains a lack of interest in actually informing oneself about the past.

What does it matter anyway, if the past is controlled and rewritten to suit the present? As the Big Brother interrogator O’Brien states to Winston, “We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not? [And thus, are free to rewrite it as we choose…]”

Of course, we are not in the same situation as Winston…we are much better off. We can study and learn about the “past” if we so desire, unfortunately, it is a choice that many take for granted.

In fact, many are probably not fully aware that presently there is a battle waging for who will “control the past” in a manner that is closely resembling a form of “memory wipe”.

* * * * * * *

William Sargant was a British psychiatrist and, one could say, effectively the Father of “mind control” in the West, with connections to British Intelligence and the Tavistock Institute, which would influence the CIA and American military via the program MK Ultra. Sargant was also an advisor for Ewen Cameron’s LSD “blank slate” work at McGill University, funded by the CIA.

Sargant accounts for his reason in studying and using forms of “mind control” on his patients, which were primarily British soldiers that were sent back from the battlefield during WWII with various forms of “psychosis”, as the only way to rehabilitate extreme forms of PTSD.

The other reason, was because the Soviets had apparently become “experts” in the field, and out of a need for national security, the British would thus in turn have to become experts as well…as a matter of self-defence of course.

The work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, had succeeded in producing some disturbingly interesting insights into four primary forms of nervous systems in dogs, that were combinations of inhibitory and excitatory temperaments; “strong excitatory”, “balanced”, “passive” and “calm imperturbable”. Pavlov found that depending on the category of nervous system temperament the dog had, this in turn would dictate the form of “conditioning” that would work best to “reprogram behaviour”. The relevance to “human conditioning” was not lost on anyone.

It was feared in the West, that such techniques would not only be used against their soldiers to invoke free-flowing uninhibited confessions to the enemy but that these soldiers could be sent back to their home countries, as zombified assassins and spies that could be set off with a simple code word. At least, these were the thriller stories and movies that were pumped into the population. How horrific indeed! That the enemy could apparently enter what was thought the only sacred ground to be our own…our very “minds”!

However, for those who were actually leading the field in mind control research, such as William Sargant, it was understood that this was not exactly how mind control worked.

For one thing, the issue of “free will” was getting in the way.

No matter the length or degree of electro-shock, insulin “therapy”, tranquilizer cocktails, induced comas, sleep deprivation, starvation etc induced, it was discovered that if the subject had a “strong conviction” and “strong belief” in something, this could not be simply erased, it could not be written over with any arbitrary thing. Rather, the subject would have to have the illusion that their “conditioning” was in fact a “choice”. This was an extremely challenging task, and long term conversions (months to years) were rare.

However, Sargant saw an opening. It was understood that one could not create a new individual from scratch, however, with the right conditioning that was meant to lead to a physical breakdown using abnormal stress (effectively a reboot of the nervous system), one could increase the “suggestibility” markedly in their subjects.

Sargant wrote in his “Battle of the Mind”: “Pavlov’s clinical descriptions of the ‘experimental neuroses’ which he could induce in dogs proved, in fact, to have a close correspondence with those war-neuroses which we were investigating at the time.”

In addition, Sargant found that a falsely implanted memory could help induce abnormal stress leading to emotional exhaustion and physical breakdown to invoke “suggestibility”. That is, one didn’t even need to have a “real stress” but an “imagined stress” would work just as effectively.

Sargant goes on to state in his book:

“It is not surprising that the ordinary person, in general, is much more easily indoctrinated than the abnormal…A person is considered ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ by the community simply because he accepts most of its social standards and behavioural patterns; which means, in fact, that he is susceptible to suggestion and has been persuaded to go with the majority on most ordinary or extraordinary occasions.”

Sargant then goes over the phenomenon of the London Blitz, which was an eight month period of heavy bombing of London during WWII. During this period, in order to cope and stay “sane”, people rapidly became accustomed to the idea that their neighbours could be and were buried alive in bombed houses around them. The thought was “If I can’t do anything about it what use is it that I trouble myself over it?” The best “coping” was thus found to be those who accepted the new “environment” and just focused on “surviving”, and did not try to resist it.

