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Scientists Uncover Clues as to Why Hoarders Aren’t Troubled by All of Their Stuff


Hoarding BrainRecently, scientists have discovered an intricate network in the brain that helps us make decisions on whether to keep something or throw it away.  This complex system appears to be malfunctioning in the case of someone who is a hoarder.  The definition of a hoarder is as follows:

Pathological or compulsive hoarding is a specific type of behavior characterized by:

  • acquiring and failing to throw out a large number of items that would appear to have little or no value to others (e.g., papers, notes, flyers, newspapers, clothes)
  • severe cluttering of the person’s home so that it is no longer able to function as a viable living space
  • significant distress or impairment of work or social life

In a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reported that a hoarder’s networking system inside the brain that controls the decision-making process on whether something is important enough to keep or get rid of goes into overdrive when he or she is confronted with items to either save or discard.  Additionally, sometimes the network shuts down, which could also explain why hoarders are undisturbed when viewing all of the junk that they have accumulated over time.

David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, and professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, and a few of his colleagues compared brain scans side by side from 43 actual hoarders with those from 31 patient-volunteers with obsessive-compulsive disorder and 33 healthy individuals.

Before the study began, all 107 volunteers were told to clear a pile of newspapers and other mail off of a desk at their home and to put it into a plastic bag.  All of the participants were told that anything they wanted to keep would not be thrown away.  All of the participants’ belongings were put into two boxes marked “My Stuff” and “Your Stuff.”  On a video screen, the participants, hooked up to brain scanners, watched as items were taken out of one of the two boxes, and asked if it should be put into a paper shredder.  The brain activity of the hoarders when asked if someone else’s things should be tossed away was mostly inactive.  When asked about shredding their belongings, however, the activity set off rowdily.

Tolin says, “These two regions are commonly thought to constitute a network involved with the understanding of the relative importance or significance of something.  When hoarding participants were not making a decision that was personally relevant it was underactive. That may explain how a person can live in a horrible environment and not seem to care about it. The flip side is that when there’s a personally relevant decision in front of them, such as whether to discard something they own, the region gets hyperactive and they are overwhelmed.”

He is hoping that this new information can help doctors find new ways to assist people with the disease of hoarding.  He is confident that, through new treatments, the brain can rewire itself during positive experiences.


By: Matthew B.



  1. “Why Aren’t Hoarders Bothered By All That Junk? Scientists Find a Clue.” MSN. NBCNews. 6 Aug. 2012. Web. 16 Aug. 2012.

“Hoarding.” About. About. 24 Aug. 2010. Web. 16 Aug. 2012

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Filed under: Conditions and Disorders, Featured, Research · Tags: Anxiety disorder, Anxiety Disorders Center at The Institute of Living, brain, compulsive hoarding, Connecticut, David Tolin, Hartford, hoarders, Hoarding, hoarding research, Journal of the American Medical Association, mental disorders, mental illness, obsessive compulsive disorder, ocd, pathological hoarding, psychiatry, Research, study, Yale University School of Medicine is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, Inc.
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