Daniel Faris – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 When Does Collecting Become A Compulsion? http://brainblogger.com/2015/02/13/when-does-collecting-become-a-compulsion/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/02/13/when-does-collecting-become-a-compulsion/#respond Fri, 13 Feb 2015 12:00:03 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18524 For some, collecting things is a harmless way to spend time and introduce a healthy, harmless diversion into our lives. Meanwhile, for others, collecting can take a turn toward the tragic.

The purpose of science is to help us make sense of the world around us — or the much larger world inside our heads. It helps to give us an understanding of natural laws and helps demystify the inner workings of the brain. But sometimes, science fails to provide consensus. This is the case with the phenomenon we call collecting.

Whether it’s old coins, stamps, trading cards, or Beanie Babies, many of us have items that we find particularly alluring, and that we’re strangely compelled to collect. For me, it’s CDs; I find it strangely centering to tend to my physical music collection, even if the bulk of it also exists digitally on my computer.

But we’ve all heard stories about hoarders: those who impulsively keep a significant number of possessions, animals, or even trash, in their homes — to the detriment of their health and happiness.

This is the darker side of collecting, and one that reveals how science occasionally fails to provide us with a tidy explanation of our habits.

What Would Freud Say?

Over the years, a number of helpful (and some not-so-helpful) explanations have arisen to help explain why human beings seem predisposed to collecting and hoarding.

One theory was put forward by Freud, who suggested — unlikely as it might sound — that our predilection for collecting is a remnant from our potty training days. The theory goes something like this: as children, ownership is extremely important to us. We don’t like sharing our toys or our juice boxes. So when we become aware of our more private bodily functions — namely, the evacuation of liquid waste — we become distressed because we have lost ownership of something that was once ours.

It probably sounds strange, this notion that potty training and collecting are linked with the very human tendency to value control and ownership, but the scientific community has not yet roundly dismissed Freud’s theory.

Hoarding vs. Collecting

If science is the process of understanding and defining what we see around us, then understanding impulsive behaviors like collecting and hoarding depends very much on establishing a consistent basis for comparison. Given that, here are the two main differentiating factors we can use to separate the two:

  • Collectors have reasons for what they do. These can be logical, practical, or sentimental reasons, but reasons nonetheless. Collecting stamps, for example, is less practical than it is sentimental; you wouldn’t use these to send your mother-in-law a Christmas card. That doesn’t mean the pursuit is without merit — and it certainly doesn’t mean that collecting is in the same ballpark as a psychological disorder.
  • The habits of collectors don’t typically interfere with their lives in a negative way. Sure, mild domestic disputes might arise when Dad’s collection of Budweiser memorabilia spills into the family room, but this has little in common with the sort of desperate or self-destructive tendencies of the average hoarder. Collecting is a hobby — not a destructive compulsion.

The Language of Science

So if we wanted to diagnose our weird Matryoshka doll-obsessed neighbor as a hoarder, where would science tell us to draw the line?

Only in recent years has the APA actually settled on a DSM-5 definition for hoarding as a disorder. While certain reality TV shows have convinced us that we know the signs, the language of science is quite a bit more exacting. According to the DSM-5, the qualifications for hoarding disorder include:

  • Habits that result in the impairment of normal social or occupational functions
  • An absence of other disorders (depression, OCD) that could result in compulsive behaviors

Links to the Past

That probably doesn’t sound like the most detailed or exhaustive explanation, but it’s more than we had just a few years ago. For a less formal explanation, we may point to the fact that collecting often has to do with a desire to catalog and preserve history — either our personal or our cultural past.

Nobody would call out a lovingly curated art museum as evidence of a mental disorder; rather, it serves as a public collection of items from our shared past — an exercise in both preservation and mindfulness. And, as legendary stamp collector Earl Apfelbaum might remind us, nostalgia is sometimes a powerful motivator.

So, as rich as Freud’s bathroom imagery might be, it’s surely not the one-size-fits all explanation we might want for categorizing an important human behavior. But more than that, we’re reminded that the life of the mind is revealed only one tantalizingly small detail at a time.

Image via Patricia Hofmeester / Shutterstock.

