The Spaces Between Us by Michael S. A. Graziano

The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature
by Michael S. A. Graziano
Oxford University Press, 2018

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“Personal space is the fundamental scaffold of human interaction,” writes Michael Graziano in his new book The Spaces Between Us. Graziano is Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Princeton University, is studying specifically in these pages the human startle reflex and more broadly the nature and mechanics of how humans manage what he refers to as the protective 'bubble' that surrounds each person and responds to sudden stimuli before the brain can process and interpret things.

It makes biological sense, of course. Humans evolved as physically defenseless primates in a world full of super-predators, and more importantly, humans evolved more or less constantly at each other's throats, constantly jealous, constantly jockeying for advantage – the need for an early warning system would have made itself obvious early on.

This personal sensory field is a thing of nearly infinite mutability, and Graziano is consistently fascinating about its multiplicity. The field admits lovers and children instantly (and as parents can testify, it admits them even when they impinge on it entirely by surprise); it instantaneously gauges the threat-level of strangers in the workplace, in the park, in elevators; in some people, it can even raise their hackles with that long-known but seldom studied 'feeling of being watched.' And Graziano attributes to it an even wider network of outcomes. “Without a well-organized personal space,” he writes, “what chance do you have to manage a pen, or a fork and knife?”

The central focus of the book is that startle reflex, the precise workings of the cringe, which Graziano elevates through sheer enthusiasm from the mundane to the mesmerizing. He asks his readers to imagine themselves as small primates and himself as a much larger and threatening primate who looms suddenly into their protective bubble:

The muscles around your eyes contract. Here the protection is nuanced. It's useful to keep your eyes open and your faced turned toward me so that you can maintain a close watch. But even though your eyes are still open a slit, the surrounding muscles contract to form a protective pursing of the skin. As a consequence of this contraction of the muscles in the face, especially the muscles in the cheeks pulling the skin upward to pucker protectively around the eyes, your upper lip is pulled up, exposing a bit of your upper teeth. It isn't a snarl. It isn't a prelude to biting. The muscles involved are different from the biting, attacking, or snarling muscles that ring the mouth, and, consequently, the shape of your mouth is different.

The Spaces Between Us is a sparkling example of popular science-writing, mainly on the strength of Graziano's smart but affable teaching ability. The range of his curiosity about everything from the minute discriminations of laughter to the mysteries of the “hand blink” reflex is inherently inviting, and the result is a book that will have readers questioning their every tiny twitch and shrug. 

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is