Hoarding is a fascinating psychological malady where the compulsion to hoard things becomes so strong that it eventually starts interfering with the well-being of your life. Randy Frost’s recent book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things is a riveting look into the lives of hoarders and what drives them to manifest such seemingly irrational behavior. The book is chock full of curious anecdotes and interviews of hoarders that helps you get a sense of what it is like to be so absorbed in the life of things. Hoarding is interesting because we all remember traces of it in our own childhood collecting fads. When I was young I collected everything from soda tabs to pokemon cards. But it never became obsessive. That’s the difference with hoarders: they take a normal childhood tendency to collect things and go completely overboard to the point where they can no longer live safely in their own homes.
Frost goes into some detail outlining possible causes of hoarding and he finds that many hoarders suffered from some kind of emotional trauma early in life such as distant parents. He speculates that this lack of affection in people might have drove people to find comfort in the world of things. Hoarding also has a lot of commonalities with OCD. But the disease is complex and multifaceted and shouldn’t be reduced to just a few factors. There also might be interesting evolutionary reasons behind the hoarding instinct, but how deep into our history it goes is unknown since there are really no close analogues in animals such most animals hoard food not objects.
Hoarders are an interesting bunch. They are often highly intelligent with a good memory for details and a knack for telling stories about the histories of their objects. But their minds are so disorganized that they are unable to use their intelligence for much good. Their involvement in their things prevents them from leaving a normal life, and maintaining relationships becomes difficult when your homespace is completely unlivable. Hoarding places great burdens on children and spouses who have to live with it.
What I found really interesting about Frost’s account of hoarding is that it is very compatible with current research on the extended mind hypothesis. Hoarders often use their collection of stuff as an external memory source. They can remember the details of when they brought each object into their home. To throw away these objects would be tantamount to throwing away their own memories. Moreover, it is not just their memory that is externalized but their very personal identity. William James thought we all had a “material self” that bleeds into our personal possessions, but with hoarders this sense of self extends into ALL their objects, and not just special ones. They feel like their objects are part of their basic self-hood, to the point that it becomes emotionally traumatic to throw away a piece of useless trash. Hoarders often have deep personal histories with each of their objects, and what might look like junk to an outsider could be to the hoarder a treasure worth cherishing. Hoarders are also interesting because they seem to enjoy aesthetic qualities in everyday objects that normal people might only experience on psychedelic drugs. The stained pattern on an old milk carton might be beautiful to a hoarder and they just can’t imagine throwing it away.
What’s also interesting is the commonalities of objects collected by hoarders. One of the most common items is newspapers and magazines. Apparently many hoarders think of themselves as information junkies, to the point of saving every scrap of information they have ever come across. What’s interesting from an extended mind perspective is that these hoarders often don’t even read the newspapers or magazines. It’s just enough to possess that information, “just in case” they might need it in the future. They feel like just owning the information makes it “theirs” despite not reading it. In effect, these hoarders have externalized their knowledge into their collections of newspapers and they have accepted the externality of that information as a replacement for actually reading it. This kind of “just in case” mentality is extremely common in hoarding. Many hoarders see potential uses in objects than most people would simply discard. This “just in case” mentality leads many hoarders to buy multiples of items even if they don’t need it, like having 36 bottles of the same shampoo. They feel great anxiety if they are not prepared for the worst case scenario. But while some hoarders can’t throw away things because of a perceived potential, others can’t throw away things because they feel anxious by the thought of wasting something.
Hoarding is a complex and interesting affliction that effects millions of people around the world. Randy Frost’s book Stuff is an excellent introduction to the phenomenon that’s easy to read and filled with interesting stories and anecdotes. Frost also reports on the latest research designed to help hoarders with their problems. Unfortunately, hoarding is known as being extremely difficult to cure. Cities waste millions of dollars cleaning out the apartments of hoarders only to have them filled back up in a matter of months. By investigating into effective treatment programs, researchers will hopefully be able to help hoarders beyond the quick fix of heavy duty cleaning. All in all, I highly recommend Stuff.
Overall rating: 4.8/5 stars.