A recent conference presentation suggests that the extreme emotional attachment of a hoarder to their stuff could stem from an excess of empathy—particularly affective empathy as measured by their response to others’ distress. Collecting and saving are normal, useful and evolutionarily adaptive human traits, buffering against hard times and building up trading stock. Children start collecting as soon as they can gather a few rocks and twigs. But you can definitely have too much of this good thing.

Is your home a cluttered nest or a minimalist zen zone? Do you subscribe to William Morris’s golden rule: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”? Or do you love your stuff—every useless, ugly bit of it? I confess I have something of the squirrel about me. I wouldn’t call myself a hoarder but I am comfortable with a degree of clutter that might make some people unbalanced.

So when does clutter become hoarding—and when does that hoarding become a hoarding disorder (HD)? HD is due to join the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the forthcoming 5th edition—as a separate condition to its kissing cousin, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Estimates put the rate of HD in the general population at 2 percent to 5 percent. The key signals for DSM inclusion as used here are "causing distress and disability." We’re not talking about collections of Star Wars figures in a cupboard or saving a couple of hundred cans of beans for Armageddon here (that’s a whole other blog)—this is the kind of hoarding that renders a place almost uninhabitable without a third party clearing a trench between the sofa and the fridge.

It’s far from clear what the consequences of the new HD category will be in terms of treatment. Most high-end hoarders do not consider their hoarding to be a problem, even when it threatens their health (because it’s impossible to clean properly)—and life (largely through fire risk). Will a diagnosis of HD mean that people can be de-cluttered against their will?

Grisham et al wondered how hoarders come to be so attached to stuff. They gave key rings to 62 people with OCD and asked them to rate their attachment to their gift on receipt and again one week later. They found that although everyone grew more attached to the key rings in pretty much the same way, those who tended to hoard more were more attached to their key rings immediately. This kind of love at first sight was also seen when hoarders went shopping. I imagine a lot of us have had that moment when our eyes meet That Object and we are irrationally and irresistibly drawn to possess it. Usually a further 30 minutes browsing douses the flames and life carries on. (Unless you are my 7-year-old daughter who will never let you forget That Object you refused to buy.)

Tolin et al compared the brain images of people with OCD, HD and ‘healthy controls’. Hoarders showed increased activity in parts of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex and insula) when trying to decide whether to keep or discard personal possessions. They suggest this activity relates to attaching emotional significance to things, responding emotionally, and regulating their emotions while making decisions. As if stuff had feelings that could be hurt.



About the Author

Gillian Ragsdale

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.

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