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How scientists uncovered the invisible balloon around your head

A study has discovered the balloon-like nature of our personal space which has evolved to protect us from threats above. 

Before you even know where the wasp is, you flinch. Each of us has this space around our bodies that is extremely sensitive to external stimuli.  It's an evolutionary advantage to be hyper-alert to threats nearby as they're more likely to cause you harm, a lot sooner. 

Researchers at University College London have found that this space, at least for humans, is like “a child’s balloon - it sticks up regardless of one’s posture”. 

Utilising a reflex called the hand-blink-reflex, the scientists imaged this personal space in different conditions. 

The experiment consisted of asking the participants to stand upright and then electrically stimulating a nerve in the right wrist, while the same hand was placed a few centimetres from the participant's nose. The hand was then placed in ten different equally-spaced angles from above the head, to below the chin. 

The reseachers could then measure the participant’s personal space by recording the increase in their blink reflex. The hand-blink-reflex is a defensive reflex which increases the closer the hand being stimulated is to the participant's face. The more the participant blinked, the more sensitive their personal space was in that area. The space could then be imaged as a geometric model using the data they collected. 

This experiment was repeated with the participant lying on his or her back and lying sideways. The researchers found that the larger end of the space was always at the top - like a balloon which always flaoats the same way up -  and concluded that the brain "continuously updates the threat value of stimuli based on gravitational cues". 

There is an obvious evolutionary advantage to being aware of threats from above - gravity causes objects to fall. In other words, the no.1 priority for the human brain is avoiding being squashed from above. 

Some animals have a more evolved personal space than us. Professor Gian Domenico Iannetti, who conducted the experiment with Dr Rory Bufacci, is currently experimenting on mice using virtual reality. Mice in particular have very developed personal spaces and are known to run towards their nest immediately at the onset of a shadow growing above them. More research needs to be done on other animals to determine if gravity is also important to their evolved sense of security. 

Iannetti points out that some animals, like snakes, are more likely to receive their threats from below and so may have a personal spaces that have developed completely differently to us. 

As for humans, the research shows the remarkable ability of the brain to calculate physical laws automatically. The question for 21st century scientists is not why the apple fell, but how much Isaac Newton flinched. 

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.