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Friday, November 15, 2013


Is hoarding a mental illness or a behavior which emerges from environmental and social circumstances?  Until recently it was thought to be a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) until studies showed hording behaviors aren't resolved with OCD treatment. 

"Clinical studies have focused on clinical compulsive hoarders, those at the far end of the clutter spectrum.  Clinical compulsive hoarding doesn't happen overnight, it develops over many years or decades."

As community intervention programs explore the world of hoarders, they are learning that the 'clutter spectrum' is wide indeed.  But there still seems to be a residual emphasis on "personal recognition of a problem".  Embarrassment is touted as "a step forward". states that after this initial recognition, "the next [step] is wanting help and being willing to accept it". 

Embarrassment and shame are powerful emotions, but they create barriers as well as catalyze change.  This means that the current intervention strategy naturally excludes those who have cultural or personal resistance to shame and who will not trust anyone who tries to induce it.  "Asking for help" is also an unnecessary ritual.  Often loved ones and trusted friends can provide intervention once they understand the causes and coach a person through the transition.

So if hoarding isn't a mental illness, what is it?  Hoarding shows signs of memetic transmission:

"Offspring who are not actually hoarders but because they have never had a model for living in an organized uncluttered home, don’t know how to do it. They don’t know how to sort or weed out unwanted items. If there have been any personal traumas and/or anger, their problems are compounded.  What is both interesting and exciting for us is that these clients move forward very quickly, once they understand how to do it."

These children are at increased risk of developing behaviors somewhere on the hoarding spectrum until they learn habits and strategies that eliminate clutter .  In this case the behavior is a natural outgrowth of a healthy Neolithic brain which has not adopted a memeplex (clutter-reduction) to adapt behavior to the modern environment.

Clutter-reduction is an acquired skill.  Humans were nomadic for most of our history and this limited the materials we could collect.  People did not need to use much brain power to determine if an item was retained.  Useful items were retained, but could be discarded as the community had the ability to reproduce these items. Heavy and bulky items were naturally left behind.  Food was hoarded and people who compulsively collected & processed foods had a survival advantage.  Foods were shared and consumed.

Civilization gave us the concept of personal property and acquisition.  But it wasn't until the industrial revolution that material goods could massively accumulate.  The advent of wage labor made us more insecure in our ability to provide for ourselves in the future, and yet we are bombarded with memes which tell us  to 'plan ahead'. 

Our brains have not had enough time to adapt to our altered environment.  We can learn strategies which will help our Neolithic brains perform better in this new world.  But in times of cognitive development and decline as well as stress, some of us will develop hoarding behaviors.  What was an asset to our ancestors is now a challenge. 

Our relationships to memes play key roles in hoarding behaviors.  "Words take so much time to process that getting behind with them can happen very quickly.  Many people hoard words making those clots very common."

Just as our bodies crave nutrition, our brains are hungry for information.  Words enrich our lives, help us assess threats and direct us towards resources vital to our survival.  But our modern world produces information on an industrial scale: daily newspapers, magazines, books, advertisements, bills & financial statements, etc.

Add to this memes from authority figures:  The IRS suggests you keep all receipts and tax information for 10 years.  Or the ever present reminder on electronic statements and receipts: You may want to print this statement for your own records.  Add the stress from a life-altering illness or financial issues and you soon have the foundation to develop "non-optimal" living arrangements.

The behavior of 'pack rats' is a natural phenomenon.  Hoarding takes time to develop, it takes time to resolve.  Understanding memetics gives us the tools to comprehend this phenomenon, help our neighbors and create healthier communities.

Continue to Pedagogy

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