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Hoarders: A Different Kind of Brain

By HERWriter Guide
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hoarders' brains are different from the rest Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Shows about hoarders are pretty common nowadays, and have many viewers.

The shows consist of a rather garish tour through their homes -- filled with dirt, falling down walls and roofs, open sewage, rats, mice, cockroaches and tons and tons of stuff.

Most of the stuff is worthless to others -- decades old newspapers and books -- all rotted from damp. Rotting beds and furniture, hundreds of bags filled with broken, unusable pieces and ironically, unopened boxes filled with brand new electronics, gift items, clothing, collectables, knick-knacks, jewelry and more.

Letting go of the rotting stuff (including food) is as hard as losing the valuable items that could be sold. Hoarders are generally battling with debt, due to compulsive shopping going hand in hand with the hoarding.

Hoarder are most often depressed and can hoard for many reasons. Hoarders seen on documentaries have expressed that their hoarding started once their children grew up and moved out or after a divorce.

Abused children can also turn to hoarding as a coping mechanism and to fill up the void of loneliness by surrounding themselves with stuff. Other suffering from other mental conditions do it to shut the world out and to physically prevent others from entering their homes.

Compulsive shoppers can end up as hoarders due to an inability to stop buying mass amounts of products and bringing them home.

There's a kind of train-wreck quality to watching these shows. They give us a salacious glimpse into the lives of others and make us feel slightly superior.

Our houses would never look like that. We feel clean and crisp and organized. It also causes some people to clean their own homes, even while watching. Seeing maggots oozing out of refrigerators can do that to a person.

But there is nothing inferior about a hoarder. They have a mental illness -- or several mental illnesses that all conspire to bring about the downfall of someone often once vital and living out loud in the world.

And what's most noteworthy (aside from denial) is their seeming inability to make a decision. A hoarder can hold an old, used envelope with a shopping list on it from eleven months ago -- and can't throw it away. Maybe that list can be reused? Or recycled?

Give it back to them and they take it back and it goes on top of a pile that will grow larger tomorrow. Making that decision is just too hard.

There may be a solid reason for that. New information has come to light. A study shows the brain of a hoarder is different to someone not afflicted with this condition.

The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut conducted a study with over 100 participants who were split into three groups. One group was made up of hoarders (43 people), one group had obsessive compulsive disorder (31 people) and the last group had no diagnoses of this kind at all (33 people).

They were asked to make decisions about what to shred -- their own personal papers, or those belonging to the Institute. These personal items were shown in images.

According to a CNN article about this study, that originated in Time Magazine, when they "...were faced with tossing or keeping their own items, the hoarders' brain responses also differed from that of the other participants: they showed excessive activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved with decision-making, particularly in situations involving conflicting information or uncertainty."


The two other groups were more able to make the decision to shred papers (their own) than the hoarder group. The study showed that the part of the brain that deals with emotions, especially negative emotions (embarrassment, shame, etc.) was more active in the brains of hoarders.

So there is not just a problem with decision making, but a highly unusual emotional attachment to personal belongings. While the hoarder group also showed some indecision about the papers belonging to the Institute, it was their own personal papers being potentially shredded that caused the most anxiety.

Reaction to this study has come from other researchers on this condition who believe that compulsive hoarding has qualities of obsessive compulsive disorder to it but there is not always a direct correlation. However, hoarders tend to have additional conditions that are related in some way to OCD.

So who hoards and how are they treated? People from all backgrounds hoard although men are two times more likely to hoard than woman, according to an EmpowHER article on hoarding by Shamir Benji.

And treatment, as Benji mentioned, can be very difficult. Many hoarders don't even believe they have a problem, even in a house with four tons of garbage in it.

They are resistant to treatment due to denial, embarrassment and a fear of losing their belongings, no matter how worthless.

Psychotherapy can work, as well as cognitive behavior therapy and medications. Working alongside an experienced home organizer who specializes in hoarding and OCD is also helpful.

Working slowly with a hoarder, a therapist can help them to accept their condition and work with them to get their homes, yards (that are often also filled with rubbish), storage units and garages in order. A good therapist can help them to learn to live in a new way, throwing away things they don't need, understanding garbage is just that, and that their quality of life will continue to increase if they live in a more orderly and comfortable way.

With therapy, there isn't any guarantee of success. This condition is very difficult to treat and left to her own devices, a hoarder will commence collecting again. But without therapy, the recidivism rate is 100 percent, according to therapists on TLC's Hoarders: Buried Alive on The Learning Channel.

Tell Us
Has hoarding affected you?

Inside the hoarder's brain: A unique problem with decision-making. By Maia Szalavitz, Time.com. web. Retrieved Wed, August 15th, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/07/health/inside-hoarders-brain/index.html?hp...

EmpowHER.com. Mental Health. Collectors of Garbage and Hoarding. By Shemar Benji. Retrieved Wed, August 15th, 2012.

Reviewed August 17, 2012
by MIchele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment1 Comments


I don't watch this show or many reality shows because I know these folks need real help not ridicule.

August 20, 2012 - 9:39am
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