Psychiatry

How Hoarders' Brains See Their Belongings

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Hoarders are those who have an uncontrollable urge to accumulate possessions and experience mental anguish at the thought of parting with them. Until 2013, the psychiatry world considered hoarding disorder to be one version of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. But new research into people's brains changed all that.

Related: The Brain's "On" Switch For OCD Has Been Found By Scientists

This Is Your Brain On Hoarding

For a study published in the 2012 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, researcher David Tolin and his team scanned the brains of about 100 participants. Roughly a third were diagnosed with hoarding disorder, another third had OCD, and the final third were considered normal controls. The participants brought a few pieces of junk mail to the lab (with the assurance that they'd get it back at the end of the experiment), each of which the researchers labeled "Yours" and shuffled in with junk mail from the lab labeled "Ours." The participants went in a brain scanner, then were asked to decide whether to keep or shred each piece of mail.

Related: Can Scientists Diagnose Depression With The Sound Of Your Voice?

The hoarders chose to keep more of their own mail than the other two groups, unsurprisingly. But it was the activity in their brains that fascinated the researchers: the anterior cingulate cortex, a region associated with decision-making—especially in times of uncertainty—was more active than that of the other groups, as was the emotion-monitoring center known as the insula. This suggests that when a hoarder faces the option to get rid of a possession, their brains obsess on the uncertainty (will I need this in the future?) and experience heightened emotions surrounding the decision. At the same time, those same brain regions showed unusually low activity when the hoarders considered stuff that wasn't theirs, which the study says "may contribute to the diminished motivation and poor insight frequently observed in patients with [hoarding disorder]."

What This Means For Hoarders—And The People Who Love Them

It's easy to dismiss a newly classified disorder as giving into a fad or just playing semantics, but that's just not so. This research shows that hoarders aren't slobs or people driven to collect useless possessions; they're people who have difficulty with the decision to get rid of things. What's more, this new classification makes it easier for hoarders to get effective treatment. Treatments that usually help those with OCD haven't worked on hoarding disorder, and identifying it as its own illness paves the way for new approaches. Knowledge leads to understanding, and understanding leads to compassion—something everybody needs, no matter your condition.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. There is a tendency to trivialize and romanticize disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). 00:14

  2. It is estimated that 176 million people around the world suffer from OCD. 02:35

  3. The World Health Organization once listed OCD as one of the top 20 sources of disability, still it receives very little amounts of research and funding. 03:31

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