The Psychology of Hoarding

hoarding

How is hoarding treated in fiction, if at all?

In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.

First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.

Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.

The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.

Then, the following detail stuck out to me:

She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.

A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.

Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.

Anecdotally, hoarding disorder (HD) may have links to autism and other neuro-differences, though studies don’t tend to show this.

So far, HD seems most clearly linked to obsessive compulsive disorders behaviours rather than other forms of mental ill-health.

What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.

Also not widely known: The genetic link between restless leg syndrome and ADHD. I’m sure this all triangulates eventually. (I have all three in my extended family.)

Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.

Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.

And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.

So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?

I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.

We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.

This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.

Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.

RELATED

Listen to Australian podcast All In The Mind for an episode on the psychology of hoarding. (There’s also a transcript.)

The Weight Of Parental Love and Things And Time And “Help” is a post from Captain Awkward in response to a woman whose parent is hoarding.

Header photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar on Unsplash

A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield

A Dill Pickle Katherine Mansfield

“A Dill Pickle” is a 1917 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Over the course of a single cafe scene, a woman meets up with a former beau. This is a feminist story about how men and women tend to communicate, and illuminates Mansfield’s deep interest in psychology.

Download full text of “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield (pdf)

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A DILL PICKLE”

A man and woman meet after six years apart. It is revealed that they used to be prospective lovers/beaus. The entire story is a conversation between them, and the reader sees (hopefully) that this partnership is doomed. A modern reader can probably put names to some of the psychological tricks going down.  Continue reading “A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield”

Inside Out Story Structure

Inside Out

Inside Out is a Pixar animated film released 2015. It was an instant worldwide hit. Inside Out is fascinating from a writing point of view because it  an example of the female myth form, which we haven’t seen much of over the last 2000 years but which is now making a comeback.

Inside Out And Neurodiversity

All children must learn at some stage how to recognise and name their own emotions. This is harder for some than others. Even among the neurotypical population, a surprisingly large number of people have difficulty identifying how they feel. Continue reading “Inside Out Story Structure”

What’s the allure of scary stories?

scary

It is debatable whether or not fear of the unknown is greater than fear of the known, but in childhood so much is unknown that a child, in order to make sense of fear, must isolate and identify it; only the known can be dealt with.

Jan Mark, British Writer

I believe that children should be allowed to feel fear … Walter de la Mare … believed that children were impoverished if they were protected from everything that might frighten them … Once one has answered this basic question … the second problem arises of how it is to be presented. This is really a technical problem which has to be faced by every writer for children.

Catherine Storr, from ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ in the Sunday Times Magazine, March 1971

“We’re not really being scared by movies at all, at least not in the ‘brain chemistry way’.”

FilmmakerIQ

The Allure of Scary Stories

1. Shock

2. Relevance – a universal, cultural, subcultural or personal relevance

3. Unrealism – sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t. At some level we know that what we are watching is not real. Our disgust-o-meter doesn’t necessarily go off when we know something is fictional. Children have a harder time separating reality from fiction, which should be the basis of age censorship.

Does watching violence on screen make us angry or does it have a cathartic, and ultimate calming effect?

Do certain personality types like horror movies more than other personality types?

Different people watch horror movies for different reasons:

1. gore-watching — low empathy, strong identification with the ‘baddie’

2. thrill-watching — high empathy, high sensation seeking motivated by the suspense

3. independent watching — high empathy for the victim and with positive feelings at the end of the film, and

4. problem-watching — high empathy for the victim but negative feelings of helplessness at the end of the film.

Do men like horror films more than women? (Men enjoy horror films more when their female romantic partner is visibly scared, but women enjoy horror films more when their male romantic partner is visibly stoic. I think this just explained to me why it’s always a female voice screaming in the sound effects, and why male screaming is only ever used to comic effect.)

Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a good, safe space to explore.

 

For more on this interesting subject, watch The Psychology of Scary Movies.

 

The Strange Beast Called Imagination

Young children, of nursery school and kindergarten age, also practice emotional regulation in their make-believe, fantasy play.  They play at emotion-provoking themes, including themes that induce fear, anger, and sadness. One person who has documented this, through observations in kindergartens, is the German researcher Gisela Wegener-Spöhring. For example, she described one play scene in which two little girls pretended that they were sisters whose father and mother had died and who were abandoned alone in the woods, with bears and other wild animals around.  To deal with both their grief and fear, they held each other close and spoke intimately, and they built a cave to protect themselves and figured out what weapons they would use if a bear entered the cave.

– from Psychology Today

As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of “self” is created, maintained, altered and renewed. After all, though our minds may wander when in this mode, they rarely wander far from ourselves, as Mrazek’s mealtime introspection makes plain.

An idle brain may be the self’s workshop from The Chicago Tribune

***

When Reality Doesn’t Match Up To My Imagination by Gretchen Rubin, who comes up with a new term: parallax feeling

The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers from Farnam Street

Children Whose Minds Wander Have Sharper Brains from The Telegraph

The Magic of Metaphor: What Children’s Minds Teach Us about the Evolution of the Imagination from Brain Pickings

8 Movies That Showcase The Imagination from Film School Rejects