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Hoarding: What We Don't Know

Hoarding: What We Don't Know

Humans aren’t the only creatures who hoard. In the animal world, squirrels may be the number one hoarder. It used to be said that squirrels forget where most of their stashes are. A more recent control trial found that squirrels regain almost all of their scattered stashes in a two-week period. They're so smart. Acorn Woodpeckers are serious hoarders, stashing thousands of acorns into tree trunks or anywhere they can. In Arizona, one family of these woodpeckers put 485lbs of acorns into the side of a water tank. Many animals rely on hoarding to survive like bees, ants, beavers, foxes, moles, and opossums are all hoarders.

Even if it’s excessive, these animals rely on hoarding in the fall to survive winter austerity. Since TLC’s show, “Hoarders: Buried Alive”, hoarding has fascinated public attention.  It’s the opposite of HGTV shows that feature open concept, with everything painted white, spaces. Clean living, clean eating. The timing of TLC’s show (2014) was perfect to strike a nerve in a culture growing more and more obsessed with clean as hoarding flies in the face of everything valued in a Marie Kondo “clean society”.

As we've become used to valuing clean in almost every purchasing decision, it is not easy to understand or even have a lot of sympathy towards hoarders. The show depicted the mental illness in a “so repulsive you can’t stop watching” kind of way. The timing of the show provided a cathartic “clean living culture”, to make fun of, and scapegoat those who were the direct opposite of the ideal minimalist clean. Most of all, it's a compulsion so difficult to understand. 

Why are some people hoarders? There are actually clear genetic markers that help show a predisposition towards hoarding. According to Julie Pike PhD, a behavioral scientist with a specialty in hoarding, “One of the things that we know is that there is a chromosomal abnormality on chromosome 14 which is typically associated with information processing and decision-making.” Chromosome 14 is also linked to ADHD, OCD, and more recently anxiety/depression. She goes on to link hoarding habits with a strong genetic component that about 80% of hoarders will have a first-degree relative who also hoards. Likelihood of someone hoarding increases with previous traumatic experiences. Pike also points out that while we don’t have enough studies to link hoarding with addiction behavior, from her experience she has noticed similarities in patients.

A baffling part about hoarding is that usually, the desired object is really junk. Opposed to a collector who will display and maintain items, hoarding is usually very secretive and shameful because the hoarder knows what they value isn’t valued by anyone else. It’s not uncommon for a family member to throw away the hoarder’s entire stockpile when the hoarder leaves the house, a situation that has led to suicide. 

Why does a hoarder gravitate toward undesirable objects?To the person hoarding, whatever the object gives them a sense of happiness or comfort. Brain scans have shown when someone hoarding acquires more of whatever their chosen objects elicit a dopamine burst and their brain lights up. Pike states that she has worked with patients who say that looking at empty space after their objects get cleaned out hurts them physically. Most hoarders don’t see a problem with their habits. Even at the cost of government intervention (to prevent fire hazards or smells, etc), the majority of those with a hoarding problem view others as the problem. A common misconception about hoarders is that they live reclusive lifestyles. Possibly misled by the TV show, it’s Pike’s experience that hoarders are very much out living mostly normal, social, lives. Another misconception is that hoarders are lazy. While it may appear that way, it's actually extreme perfectionism and a fear of throwing something out that may be needed later that is the culprit more than laziness. Source: Julie Pike's Full Interview Here.

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