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What's in Your Brain Attic?

May 30, 2014

 

Hoarders are an interesting lot.  Some contend that it’s a form of mental illness: the compulsive need to hold onto a wide variety of items—or occasionally, animals— far exceeding their possible utility.

 

There are the classic cases, the houses reduced to a series of claustrophobic tunnels through floor-to-ceiling piles of magazines, broken televisions, commemorative lunch-boxes, and so on. And once those pathways close up with the overflow, the logical move? Rent a storage unit.

 

The explosion of storage units across the county seems to only be rivaled by new nail salons and Starbucks. I’m not suggesting that storage units are only frequented by hoarders, but undoubtedly it does allow a hoarder a kind of unlimited opportunity to continue their calling.

 

To the non-hoarder, this behavior seems unfathomable. Why would anyone collect so much stuff that they’re clearly never going use?

 

I don’t pretend to answer that question. But what if the hoarders among us aren’t really outliers?

 

As someone who spends a great deal time of my time traveling the country talking about sales and marketing techniques built on the latest findings in neuroscience, I can’t help but notice a correlation between some seminar attendees and hoarders.

 

I would love to believe that everyone walks away with life-changing insights. But although the feedback we get is amazingly positive and specific, I suspect there are people who attend my seminars and other seminars, who accumulate a fair amount of information that they never actually put into use.

 

That idea is well understood. The brain has a propensity to bias towards preexisting habits.  Habituation saves time and conserves energy. We tend to want to stay with the same old processes and programs even after they’ve been proven to be outdated and inefficient. The comfort of staying to a well-worn path can be the ultimate trump card, stopping change dead in its tracks.

 

And it’s not just seminar goers. How many of us have accumulated far more information about any would-be hobby or interest that, in truth, we will never get around to implementing?

 

There are the clothes in our closets that we don’t wear, and the tools in our garages that we don’t actually use, and the kitchen cabinets bulging with appliances long relegated to the shadows.  And what about our basements and our attics filled with boxes of who-knows-what?

 

The truth is that there is a little hoarder in all of us.

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would agree.

 

In “A Study in Scarlet”, he implies that part of Sherlock Holmes’s genius lies in his almost gleeful refusal to internalize anything he doesn’t plan on using. Including, for example, the knowledge that the earth goes around the sun:

 

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent...”

 

Our houses might not be a maze of yellowing newspapers, but our brain attics are chock full of useless stuff, a dumping ground of obscure trivia, half-remembered factoids, and childhood remnants.  We might not be hoarders in the technical sense, but in so many other ways, we are masters in the art of accumulation.

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