Overweening Generalist

Monday, September 3, 2012

Hoarders: Glad It Ain't Me! (or...is it?)

Ever see the TV show Hoarders? I've seen a couple episodes, which were enough for me. I'm told there is at least one copycat show on cable TV on roughly the same subject. What made me wonder: is this a serotonin imbalance? Is it related to OCD? What? Some researchers at the National Institute for Mental Health are making some inroads using fMRI machines and things like junk mail, but I'll get to that later.

I previously wrote about my baseball card collecting as a youth, and tried to link it to Walter Benjamin's idea about the essence of the Original, which, in my research on Benjamin, I linked to a hashish-inspired idea that has influenced the postmodernists.

Lately - in addition to Hoarders - I've gotten into conversations with friends over their collections, their prized possessions that seemingly would have no value to anyone but themselves, and experiences being in others' dwellings that were...how do I put this delicately? Cluttered badly.

                            I've never been in a house that was this hoarded-up. Click on
                            the pic for a more in-your-face view. You thought You had 

Robert Sapolsky and Rice Krispie Treats
And I've been thinking of one of my intellectual gurus, Robert Sapolsky, who emphasizes the metaphor of the Continuum when we think of diseases, and it's really easy to see it when we think of things like, say, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Sapolsky would hold a little end-of-the-semester party for students at Stanford, and make sure Rice Krispie Treats would be part of the celebration. The picture I linked to there, notice, has all the little treats cut from the pan in idealized rectangles or squares. At some point, during every party, Sapolsky would sneak back into the room where the cookies and cakes were, and notice that people who had used a knife to cut their own treats would always cut at nice 90 degree angles. Sapolsky would quickly and surreptitiously make some odd, uneven, symmetry-ruining cut in the Treats, eat his confection, then rejoin the party. After a short period when others had gone into the food room for Treats and other goodies, he'd go back in, and sure enough: someone had "fixed" the irregular angle he'd cut and recouped the 90 degree angle. His point? We all have a bit of this OCD-ishness in us, even the best and brightest Neuroscience students at Stanford.

When you drop mail in a public post office box on a street corner, do you ever check again to make sure your mail actually fell into the box and didn't get "stuck" inside the lid? If you do, don't feel bad: more people than you'd think also do this.

If you want to read a really mindblowing essay on how this might relate evolutionarily to the rise of religious ritual and dogma, read "Circling The Blankets For God," from Sapolsky's book The Trouble With Testosterone. Or: HERE 'tis from Scribd.

Ahh...but what does this have to do with hoarding? I'm not sure. Let's delve a bit deeper.

My Own Magical Thinking
When I met my future wife's parents I quickly took a strong liking to her father, who had been born in North Carolina in 1919, with four brothers, and they did subsistence farming near Chapel Hill. During the Great Depression they had nothing except what they grew for themselves. When what we call "World War Two" came around, he enlisted, but his eyes had been crossed since he was born, so the Army fixed his eyesight and he learned radio repair instead of having to fight Germans or Japanese. He caught tuberculosis during the war, and was in a TB ward for five years, until they were sure they had one of a new class of miracle drugs called "antibiotics" that could fix him up without harm. While in the ward he taught himself advanced mathematics, relativity, and the basics of quantum mechanics from books brought around in a bookmobile. After the war he owned the first TV repair shop in Los Angeles - he had no formal college! - and then spent the rest of his life working in aviation and on NASA-related projects as an engineer. This guy was amazing. He was wry, very funny, relentlessly logical, and had a thick North Carolina accent until death. What's my point?

One day my wife, after visiting him, brought me a bunch of his old cardigan sweaters and asked me if I wanted any of them. I said Hell Yes! I had never been a cardigan-wearer, but just wearing her Old Man's old sweaters would be cool. They had something to do with Him.

I wore those sweaters until they were totally unwearable: holes in the elbows, the seams ripped at the shoulder, etc. I guess part of it was I thought my cardigan-wearing fit my "weirdo intellectual" image of myself, but maybe just as much: I thought possibly a bit of my beloved father-in-law's Cool Guy essence was seeping into me, and it's making me a smarter and funnier dude. I dunno. Maybe? I "know" this is crass mysticism on the Main Level. But I didn't throw those cardigans away; I kept them in my closet. After he died, every time I saw those things piled in my closet I thought of him. A few of 'em are still around.

What is this all about? Respect? Yes, but respect doesn't totally explain it.

Dr. Bruce Hood and the Essence Behind Sacred Objects
Cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood sheds some light on all this, I think. In his book Supersense: Why We Believe In The Unbelievable, he relates his delight in a jam-packed memorabilia shop, and how he liked to talk to the owner about why people felt sentimental over Olde Things. Things that were, seemingly, ephemeral. Like trinkets and old postcards. The owner told Hood he thought people collected things in order to remind themselves of when they were younger and happier. Here's Hood:

"Why do people do it? Collecting seems such an odd behavior in a world of instant upgrades, duplication, and modern innovation. Why look backward? When I entered the collector's domain, I discovered a mirror world populated by legions of people who traipse around car trunk sales and flea markets every weekend seeking authenticity. Come rain or shine, these people were out in droves, looking for the original." (198)

                                          A curio shop, somewhere in the East.

The original. We're back to Walter Benjamin again, in his ingenious "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Or are we? Is there another, somewhat less romantic way to model the search for the value of the Original? Hood cites superstar neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of "Borat" Sacha Baron-Cohen, btw), who has shown that men seem more naturally inclined than women to order and systems, and Hood thinks "completing the set" seems more a male thing than female.

