The Brain Science of Clutter: Why We Can’t Let Go
You Don’t Have to Be a Hoarder to Hang On to Clutter!
There’s a lotta noise goin’ on in our ADHD brains. And that noise is made worse by the visual noise around us. We are often our own brain’s worst enemy by maintaining a home and/or an office that is full of energy-draining STUFF (a.k.a., clutter).
Clutter is not just a problem for hoarders. Most of us have stuff that is not adding to our lives (and could probably add significantly to someone else’s…but let’s put charitable donations aside for the moment).
What the Science Says
New research helps explain why getting rid of stuff can be so difficult. Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine recruited both non-hoarders and hoarders, and tracked their brain activity while they sorted through various items and decided what to keep and what to discard.
The subjects sorted through items like junk mail and old newspapers, some of which were their own, others of which were added to the mix by the researchers.
When confronted with the prospect of discarding their OWN junk, many showed increased activity in two regions of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula – both of which are associated with conflict and pain.
This brain circuit also generates cravings among smokers or drug addicts trying to quit, because when it is triggered, it signals that “something is wrong.” And then motivates you to look for a way to stop the pain or anxiety—so smokers will then smoke, addicts will get more drugs, and hoarders …will hold on to their junk.
The Upshot? Letting go of junk can be literally painful to you. But it’s only painful when it’s…YOUR junk.
And there’s another part of the brain that gets activated particularly in hoarders: The ventromedial pre-frontal cortex, or vmPFC. It’s associated with emotions, identity, and personal meaning. Some call it our sense of “me-ness”.
It’s the reason that hoarders look at something as simple as an old shopping bag, and feel it is connected to who they are. Making it all the more painful for them to get rid of it.
But you don’t have to be a hoarder to recognize when your vmPFC is kicking in: The wedding dress. Your high school varsity jacket. The watch you never wear…the earrings you wouldn’t be caught dead in…but…they’re YOURS, and they have meaning and “me-ness” attached to them.
The Stubbornness of Stuff
Ego Gratification, or, “me-ness”, is just one reason we keep stuff unnecessarily. There’s Acceptance – you just accept that, “Hey, this is the way my home/office looks.”
There’s Perfectionism: “I’m not gonna deal with this stuff until I have the PERFECT PLAN.” Ya, and that plan hasn’t arrived now in, how many years?
There’s Faulty Valuation. Sadly, that 1922 silver quarter…it’s worth about 25cents. Sorry.
Then there’s Guilt… The hardest things to discard, experts say, are the ones that hold some sentimental meaning. Because people confuse letting go of a thing with letting go of the person who gave it to you.
And the Big Kahuna…Procrastination. We know this one all too well. But here’s a nice quote that might shake some cobwebs out and get you to confront some of your junk…
In upcoming posts, I’ll be sharing the impact of visual and physical clutter on your BRAIN and your PRODUCTIVITY, and I’ll provide a step-by-step, super-easy process for creating a Place of Peace at your desk! Stay tuned.
Meantime, all these topics around clutter are the focus of an episode of Crusher™TV. Here’s a preview – I hope you can tune in!!