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The Neural Origins of Collecting

No one really knows if collecting is genetic. A hypothesis can be useful.

Key points

  • Scientists don’t yet understand if the predisposition to collect is hereditary.
  • If collecting is similar to smoking addiction, which has a behavioral component, they may have pathologies in common.
  • The insula is a brain region implicated in conscious urges such as smoking and collecting.

When Baron Perlman, a retired professor and passionate collector, was interviewed by Antiques and Arts magazine (April 30, 2019) regarding his book, Come Collect with Me (2019), the introduction to the Q&A session read: Baron Perlman is what one might call a “born collector.”

Logical as this statement seems, no one really knows if there is such a thing as a born collector. We certainly don’t understand if the predisposition to collect is hereditary, which would be required to be a born collector.

Be that as it may, the question is important and, hopefully, will be the thrust of future research. In the meantime, however, I postulate what will likely be found based on addictive smoking as a model. The latter is a plausible pattern for collecting as both can be addictive, collecting being behavioral and smoking with components of both physiological and behavioral addiction. We know so much more about smoking addiction and cessation that a working prediction related to collecting may be possible.

Early Work

Nasir H. Naqvi, et al elucidated brain pathology related to smoking addiction in 2009. His group found that smokers with brain damage to their insula were more likely to cease smoking than smokers who did not have an injury in that area. The insula is a brain region implicated in conscious urges. Further, the previously addicted smokers with insular damage who ceased smoking did so easily without any inclination to relapse. These results indicated that the insula was crucial in the brain pathways involved in smoking addiction. Though this was the story in 2009, the complete narrative turned out to be more complicated.

More Recent Research

Now, fast forward to 2015. Not only is the insula pertinent to the etiology of smoking addition but a specific brain network is as well.

This is how it was discovered. A large group of scientists studied individuals addicted to smoking after they developed a brain lesion. The mission was to find out whether the lesion made any difference in smoking addiction.

The Iowa Neurological Patient Registry

What made it possible to accomplish this task was the Iowa Neurological Patient Registry, a comprehensive archive of patients with brain lesions due to stroke, tumor, or injury. From this registry, heavy smokers who had sudden termination of smoking when they developed lesions could be determined. They were candidates for further studies.

The Scientists

The researchers engaged in the study were from across the globe but four of them, the majority at any one institute, were from the Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics, Departments of Neurology Psychiatry and Radiology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. The lead author was Aaron D. Boes, MD, Ph.D., previously on faculty at Harvard Medical School and now at the University of Iowa as associate professor of pediatrics.

The Study

As a group, the researchers demonstrated that lesions affecting the insula were more likely to interrupt smoking addiction than those which spared the insula. Still, other brain areas with lesions had a similar effect. Recognizing this was very important. It left any specific locale as the focal point of smoking cessation unlikely to be the case.

Some of the patients who quit smoking were compared to those who did not. There was no difference in the following parameters when tested using psychometrics, “intelligence quotient, executive function, working memory, verbal comprehension, mood, or social introversion…An addiction remission map computed from just this subset of patients was nearly identical to the map generated using the full dataset.”

Brain Networks

Recently, brain connectivity networks have been recognized. Brain networks are links between distinct areas within the nervous system which have relevance to a cohesive function. It is the white matter tracts which are the highways that connect the various brain structures. In the smoking cessation study, 14 pathways were found to be damaged, suggesting that the traffic carried along these many tracts was important in smoking facilitation. When damaged, smoking subsided. This result is consistent with a multigene source of smoking dependency found in twin and family studies.

In Summary

Though the brain origins of the urge to collect have not been specifically teased out, my prediction is that the end result will be along the lines of the smoking cessation research. The origin will be multifactorial, perhaps even more complicated than that explained by a brain network as it is for smoking addiction.

If my hypothesis is proven to be correct, writers and others will indicate that the tendency to collect is due to a specific brain network rather than a collecting gene per se. Baron Perlman will be the same author, but the origin of his zealous collecting will be described differently.

If you have a collector experience that relates to this post, please share it here.


Joutsa, J., Moussawi, K., Siddiqi, S.H. et al. Brain lesions disrupting addiction map to a common human brain circuit. Nat Med 28, 1249–1255 (2022).

Davies GE, Soundy TJ. The genetics of smoking and nicotine addiction. S D Med. (2009); Spec No:43-9. PMID: 19363894.

Baird D., Segan, C., Borland R., Baker, A. and Bowman J., Psychologists and smoking cessation: Reducing the burden of smoking. Boes AD, Prasad S, Liu H, Liu Q, Pascual-Leone A, Caviness VS Jr, Fox MD. Network localization of neurological symptoms from focal brain lesions. Brain. 2015 Oct;138(Pt 10):3061-75. doi: 10.1093/brain/awv228. Epub 2015 Aug 10. PMID: 26264514; PMCID: PMC4671478. (2017): Vol 39 (October, Issue 5)

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