Sargant remarks that it is this “adaptability” to a changing environment which is part of the “survival” instinct and is very strong in the “healthy” and “normal” individual who can learn to cope and thus continues to be “functional” despite an ever changing environment.

It was thus our deeply programmed “survival instinct” that was found to be the key to the suggestibility of our minds. That the best “survivors” made for the best “brain-washing” in a sense.

Sargant quotes Hecker’s work, who was studying the dancing mania phenomenon that occurred during the Black Death, where Hecker observed that heightened suggestibility had the capability to cause a person to “embrace with equal force, reason and folly, good and evil, diminish the praise of virtue as well as the criminality of vice.”

And that such a state of mind was likened to the first efforts of the infant mind “this instinct of imitation when it exists in its highest degree, is also united a loss of all power over the will, which occurs as soon as the impression on the senses has become firmly established, producing a condition like that of small animals when they are fascinated by the look of a serpent.”

I wonder if Sargant imagined himself the serpent…

Sargant does finally admit: “This does not mean that all persons can be genuinely indoctrinated by such means. Some will give only temporary submission to the demands made on them, and fight again when strength of body and mind returns. Others are saved by the supervention of madness. Or the will to resist may give way, but not the intellect itself.”

But he comforts himself as a response to this stubborn resistance that “As mentioned in a previous context, the stake, the gallows, the firing squad, the prison, or the madhouse, are usually available for the failures.”


Source : The Saker

The Buffer Zone between You and the World

Frédérique de Vignemont wrote . . . . . . . . .

Heini Hediger, a noted 20th-century Swiss biologist and zoo director, knew that animals ran away when they felt unsafe. But when he set about designing and building zoos himself, he realised he needed a more precise understanding of how animals behaved when put in proximity to one another. Hediger decided to investigate the flight response systematically, something that no one had done before.

Hediger found that the space around an animal could be partitioned into zones, nested within one another, and measurable down to a matter of centimetres. The outermost circle is what’s known as flight distance: if a lion is far enough away, a zebra will continue to graze warily, but any closer than that, the zebra will try to escape. Closer still is the defence distance: pass that line and the zebra attacks rather than fleeing. Finally, there’s the critical distance: if the predator is too close, there’s nothing to do but freeze, play dead and hope for the best. While different species of wild animals have different limits, Hediger discovered that they’re remarkably consistent within a species. He also offered a new definition of a tame animal, as one that no longer treats humans as a significant threat, and so reduces its flight distance for humans to zero. In other words, a tame animal was one to which you could get close enough to touch.

Like all animals, humans also protect themselves from potential threats by keeping them at a distance. Those of us beginning to see friends again after months of pandemic-induced social distancing can feel this at a visceral level, as we balance the desire for contact against a sense of risk. Once we evaluate something as a potential threat – even if that assessment is informed by public policy or expert prescription – there’s a powerful urge to maintain a buffer of space.

This buffer is a byproduct of our evolutionary history, which has equipped our brains with a way to acknowledge and track the importance of our immediate surroundings. That mechanism is known as peripersonal space, the region in and around a person’s body (peri comes from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘about’, ‘around’, ‘enclosing’ or ‘near’). Peripersonal space exists in various forms across the animal kingdom, from fish and fruit flies to wild horses and chimpanzees. The neuroscience behind it sheds fascinating light on how humans and other animals conceive of themselves and their boundaries. Where is the dividing line between you and the world? You might think that this is a clean-cut question with a simple answer – your skin is the boundary, with the self on one side and the rest of the world on the other. But peripersonal space shows that the division is messy and malleable, and the boundary is blurrier than you might think.

The peripersonal zone is a nexus where space, time and survival are tightly bound together. Maintaining a buffer of peripersonal space is important because it gives an animal time to react to a threat before it’s too late. A predator isn’t merely present at an objective distance, but feels either too close for comfort or far enough away. Peripersonal space, then, is space that has significance, and this significance depends on what matters to you, and on your state of mind. The story of peripersonal space is thus a story about the entanglement of space and meaning. It’s also the story of why ‘needing space’ during stressful times is more than just a metaphor, or how we can successfully navigate the crowded metro during rush hour, or how we can hammer a nail without hitting our thumb. And it is, deep down, a story of all the beautiful neural engineering that allows for self-protection in an ever-changing world.

