An image saying the title of the story "Drop race" and author "Helena Hartmann". It also includes the logo of Science & Fiction and a picture of water droplets.

A story about an uncomfortable journey and personal space.

Content warnings

  • people crowds
  • mental health

The short story

She looked out of the train window and wished she was outside, even though it was pouring rain and looked freezing. Inside the inter-planet-train, inside her wagon, inside her seat compartment, the air was hot like it in the middle of summer, and felt like it was exempt of any oxygen. It’s actually kind of funny how in summer all you want is cold and in winter you can’t wait for it to get warmer again. She tried to take small, shallow breaths to not take in too much of that what the train called “comfortable aircon - 365 days a year”. And then the noise. It was so loud she had trouble understanding and following her own thoughts, let alone any conversation going on around her. She should have brought her noise-cancelling audiovisual setup and transported herself into another place using goggles and earphones. To a place where there was nothing but her, and lots of space. Her favorite scenery was indeed space travel, one of the less popular ones, now that that was actually possible since a few decades already. Just her, floating through the dot-speckled dark universe. No other travelers, no noises, no discomfort.

Instead, she had left the home where she was born in a rush early in the morning, grabbing her hastily packed bag from the night before, a very brown, far beyond eatable banana, and her woolen scarf. Which was clearly useless in this heat. She was frustrated. Tired and annoyed. She had paid a lot for this ticket because she’d bought it super last-minute. She only decided last night and didn’t really have time to arrange things or think anything through properly. Just get on a train and come back, her roommate had said. Tomorrow. You don’t need to stay there. And now she doesn’t get proper air conditioning, because she cannot get through a few days of family interaction, she thinks, laughing on the inside. Is she laughing with or at herself?

Interactions have always been difficult for her, but most of all when she was younger. No real long-term friends, everybody left at some point. Outside, the spacescape flew past, everything was blurry, she couldn’t focus on specific landmarks. If she didn’t do anything against this blurriness and just watched, it actually felt good. Watching an ever-changing wash of colors and shapes, dots, stars, planets, asteroids, going by at 24 million km/h. There were drops on the window due to the strong temperature difference from in- to outside the train. The drops came and stuck to the glass, creating little diagonal rivers from one side of the window to the other. When she was a child, she had always been fascinated by these rivers, and imagined that the drops were all together running a race. She still found them fascinating today. The selected drops who found the multi-drop river were a lot faster than the others, joining forces in a constant stream of liquid from one side of the window to the other. The few single drops who didn’t merge into that river got left behind. Go with what the masses do, she thought and had to laugh again because it was so ironic. It seemed like she was one of hundreds of people who had decided they needed to take the early IPT. But she couldn’t have stayed a day, no, even an hour longer. She really liked her family and her siblings with all their spouses and their children and pets. But these social situations made her feel immensely uncomfortable. She liked to be there but also wanted to be very far away at the same time.

Next time will be better, she told herself, knowing that it was a lie. She sunk deeper into her seat, not losing sight of the silvery drops racing against each other with the help of the wind. She suddenly felt like one of those drops left behind, who were not part of the big, ongoing river of drops, flowing faster and better together. One of those not being able to keep up with the others. Somebody behind her began a loud phone call and a child started screaming. She closed her eyes. Next time I’ll stay.

This story was originally written in English.

The paper

Massaccesi, C., Groessing, A., Rosenberger, L. A., Hartmann, H., Candini, M., Di Pellegrino, G., … & Silani, G. (2021). Neural correlates of interpersonal space permeability and flexibility in autism spectrum disorder. Cerebral Cortex, 31(6), 2968-2979.

Connection between story and paper

The paper investigated how people with and without autism process interpersonal space (meaning the physical closeness of oneself towards other people) in the brain. They found that the 20 autistic adults that completed the study preferred a larger personal space, and felt more uncomfortable in closer proximities to another individual. On top of that, areas of their brain responsible for processing this space perception were more active, when compared to 20 non-autistic adults. The authors think that this could be related to difficulties with social interaction that many autistic people may have. The fictional short story tries to show how uncomfortable invasion of our personal space can be even for people who are not on the autism spectrum. Imagine how much worse it might be for autistic individuals, who often deal with immense over-stimulation in such situations, and at the same time might want to stay and be a part of the group. The story aims to raise awareness to be sensitive towards all individuals when it comes to personal space and social interactions.

What about you? How big is your own personal space or that of the people around you?

The author

Helena has developed Science and Fiction and writes many of the stories herself. Her current research as an active scientist focuses on the behavioural and neural basis of pain, pain modulation and treatment expectations based on placebo and nocebo effects. She completed her PhD at the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Unit at the Institute for Psychology of Cognition, Emotion and Methods at the University of Vienna, where she investigated empathy and prosocial behaviour in the area of pain.

Dr. Helena Hartmann
Dr. Helena Hartmann
Neuroscientist, psychologist and science communicator (she/her/hers)