People who hoard apparently useless items may be able to blame an area of their brain, say US researchers.
Specific brain regions may explain hoarding behaviour
The University of Iowa team pinpointed a region in the frontal lobe that appeared to control this behaviour.
Researchers have linked hoarding to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but it is not known what causes it and whether it is a unique condition.
The study in the journal Brain adds to growing evidence that hoarding has its own specific underlying mechanism.
OCD is an anxiety disorder in which the person is compelled by irrational fears and thoughts to repeat seemingly needless actions over and over again.
It can manifest itself in repetitive behaviours, such as excessive hand washing, cleaning or repeated checking.
But some people with OCD have a compulsion to hoard things, which is well above and beyond the avid interest of an average stamp collector.
Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles have already shown that people with OCD who also hoard show different brain activity patterns to other OCD patients.
To gain a better understanding of the cause of obsessive collecting behaviour, Dr Steven Anderson and his team studied 13 people who had developed a hoarding compulsion after sustaining a brain injury.
Hoarding was defined as abnormal if it was extensive, the squirreled items were not useful or aesthetic and the individual was unwilling to discard any of their collection.
Some of the patients had filled their homes with vast quantities of junk mail or broken appliances, for example.
They scanned the patients and compared their brain scans with those taken from other 73 brain injured patients who displayed no abnormal collecting behaviour.
The scans showed up an obvious difference.
Dr Anderson said: "A pretty clear finding jumped out at us.
"Damage to a part of the frontal lobes of the cortex, particularly on the right side, was shared by the individuals with abnormal behaviour.
"Patients with OCD and some other disorders, such as schizophrenia, Tourette's syndrome and certain dementias, can have similar pathological collecting behaviour but we don't have a pointer to located where in the brain the problem is occurring.
"Our hope is that our findings with these brain lesion studies will lead to insights in these conditions as well."
Dr Naomi Fineberg, an expert in OCD at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Welwyn Garden City, said: "These studies, which are really in their infancy, are starting to confirm that hoarding may be different from the rest of OCD.
"The hoarding type is unresponsive to normal OCD treatments, so if we can identify areas of the brain specific for hoarding this will have quite profound implications.
"The more we can start to understand about the neurobiology of hoarding the more we can start to think about targeting treatments accordingly."
But Professor Paul Salkovskis from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London, said: "Knowing which area of the brain is affected does not help you in treatment one little bit.
"Potentially, it's misleading because people feel if you can image a problem it means it is a biologically-based problem.
"At this point there is no evidence that there is any biological difference between these patients.
"The answer is cognitive behavioural therapy."
Go through a couple hurricanes in a row and even YOU will start hoarding water, canned food, batteries, generators, tarps, etc.
Maureen, Florida, USA
As a child I would come home with old toys that people would throw out. If they were broken I would put little makeshift bandages, etc, on them and then hoard them away in a cupboard. I wouldn't let anyone throw them out and if they tried I would cry and become really upset. They are still in my attic 20 years on!
Kelly, Northern Ireland
Every human being has both logic and emotion as part of their make-up. Hoarding and OCD exist when the emotional facets of the brain are given supremacy and logic gets ignored. By strengthening the logical part of the mind, these problems can be overcome. Exercises like completing to-do lists for simple daily jobs (ticking off each task as it gets done) can strengthen the logical and sequential part of the mind. Follow small and consistent steps, until the logical part of the mind gains control.
Andrew, London, UK
I wouldn't describe myself as a full-blown OCD victim but I have certainly had obsessive behaviours in the past - not handwashing, but things like wanting to step into a room with twelve steps on each foot, six on the left and six on the right, and endlessly minimizing programs on my PC four or seven times because it 'feels right'. I also still worry compulsively about misfortune happening to friends and family. I am not so afflicted with most of these problems now. I have found a way to deal with them that some of you might find a bit useful... since I used to behave compulsively because it 'felt right', now I designate doing the opposite of my obsessive urge as 'feeling right'. It works.
Isaac, Cambs, UK
I am in the process of getting divorced from someone who fits the above description. For many years she bought clothes and bric-a-brac from by the binbag full from second-hand shops. As an energetic and driven woman the amount she eventually accumulated was astounding, almost totally filling the terraced house we shared. She found it extremely difficult to throw anything away and would keep even newspapers and food packaging. She was prescribed therapy once but was contemptuous of it; I do not believe any therapy would work because she regards it as an attack on the very core of her personality. Eventually I could not deal with the stuff or her behaviour any more and had to leave.
I hoard useless bits of research and this will sit nicely in my collection.
I think hoarding is perfectly natural as it shows an appreciation that everything can have a value or a use, even if it doesn't at first appear to be the case. I would be more concerned with those who squander and waste.
Nicholas Titchener, Maidstone, UK
I have been known to hoard things. As a child I hoarded anything from plastic wrappers to gravel. Now I focus on what I can hide - such as junk computer files, container lids, tile patterns, and rocks. My computer, home, and mind are all basically hoards of feckless things.