Hediger’s concentric zones capture the logic of escalating threat: the closer something is, the fewer options you have. A snake across the field gives you time to think about what to do. A snake next to your foot requires immediate action. ‘By far the chief preoccupation of wild animals at liberty is finding safety,’ Hediger noted, in a rare poetic moment:

The be-all and end-all of its existence is flight. Hunger and love occupy only a secondary place, since the satisfaction of both physical and sexual wants can be postponed while flight from the approach of a dangerous enemy cannot.

There’s a close link, in other words, between physical and temporal immediacy when we respond to threats. Though many humans rarely encounter predators, we obey the same principles. You walk into a classroom packed with students and their bags; you automatically avoid the obstacles in your path. You traverse a small mountain path; the distance to the edge is always vivid in your mind. As you pass through a narrow turnstile, without thinking, you tilt your torso to avoid bumping the frame. Our life is full of these small adjustments to protect our bodies. Philosophers have paid a lot of attention to the role of pain in bodily protection. But pain is a last-ditch warning system: by the time you feel it, you’ve usually already gone wrong.

Keeping a buffer of space around you doesn’t require a conscious desire to avoid danger. Many of these small adjustments are performed automatically, and we barely notice when we do them – though sometimes we can consciously feel the proximity of others. Since the 1960s, social psychologists and anthropologists such as Edward T Hall have noted that we feel discomfort when other people get too close. When you’re seated alone on a long empty bench in a waiting room and a perfect stranger sits down beside you, his intrusion within your space is almost certain to make you feel uncomfortable. One way to interpret this effect is that your perceptual system anticipates this perfect stranger touching you, and you experience this social contact as being unwelcome – repulsive in a very literal sense.

Yet, for all the talk of boundaries and special margins, it was a long time before scientists realised that that the distinction between near and far in space is one that the brain also treats as especially important. The neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his collaborators were the first to find evidence that peripersonal space was specially encoded by the brain. In a series of experiments on macaques, they found neurons that fired not only when a monkey was touched on the skin, but also when it saw a flash of light near its body. The sensitive region of the space was locked to the body itself; if a neuron fired in response to threats near the hand, the bubble of space it monitored would move as the hand moved.

The neuroscientist Michael Graziano provided further insight into the role of these neurons by stimulating them via tungsten microelectrodes inserted directly into the brains of macaques. Electrical current in these regions would cause the macaque to act as if it were under threat: flinching, twisting or raising its hand to ward off unseen dangers. Conversely, cooling the same neurons to prevent them from firing kept the monkey from responding to apparent threats.

Peripersonal space isn’t just a zone you use to protect yourself, but also from which to explore the world

The same mechanism has since been described in humans, and appears to be present from an early age. What is close to our body can soon be in contact with it, either because the nearby object moves or because you move. It’s almost as if it were already touching us. Hence, seeing or hearing objects close to us affects our tactile sensations. For instance, as discovered by the neuroscientist Andrea Serino and his team, hearing noises occurring near the body part, even in the dark, can disrupt where we feel touch. This is why Graziano qualifies peripersonal space as a ‘second skin’. It’s why, even if the person coughing is relatively far away, we’ll perceive her as being close because we feel that she can have an impact on us.

To provide further clues on the neuropsychology of peripersonal space, pioneers in the field such as Elisabetta Làdavas and Alessandro Farnè have investigated a curious phenomenon known as visuo-tactile extinction. After a right-hemisphere stroke, some patients can still correctly detect touch on their left hand – unless they’re simultaneously touched on their right hand in the corresponding spot, in which case they can’t feel the touch on the left. Strangely, the same thing happens whether the right hand is touched, or if they just see something close to the same spot.