Hood has some neuroscientifically fine riffs about art and forgeries. There have been forgeries of famous paintings that sold for a lot of money, because "experts" vouched for the painting's authenticity. When it is found that the paintings are forgeries, the shit hits the fan, people are outraged, and the value of the now-realized-fake sinks into the abyss. But if everyone was fooled until some sleuth figured out there was something amiss with the provenance, why does it matter to people if it was real or a fake?

All of us think we know the answer, and perhaps many of us do know, but what Hood says about Why we care so much seems very interesting to me.

"I think that an art forgery is unacceptable because it does not generate the psychological essentialist view that something of the artist is literally in the work," says Hood on page 203, op. cit.

Psychological essentialism? Well, I get it, if only because of my father-in-law's cardigans. But let's dig a  tad deeper with Hood before I get to the whole hoarding thing...

Plutarch told the story of the preservation of legendary Athenian king Theseus's ship. As years passed, some of the wood rotted and was replaced by new planks. After awhile it became unclear if the ship was still Theseus's. Was it "really" the "same" ship? What if the old rotted planks had been kept and reassembled into some battered old ship...would that be the "real" one?

(No matter how old you are right now, sitting there reading this, most of the cells in your body that make "you" are only ten years old at the oldest. That "you" from 12 years ago? All of the cells have been replaced!)

Hood and colleagues built an impressive-looking Big Machine with lights and dials on it: a Copy Box Machine. Here's what it could do: you asked kids to put their beloved blankie or teddy bear into it, and  one exactly the same but "different" would come out the other side. Every kid wanted the Original back.
(see Supersense, pp.203-213)

"So I would argue that the behavior of the toddler toward his grubby blanket and the obsession of a fanatical collector to own original memorabilia reflect the same human tendency to see objects as possessing invisible properties that originate from significant individuals. By owning objects and touching them, we can connect with others, and that gives us the sense of distributed existence over time and with others. The net effect is that we become increasingly linked together by a sense of deeper hidden structures." (221)

"Distributed existence over time and with others." Is that too much for our egos to ask in an indifferent universe? Apparently not! (More than one blogger has cited their blog as Internet immortality, so I guess you can count me in as one desirous of my existence distributed over time, with others.)

Mutt: You want your existence distributed to others over time?
Jute: Aye! Hey why not?

Then what's with all the hoarding? Dr. David Tolin, working under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health, had a control group, a hoarding group, and people with OCD collect their junk mail for a long time, and bring it in to the lab, where they were asked to climb into an fMRI machine. When a picture of their mail came up, the areas of the brain in the hoarders that have to do with weighing the value of things, emotional decisions and assessment of risk, unpleasant feelings, and making a decision about personal possessions showed an unusual lighting pattern: hoarders's brains were not the same as the OCD people's, and the control group was, of course, more "normal." If they saw a picture of someone else's junk mail, the hoarders had an easier time thinking about what they would do with it. Two basic reports on Tolin and his team's findings are HERE and HERE. A CNN video on these findings is HERE.

Bruce Hood, like Sapolsky, emphasizes the Continuum when analyzing his data. Some of us seem to have much less of a magical/religious-like impulse with regard to special objects. Some people may watch Hoarders for lurid reasons, for many reasons, but I think it's well-established that hoarders just have a bit more trouble making sense of what objects are truly valuable than the rest of us do. And as for objects that we're attached to, for sentimental reasons, this seems roaringly on a continuum, and at odds with publicly-stated norms. For example, as Hood writes, "Most people are too embarrassed to admit they still have their sentimental childhood objects. However, a recent survey of two thousand solitary travelers by a U.K. hotel chain revealed that one in five men slept with a teddy bear - more than the female travelers." (210)

Whew! Now I don't feel so weird about hoarding my 2000 some-odd books, many of which I probably won't read again. (But what a pain in the ass when you need to move!)


Sue Howard said...

Hi Michael - off topic, but I thought you might be interested in this piece on the 'Chomsky problem' (if you haven't already seen it): http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1114177.ece

(Only just noticed your new post, so not read it yet).

michael said...

I saw that when it came out, yea. At first I thought maybe the guy had read my blog, but after awhile I doubted. But then again: maybe?


Sue Howard said...

Has he read your blog? I would put money on it. I put the words 'chomsky problem' in Google, and your blog came up near the top.

Eric Wagner said...

Great piece.

My father-in-law came from Louisiana to Southern California and worked in aviation, synchronistially.

Your discussion of shopping in the past made me think of "Midnight in Paris."

michael said...

@Sue: my Chomsky Problem stuff shows up near the top? I had no idea. I get about 150-200 hits/day on this blog, but assume only a handful of readers are actually interested in reading slightly longer form stuff.

I have to admit: when I read the piece, even though Hawkes seems to be responding to two books about Chomsky, that something of my slant was lurking behind there. And: a week before his piece came out, I suddenly got a few hits on those old Chomsky pieces. Maybe a coincidence?

Lowly bloggers are ripe for pilferage if you're a "real" writer, I suppose.

@Eric: LA and aerospace got all that massive Cold War/permanent wartime economy money after 1950. Tons of jobs. Ever read Walter Moseley's Easy Rawlins novels? Coming to LA from the south during/after WWII. The jobs were there/different level of Jim Crowe to deal with. Central Ave in LA and jazz!

When you write "shopping in the past" did you mean the frequenting of curio shops?

I've long been enchanted by places like that, flea markets, etc. The objects indeed do SEEM to give off an "essence" (Korzybski is spinning in his grave) of the past and hidden narratives of past owners and times. Thanks again for good vibes.