written by: Paul Arnold
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 7/20/2010
The bits and pieces of our lives can exert a powerful hold over some people, as they find it difficult to cut out the clutter. There are signs that the tendency to hoard may be in our genes.
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Hoarding and Clutter
Some people just cannot let go of the physical objects in their lives; sports kits from their school days, faded magazine copies and bus tickets are just some of the possessions that hoarders have admitted to letting pile up in their homes. Eliminating clutter is something they just can't manage. These are people with a serious problem who cannot move around their home because every surface is covered with clutter. Sometimes they can't sleep in their bed or use their kitchen because of the amount of stuff that has accumulated. The reason for this may be locked up in their genes.
Scientists from King's College London used a twins study to find out if there is a genetic predisposition to hoarding and clutter. Compulsive cluttering is seen as a mental health problem, where individuals have an overwhelming desire to hoard objects and items that are normally considered useless. But the researchers wanted to know if there were genes that would increase an individual's risk to undertake this behavior.
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Genetics of Hoarding and Clutter
The genomes of more than 5,000 twins were studied; this included a mixture of identical twins and fraternal twins. Compulsive cluttering is known to run in families, but it is not known whether this is due to the environment that people grow up in or genetics. Twin studies allow researchers to separate the two possible causative factors.
Identical twins share all of their DNA and fraternal twins share half of their genes. If genes are a more prevalent cause than the environment then identical twins would be more similar in their risk of being a clutterer than fraternal twins.
Out of all of the twins studied the King's College scientists found that approximately 2% had a tendency to clutter and genes accounted for half of the variance.
Amongst female identical twins when one sibling demonstrated hoarding symptoms the other twin did so 52% of the time. That figure dropped to 27% for fraternal twins. The scientists did not find any evidence of shared environmental factors by the twins that could account for hoarding.
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Psychology of Clutter
The research doesn't necessarily mean that there is a gene for hoarding; it is not expected to be an inherited trait in the same way the you inherit eye color, hair color or height from your parents. But a person could be genetically predisposed to hoarding, and the genes could be triggered in response to a particular environmental stimulus.
Past studies of the psychology of clutter reveal that it can be caused by traumatic events in an individual's background, and so the scientists think that these events somehow interact with the genes to initiate hoarding.
The genetics of clutter is a field that is still in its infancy, but it is hoped that researchers will look for candidate genes that might be able to explain it. There are already searches for candidate genes that could help to explain other compulsive disorders such as OCD and Tourette's syndrome.