Visuo-tactile extinction reveals a deep organising principle of the nervous system: perception reacts not just to what is present, but also to what we predict will be there soon. Prediction is a necessary compromise for the slow speed of neurons. A signal from a stubbed toe can take anywhere between a half and two seconds to make its way up to the brain, so our brains have found a workaround by anticipating what might be happening in order to provide a speedy response. Peripersonal space is no different, since anticipation allows faster reaction times and better sensory processing.

All the talk of speedy reactions can make it sound like protective behaviour is merely reflexive. But our protective response is also influenced by what we know about potential threats and their context. Hediger’s animals offer an obvious case: the zebra will flee from a nearby lion, but not from other zebras. A study by Giandomenico Iannetti and his collaborators showed that shocks to the wrist, which typically evoke defensive blinks, don’t occur if a thin wooden screen is placed between the wrist and the face. Knowing that what goes on at your wrist can’t affect your face, in other words, abolishes the protective response.

Peripersonal space isn’t just a zone you use to protect yourself from the world, but also from which to explore and act upon it. The area shrinks and grows depending on what you can do. When raking leaves, the leaves will be conceived as being in your immediate surrounding, even if they are quite far: the rake extends what counts as peripersonal. On the other hand, if your arm is immobilised (perhaps by a cast), then your peripersonal space shrinks closer to your body.

Peripersonal space thus exists in a curious dual relationship with both attraction and repulsion. Cutting tomatoes involves using a tool to extend yourself, and also protecting yourself from the dangerous knife right next to your fingers. But the world isn’t merely a space of dangers and tools – it’s also a world full of chocolate and raspberries, books and smartphones, friends and pets, all these things that we like and that we don’t want to avoid. No matter what Hediger says, we need to mate, to pick berries, and to raise a glass to our lips. Peripersonal space is also where the good things in life happen. We can’t survive just by building an impenetrable buffer around ourselves.

The fact that peripersonal space is crucial to shaping both positive and negative interactions shows something deep about the evolution of the brain. Peripersonal space depends on predicting contact, and contact prediction is useful both when that contact is welcome and when it’s to be avoided. Whether you’re dodging a ball or catching it, the same mechanisms appear to be engaged. In both cases, you need to be ready, and to be ready you need to anticipate what’s coming your way.

While peripersonal space first evolved for self-defence, then, its mechanisms have clearly been recycled to take advantage of opportunities in the immediate surroundings. This shift of function is in line with our general understanding of how evolution works by co-opting or recycling existing resources for new uses. ‘Evolution does not produce novelties from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it new functions or combining several systems to produce a more elaborate one,’ as the Nobel laureate François Jacob put it.

This process is known formally as exaptation. While an adaptation is a new trait that was selected for the way it improved an organism’s fitness, exaptations retool existing useful structures for new purposes. A classic example of exaptation concerns the role of feathers in birds, which would have been originally selected due to their role in thermoregulation and only later co-opted for flight. Some cognitive abilities (maybe most of them) can also be conceived of as exaptations of existing brain resources: brain regions aren’t dedicated to a single task but are recycled to support numerous cognitive abilities. Recycling makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since it’s more efficient than developing whole new neural systems.

As you might expect, though, using the same mechanisms for different purposes doesn’t come for free. There’s an increase in complexity, in the need for control, and in the possibility for confusion. It’s in the social realm that it might be most difficult to find the right balance between too close and too far.

Allowing someone to touch your neck is an incredibly vulnerable act

The way that humans respond to people or things that are in our space encompasses our assessment of their social significance. Necks are traditionally considered an erogenous zone. Yet the skin of your neck is actually one of the least sensitive parts of your body, at least in terms of pure tactile discrimination. Instead, as Graziano notes:

The neck is a special participant in the mating dance. It’s the part of the body most vulnerable to predators. The windpipe, the jugular vein, and the carotid artery run through it, as well as the spinal cord, so it makes a good handle for a carnivore. Powerful defensive reflexes normally protect it from intrusion by lowering the head, shrugging the shoulders, and lifting the arms to a blocking posture.

