When my great-grandmother died in the mid-90s, we found a number of questionable collections in her house, including a paper bag filled to the brim with meticulously cleaned-out egg shells and a very toxic jar of mercury she had drained from old thermometers. In short: She was totally a hoarder. Had she lived to see the age of reality television, we could have put her on A&E's Hoarders, which tracks the lives of people who obsessively collect and can't bring themselves to throw things away, even to the point of creating dangerous, trash-filled living situations.
Though its not yet considered an official disorder, somewhere around 5 percent of Americans, or 15 million people, struggle with compulsive hoarding, as Bonnie Tsui noted in her in-depth look at the science of hoarding in Pacific Standard.
After years of being lumped in as a category of OCD, in May, hoarding will officially be recognized as its own distinct disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard tome of afflictions used by mental health professionals to classify mental health issues. The first systematic study of the disorder wasn't published until 1993, as Tsui points out, but like the amount of junk in my closet, the field is starting to grow.
Though the research is still preliminary, studies have shown hoarding is related to cognitive differences in processes like decision-making, sorting and categorizing. In fMRI studies of people with hoarding disorder, the areas of the brain associated with decision making lit up more when making choices about material objects, showing more emotional engagement with items than usual. Another study found that hoarders find it more difficult to make decisions about their own possessions than someone else's.