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This Is What Clutter Does to Your Brain and Body

January 22, 2019

gettyimages-1085704716Many of us have started the year determined to be more organized: no more drawers full of plastic containers with missing lids, or lone socks.

The decluttering craze is led by Japanese tidying aficionado Marie Kondo, author of a New York Times best-seller and host of the Netflix show Tidying Up.

Charity groups such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are reporting a 38 percent increase in donations, year over year, as we get rid of the clothes, books and household items that don’t “spark joy” or have a place in our future.

And there is good reason to get on board, whether it’s via Kondo’s KonMarie method or just having a good clear-out. Clutter can affect our anxiety levels, sleep and ability to focus.

It can also make us less productive, triggering coping and avoidance strategies that make us more likely to snack on junk and watch TV shows (including ones about other people decluttering their lives).

My own research shows our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions and subsequent behaviors, including our relationships with others.

Why Clutter Is Bad for Your Brain

Bursting cupboards and piles of paper stacked around the house may seem harmless enough. But research shows disorganization and clutter have a cumulative effect on our brains.

Our brains like order, and constant visual reminders of disorganization drain our cognitive resources, reducing our ability to focus. The visual distraction of clutter increases cognitive overload and can reduce our working memory.

In 2011, neuroscience researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurements found that clearing clutter from the home and work environment resulted in a better ability to focus and process information, as well as increased productivity.

And Your Physical and Mental Health

Clutter can make us feel stressed, anxious and depressed. Research in the United States in 2009 found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol were higher in mothers whose home environment was cluttered.

A chronically cluttered home environment can lead to a constant, low-grade fight-or-flight response, taxing resources designed for survival. This response can trigger physical and psychological changes that affect how we fight infections and digest food, as well as leaving us at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Clutter might also have implications for our relationships with those around us. A 2016 U.S. study, for instance, found that background clutter resulted in participants being less able to correctly interpret the emotional expressions on the faces of characters in a movie.

And, surprisingly, it doesn’t go away when we finally get to bed. People who sleep in cluttered rooms are more likely to have sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep and being disturbed during the night.

Could Clutter Really Make Us Fat?

Multiple studies have found a link between clutter and poor eating choices.

Disorganized and messy environments led participants in one study to consume more snacks, eating twice as many cookies than participants in an organized kitchen environment.

Other research has shown that being in a messy room will make you twice as likely to eat a chocolate bar than an apple.

Finally, people with extremely cluttered homes are 77 percent more likely to be overweight.

Tidy homes have been found to be a predictor of physical health. Participants whose houses were cleaner were more active and had better physical health, according to another study.

Hoarding Can Cause Physical Pain

Buying more and more things we think we need, and then not getting rid of them, is an actual disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to DSM-V, those with hoarding disorder compulsively acquire possessions on an ongoing basis and experience anxiety and mental anguish when they are thrown away.

A Yale study using fMRI showed that for people who have hoarding tendencies, discarding items can cause actual pain in regions of the brain associated with physical pain. Areas of the brain that were activated are also responsible for the pain you feel when slamming a finger in a door or burning your hand on the stove.

People who suspect they have hoarding disorder can take heart: Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment.

Tidy House, Happy Life?

Participants on Netflix’s Tidying Up report that Kondo’s decluttering method changed their lives for the better. Indeed, her first book was called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Research does indeed show cluttered home environments negatively influence the perception of our homes, and ultimately our satisfaction of life. The study authors say the strong effect is because we define home not just as a place to live but as the broader constellation of experiences, meanings and situations that shape and are actively shaped by a person in the creation of his or her life world.

But it seems clutter isn’t always bad. One study showed messy desks can make us more creative. The findings suggested neat, ordered environments make us more likely to conform to expectations and play it safe, while messy ones move us to break with the norm and look at things in a new way.

 

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