Our neck is ‘sensitive’ because we have a powerful instinct to protect it. Allowing someone to touch your neck is thus an incredibly vulnerable act – one that demands considerable attraction to overcome the ordinary drive to flinch, to cover, to protect.

By contrast, those who can tolerate a bit of distance certainly have an easier time of it when distance is demanded. The 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer made this vivid with a metaphor:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another.

Schopenhauer suggests that people who can tolerate the cold will prefer to stay outside the prickly huddle altogether, where they ‘will neither prick others nor get pricked themselves’. Likewise, those who normally seem coldest and most aloof likely found the COVID-19 pandemic most tolerable.

In a time of social distancing, it can be easy to think of ourselves as little social atoms, with clear-cut boundaries. But the research on peripersonal space suggests quite the opposite. Our peripersonal space grows and shrinks depending on how we feel, and who we’re around; you can think of it like a balloon, expanding or deflating depending on your mood and your temperament.

The year 2020 was a worldwide social experiment in keeping our distance. Even in groups trying to adhere to the rules, you couldn’t help noticing that people didn’t neatly space themselves out on a two-metre grid. Nor did everyone feel the same way about how they maintained distance from others. Anxious people tend to find more of significance (and danger) around them, and studies show that anxiety can be measured by a corresponding expansion of peripersonal space. It’s also clear that individuals differ in their tolerance for physical and emotional closeness. Some look terrified if you’re a centimetre too close. Others crowd in queues as if nothing had changed.

Nor is people’s sense of appropriate distance evenly distributed in all directions. The early days of social distancing found people queuing in ways that left careful distance front-to-back and virtually nothing side-to-side. The animal welfare proponent Temple Grandin’s work with cattle showed that flight zones are often asymmetric: an animal needs more time to turn if it is to bolt from a threat from the side. Could a focus on airborne contagion – coughs, sniffles, sneezes – have made people especially focused on the distance from their face?

Our peripersonal space might be less like a balloon or bubble, and more like the tassels or fringes on a scarf

What’s clear is that peripersonal space doesn’t correspond to an objective region of space with a stable, well-defined border. Rather, peripersonal space is a subjective region that you represent as being directly relevant for you. It bears the traces of what – and whom – you have encountered. Closeness requires trust: it’s been shown that you tolerate the proximity of people whom you judge as decent more than those you think of as immoral. The invisible bounds of peripersonal space thus trace a delicate balance between trust and caution.

People who spend time near you also shape your peripersonal space in return. This isn’t merely a matter of protection, since social interactions require us to be able to work together, collaborate and delegate effectively. A study by the cognitive scientist Natalie Sebanz and her group, for example, shows the difference that working with a partner makes to the way you represent your surroundings. If you’re working alone or with someone unreliable, objects you’re working on that are close to you will feel like they’re in your peripersonal space. But if you work with someone next to you, who is paying attention to all the visual stimuli, the objects no longer feel like they’re in that buffer zone.

This result reveals how human evolution has been shaped by cooperation, both bodily and mental. Hunting large game with stone tools is a demanding endeavour: it requires constantly monitoring both prey and compatriot, with pointy bits flying between. Crafting stone tools is also surprisingly dangerous, and modern flintknappers who replicate palaeolithic techniques all bear the scars of their mistakes. The need to pass on this technology is one factor that probably drove the development of apprentice learning. The social aspect of learning embodied skills further underscores the importance of having a finely tuned sense of peripersonal space: imagine the challenges of sitting next to someone, holding a half-sharp flint core, trying to emulate what they’re doing while keeping your delicate fingertips away from the sharp edges.

In telling the story of peripersonal space, it seems reasonably simple to separate out the effect of people and objects, attraction and repulsion, physical danger and social threat. In the full story, however, all of these assessments are bound together, just as people and places and things are bundled up together in our emotional lives. Once we understand it more fully, the deeper story of the limits of our peripersonal space might reveal that it’s less like a balloon or bubble, and more like the tassels or fringes on a scarf – loose and sculpted by the changing breeze, adapting itself to a world of threats and opportunities.


Source : aeon