Adam, Georgia, USA
I tend to have an excessive hoarding attitude but I think that it is due to how I was brought up as a child, where I was brought up and the nature of my employment. I was born in a lighthouse (1936) and as there was no local shop round the corner, my father taught me not to throw things away in case some day they would be useful. This can obviously get out of hand, but as I grew up, people would come and ask me if I had this and that to help them out as they knew that I might still have one!! I am now retired, but finished my working life as an engineer with Northern Lighthouse Board automating the lighthouses in Scotland. As I am sure you will understand, there are no DIY stores handy to lighthouses and so my hoarding was quite well known around the Lighthouse Service. Again, if a part required repairing, it would often be żAsk Eddie, he might have something suitable tucked away somewhere" This has reached the stage of me not being able to get the car in the garage, there is hardly a tidy room in the house, but I still think that if a disaster happens in the house, I can at least make an effort. Have a nice Christmas!
Eddie Dishon, Scotland
I used to read self-help books and they often advised me to "throw out anything I haven't used or needed over the past year". My concern was actually about the whole ethic of just "throwing stuff out" without any mention of passing it to charity shops, selling it on ebay to someone who might find it useful etc. Clearly, such self-help books aren't too worried about helping others! Not hoarding is one thing, but surely buying less rather than just throwing stuff away is the important thing.
Mike Foster, England
While I've experienced many people who seemed to hoard over-excessively, the worst was my very first manager. He would collect old electrical appliances and bring them into work - for instance we'd have at least 10 broken vacuum cleaners. We worked in an IT department so these weren't especially useful. His office was so full of junk that there was literally an 18 inch wide corridor to the desk, just about head-height high. It got as far as us not being able to even throw away food wrappers as they were deemed useful for some task or another. Needless to say when he used to go on vacation, we'd hire a number of skips to chuck the stuff into, and the cycle would repeat for the following year! Funnily enough he never got terribly upset at us doing this but would grumble about missing objects for a few days!
Rob Smith, London, UK
My Great Aunt Ella was a compulsive hoarder. Along with the remnants of her mother's trousseau (nightdresses, and about twenty pairs of very ancient handmade knickers) my Dad found several boxes of packaging material, as well as every card, letter or gift she had ever been given (she was a school teacher), several decades worth of the Birmingham Evening Post (she lived in Torquay) and quite a few dolls when they cleared her bungalow after she died.
Now I have an excuse when my wife wants to throw out all of my rubbish! Fantastic!
Mark Davies, UK
My wife thinks I am an excessive hoarder, but now that the old comics I kept from childhood are trading on ebay for £20 each she agrees it's not so daft. She still wants rid of them, but now at a profit!
Simon Mallett, UK, Maidstone
This article rings very true with myself. I hoard everything and find it very hard to get rid of anything. My obsession has now grown to a new level with mp3s and emails. I have also gone through stages of OCD in my life with the repeated hand-washing and tucking hair behind my ears. Any ways of curing these irrational behaviours would be appreciated. It can be expensive too, as now I seem to want to own every film on DVD I've ever remotely liked, with just having the joy of owning it being enough.
Brett, Canterbury, UK
My husband was collecting old broken watches when we met, which he intended to fix or repair one day. At least these broken relics, though of little value, do not take up much space. Then he started collecting old broken cameras - all useless. Even if he did fix them you can no longer get the plates or film for them. Then he moved on to microscopes. Some are huge industrial monsters, and they do take up a lot of space - in fact where we should have a lounge is full of old broken microscopes that just need fixing...
Heather Hobden, UK
Having suffered as a child as with excessive had washing and general cleanliness, I thought I'd broken out of the OCD rut, by forcing myself not to do it. Now as an adult the new findings do explain my repeated checking that doors & windows are locked (both car and house), plus probably explain why I own so much stuff (that I probably really don't need). So, here goes... New years resolution, stop repeated checking stuff and buy less things that I don't really need. Cognitive behavioural therapy here I come.....
Chris Rollason, UK
I feel so much better knowing there is a medical reason why I am such a hoarder but I don't think I need therapy for it!
Sarah Kettle, Sweden
I think that hoarding betrays immense insecurity in a person which is very sad and could be for a number of reasons. It's the opposite of 'minimalism' which is equally worrying in its display of self-conscious, almost paranoid over-confidence. Most people are somewhere in between, and have a bit of clutter whilst being reasonably selective about what they keep. I'd be just as concerned about the state of mind of the clinically clean minimalists as I was about the hoarders though, there's a bit of obsessive compulsiveness about that tendency as well.
I have a habit of upgrading my mobile every 2 or 3 months just to have the latest phone. This has resulted in me now having 27 spare phones which I neither will sell nor giveaway!
Paul Scrafton, Sunderland, UK