The science of hoarding

CAROL MATHEWS OF UCSF has been leading research into hoarders’ cognitive patterns. She and others have conducted functional-MRI studies that attempt to mimic the emotional decision making associated with hoarding: sorting, categorizing, thinking about discarding personal items. In these studies, people with hoarding disorder show increased brain activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with decision making, when they’re making choices related to material things. The extra “lighting up” of the region, scientists say, is due to greater emotional engagement with belongings. And more effort than normal is needed to complete a simple organizational task. A 2012 study from Hartford Hospital has also shown that when compared with people without hoarding tendencies, hoarders experience more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex—another brain area involved in decision making—when dealing with their own possessions, and less when thinking about other people’s things. In other words: It’s tougher for hoarders to clean up their own stuff.

Lots of other interesting observations about hoarding within the piece.

I used to hoard a few things, mostly magazines, issues of The New Yorker. I still have a bad habit of hoarding browser tabs, and my DVD collection is large and almost more of a museum exhibit given its lack of use.

The world is changing in ways that have started to cure me of such behavior. As a subscriber to The New Yorker, I can access the entire archive of The New Yorker forever, so nowadays I receive paper issues mainly because The New Yorker doesn't offer a digital-only subscription. What matters to me now is not individual issues but the ability to bookmark articles I want to go back and read when I have more time. 

In a world where you can get almost anything on demand, a car, a movie, an album, a book, and often in digital form, the benefits of ownership for physical goods seem increasingly paltry in comparison to the costs of storing and moving those items.

Increasingly, wealth may best be represented by those people who own the least and can afford to summon items on demand — an Uber car, a movie from iTunes, an article from behind a paywall, a NetJet.

Instant gratification, with no ownership responsibilities. I wonder what part of the brain that lights up?