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Americans Buried in Clutter

Some people can't throw anything out. Experts suggest a biological component

October 23, 2005|Joseph B. Verrengia | Associated Press Writer

BOULDER, Colo. — Karen Lowe looks a little lost, even in her own apartment.

Board games and puzzles teeter over the hamster's cage. A green metal desk spills toys and papers like a jackknifed truck in what should be the dining room. Upstairs, a computer shoots wires like kudzu around her bedroom.

Her daughter's room down the hall? Don't go there.

Lowe's home convulses with clutter. The chaotic accumulation of stuff is more than a quirk in her otherwise orderly life as a software engineer.

The mess has become her shameful secret.

Most friends have never visited her apartment and she lives in fear someone might drop by. Worse yet, her daughter Elphey, 12, is developing the same unkempt habits.

Ashamed and seemingly paralyzed, Lowe finally hired experts to help get her unruly habitat under control.

Her story offers hope to the tens of millions of Americans like her who live under the anarchy of their possessions.

To many observers, clutter reflects the mind-set of the modern household -- overburdened, disorganized and compulsive. To others, clutter is a broader symbol of a ravenous culture dependent on easy credit, piling up debt and consuming a lion's share of the world's resources without considering the consequences.

"People's homes are a reflection of their lives," says Los Angeles psychologist and organizational consultant Peter Walsh. "It is no accident that people have a huge weight problem in this country, and clutter is the same thing. Homes are an orgy of consumption."

The obesity analogy isn't a joke. While personal spending drives much of the U.S. economy, the resulting clutter from all that shopping is so pervasive that some researchers wonder if it might have a deeper, biological component, similar to overeating.

Their speculation borrows from evolutionary theory.

Modern humans developed some 100,000 years ago as hunters and gatherers living in fundamentally harsher circumstances.

Today, we are surrounded by abundance, but our bodies have remained genetically programmed to eat everything in sight and store calories to survive winter, drought and famine. To some nutrition experts, it's a primary reason two-thirds of Americans are overweight.

Similarly, our forebears saved anything that could be materially useful because they had to make everything from scratch.

Clutter emerged alongside industrial specialization and mass production in the 19th century, and it was then that the biological need to save everything morphed into a desire to acquire.

Suddenly, the rising middle class was buying items once reserved for royalty. Tea sets. Mantelpiece figurines. Forks used only to eat fish.

And the opportunities to acquire have only skyrocketed. The old corner store stocked fewer than 1,000 items. Today, a Wal-Mart SuperCenter covers a quarter-million square feet -- that's nearly 6 acres -- and carries 130,000 products.

Yet scientists have difficulty quantifying clutter. It is a private problem that most people -- like Lowe -- sweep under the bed and shove behind closed doors.

On cable TV, at least three reality shows are devoted to clutter management. On the Learning Channel, "Clean Sweep" employs psychologist Walsh; it has filmed more than 200 episodes unloading people's junk.

Fifty cities in 17 states have chapters of Clutterers Anonymous, a 12-step recovery program.

For some, clutter results from more than rampant shopping. It suggests widespread social discontent.

"People hold onto stuff like their kids' old clothing as a way of holding onto the past," Walsh says. "Or they keep things they think they might need someday as a way to control the future."


"Might need someday" is a common refrain for the 35-year old Lowe.

Paperwork, toys, cookbooks and clothing spread from one room to the next.

"We put off housekeeping to spend time on just about anything that we like better than tidying up," Lowe concedes.

The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, an association of professional organizers, has established a household clutter assessment scale.

At Levels 4 and 5, people face eviction for filling their refrigerators with old newspapers and blocking fire exits with rubbish. Often, these hoarders need psychological treatment.

Psychologists estimate that 3 million Americans never throw anything out -- even old newspapers and yogurt cups -- in a twisted logic of perfectionism and fear. These hoarders have a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Too often, they wind up entrapped and injured by their own junk.

Hoarding research focuses on changes to a region of the brain connected with decision-making, problem-solving and anticipating rewards.

At UCLA, patients receive a radioactive form of the sugar glucose before being examined by positron emission tomography. The PET scanner's color-coded images show which brain areas use the most glucose and are working hardest.

In this small experiment, the hoarders have lower activity in a certain part of the brain when compared to other patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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