Living

Hoarders: New research gives us a look inside their behaviour

Why is it that some people can toss the newspaper in the recycling bin after reading it without giving the act a second thought while others can’t bear to part with yesterday’s news, letting a mountain of paper crowd their homes?

Hoarder, woman in her closet with clothes

Masterfile

Why is it that some people can toss the newspaper in the recycling bin after reading it without giving the act a second thought while others can’t bear to part with yesterday’s news, letting a mountain of paper crowd their homes? 

The difference may come down to how significant the decision seems to different people.

Hoarders aren’t just compelling (or troubling) subjects for reality TV. The impulse to collect piles of junk — and to such an extreme degree that they even create a health hazard — is keeping scientists busy as they try and understand what goes on in a hoarder’s mind. 

As Time.com writer Maia Szalavitz reports, while the impulse to hoard has often been considered a peculiar offshoot of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), new research reveals significant differences between the brain activity of those with OCD and of hoarders.  

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, researchers at Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, observed the brain activity of 107 people. Of that 107, 43 had hoarding disorder, 31 had OCD and 33 had neither disorder, acting as controls for the experiment.  

All of the participants were asked to bring some personal junk mail and newspapers with them and once they were hooked up to the monitors, were asked to decide whether or not to throw these items out or to shred them. 

In contrast with the other participants, this seemingly innocuous request triggered a heightened response in the hoarders’ brains, particularly in the area associated with decision-making. Additionally, the hoarders showed increased activation in areas of the brain that regulate emotional responses.  

The results indicate that hoarders not only assign greater emotional and psychological weight to these decisions, but they also invest so much in the objects that it makes parting with them stressful.  

The hope is to use the information to create more effective treatments for people who suffer from the condition — ones that don’t include airing their dirty laundry on TV.      

Do you have a hard time throwing things out?