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Can Brain Imaging Detect Risk Takers? http://brainblogger.com/2014/10/18/can-brain-imaging-detect-risk-takers/ http://brainblogger.com/2014/10/18/can-brain-imaging-detect-risk-takers/#respond Sat, 18 Oct 2014 11:00:54 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=17227 Risk-taking seems to come naturally for some people – from those who don’t hesitate asking for a new promotion, to those who don’t flinch before artfully diving off a cliff into the ocean below. Others play it safer. While upbringing may have some role in our risk-taking probabilities, there are plenty of cases where siblings raised in the same environment have different tendencies to take risks.

Several studies have investigated the correlation between brain structure and risk-taking. In response to the statistic that unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among adolescents, the Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas at Dallas conducted a study that found brain differences in risk-taking teens, who are currently in some of their most important years for brain development.

Individual brains and risk-taking

The leading causes of death for adults are cancer and heart disease. For teens, it’s unintentional injuries. Although better overall health is one reason the stat seems to suggest that teens are likelier to take risks than their older peers, what the Center for Brain Health found was that some brain regions in risk-taking teens are more “amplified” compared to teens who “play it safe.”

“Our brains have an emotional-regulation network that exists to govern emotions and influence decision-making,” said Sam DeWitt, the study’s lead author. “Antisocial or risk-seeking behavior may be associated with an imbalance in this network.”

The study’s details

To discover the sectional amplification among risk-takers, the study looked at 36 adolescent participants aged 12-17. Half of them were risk-takers – fairly accustomed to sexual promiscuity, physical violence and/or drug and alcohol use – while the other half were not. They all underwent MRI scans to examine their emotional regulation network, which, as DeWitt says, is the primary controller in governing emotions and influencing decision-making.

The MRIs were conducted when most of the adolescents’ minds were in a “wandering” state, essentially focused on something fairly intently (such as reading or playing a video game) other than the study itself. As Dr. Sina Aslan explains: “Most fMRI scans used to be done in conjunction with a particular visual task. In the past several years, however, it has been shown that performing an fMRI scan of the brain during a ‘mind-wandering’ state is just as valuable.”

It’s suggested that it’s practical to evaluate all participants while they’re in a ‘mind-wandering’ state, as to avoid certain thoughts or triggers from causing outlier data.

The results

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Francesca Filbey, found that risk-taking teens have hyperconnectivity between the amygdala and areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with critical thinking skills and emotion regulation. The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions. The nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex also showed increased activity, with the former often a point of study in addiction research.

What this all shows is that there’s a correlation between risk-takers and those whose minds are pre-conditioned to addiction.

Self-control systems: a common culprit

Another study from researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, UCLA, and elsewhere, found a link between risk-takers and their brains’ self-control systems. They used specialized software that examined brain regions prior to, and during, both a risky choice and a safe choice, in addition to a video game called Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), where participants can show their risk-taking tendencies by choosing to take a risk (by inflating a balloon further and earning money) or playing it safe (stop inflating the balloon and cashing out).

The balloon game is essentially a microcosm of other riskier choices, such as choosing to drink too much before driving home. With each additional drink consumed or additional air put into the balloon, there’s an increased risk of something unpleasant and potentially harmful occurring. The researchers used this concept to help study areas of the brain that are impacted when participants are confronted with a decision that involves risk.

The importance of these studies

Identifying the link between risk-taking and one’s brain could open several possibilities that have the potential to improve our lives. “Our findings are crucial in that they help identify potential brain biomarkers that, when taken into context with behavioral differences, may help identify which adolescents are at risk for dangerous and pathological behaviors in the future,” says DeWitt.

Similarly, the study that utilized the Balloon Analogue Risk Task accommodates the analysis of risk-taking in a controlled environment with little variability, which suggests that studying the correlation between the brain and risk-taking will become even more useful for scientists as additional research methods, like BART, emerge.


DeWitt SJ, Aslan S, & Filbey FM (2014). Adolescent risk-taking and resting state functional connectivity. Psychiatry research, 222 (3), 157-64 PMID: 24796655

Helfinstein SM, Schonberg T, Congdon E, Karlsgodt KH, Mumford JA, Sabb FW, Cannon TD, London ED, Bilder RM, & Poldrack RA (2014). Predicting risky choices from brain activity patterns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (7), 2470-5 PMID: 24550270

Image via Mandy Godbehear / Shutterstock.

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