The Neuroscience Behind Decluttering

5 min readJun 8, 2016


Have you ever experienced that ‘feel good’ sense of accomplishment after cleaning your desk or decluttering your closet? This feeling of control, one that the neat freaks among us know well, might not be just a personality trait. Rather, it might be a specific neurological state related to how we experience self identification to object around us and and our general surroundings — As we will explore in this article. For those who enjoy minimal living and euphoric feeling of control when their possessions are in order you may understand why Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising has quickly become a best seller.

Kondo’s decluttering theories are uniquely based on traditional Japanese practices of minimalism and order. In general, her technique can be reduced to two basic tenets:

discard everything that does not “spark joy,” as she explains, and donate and get rid of things that do not provide a service.

Some People Keep Things, Others Don’t

When something you own becomes unnecessary clutter, the reality of the situation is that you probably made a mistake when first purchasing it. When we throw or give something away, coming to terms with losing that object can quite literally ‘hurt the brain’ of some people. When looking into hoarding disorder (a sub-type of obsessive-compulsive disorder), researchers at Yale identified in a recent study that particular areas of the brain light up in response to letting go of objects we feel a personal connection with.

In the study, a team of researchers at the Yale School of Medicine recruited both hoarders and non-hoarders and asked them to sort through items that would need to be discarded, such as old newspapers and flyers in the mail. Some of the items in the pile for trash belonged to the experimenter, and some actually belonged to the participant. Participants had to decide what to keep and what to toss, and would only realise that some of the possessions belonged to them while this was happening.Tracking their brain activity to observe their response to the objects, it was found that hoarders showed increased activity in two regions of the brain– the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula– when confronted with their own junk. Those two areas showed that the more a hoarder reported feeling uneasy about throwing something out, the stronger this pattern of activation.

These regions of the brain are associated with conflict and pain — this same pattern of activity in the regions of the brain were that produced intense cravings among smokers or drug addicts trying to quit. The stronger the activation, the stronger the feeling of anxiety, discomfort and desire to use.

The ACC-insula combo is what creates that familiar feeling in your body that something is wrong, that feeling in your gut or the prickly anxiety experienced when your body looks to prevent harm or relieve anxiety caused by an uncomfortable action. This could be something as difficult as quitting smoking, or as seemingly simple as the action of giving away used clothing that you know you won’t see again. These actions involve an investment inchanging a habit and that is uncomfortable for some people.

Interestingly, people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have a very low threshold for tripping this brain circuit, meaning their need to maintain control of an action or their environment is much tighter and has less flexibility. The obsessions and compulsions that they experience when they feel that ‘something is wrong’ is a very quick brain signal. Even though the signal may be a faulty habit of the brain, the mind searches for something to explain it. This explains why people with OCD justify irrational beliefs and behaviours that make them feel that they are keeping ‘order’ and to a theme.

This is Your Brain on Clutter

So what does clutter do to your brain? Whether it be your closet or office desk, excess things in your surroundings can have a negative impact on your ability to focus and process information. That’s exactly what neuroscientists at Princeton University found when they looked at people’s task performance in organised versus disorganised environments. The results of the study showed that being surrounded by physical clutter competes for your attention, resulting in decreased performance and increased.

In a recent study, a team of UCLA researchers observed 32 Los Angeles families and found that in all the families, the mothers’ stress hormones spiked during the time spent dealing with household possessions. This ranged from cleaning and to ealing with an excess of ‘stuff’ (can you hear your own mother’s voice in your head?). We know that multitasking initiates a false sense of productivity in the brain, and now we’re finding that physical clutter can overload your senses in a similar way, making you feel stressed, unaccomplished and impairing your ability to think creatively.

Digital Clutter is Mental Clutter

Files on your computer desktop screen, notifications from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and anything that buzzes during the night competes for your attention. This creates a digital form of clutter that erodes your ability to focus on things that matter and perform creative tasks. When your growing list of to-do items constantly floating around in your head or you hear a ping or vibrate every few minutes from your phone, your brain doesn’t get a chance to fully enter creative flow or process experiences.

When your brain has too much on its plate, it splits its power up and works less efficiently. The result? You become worse at filtering information, switching quickly between tasks and keeping a strong working memory. In conclusion, the overconsumption of digital stuff can have the same effect on your brain as physical clutter.

So how can we change this? Begin by clearing up your surrounding space, while being mindful that the task might not be pleasant. The next step is to clear out digital clutter, turning our phone notifications off, keeping it on silent and face down when you need to focus. The ‘do not disturb’ button would be a next step. ALTRUIS, our collection of connected jewellery, has been designed with the science of ‘digital clutter’ in mind. At work or at play, this is what keeps us focused on the moment, while still aware of important notifications, and keeping our distracting smartphones out of sight.

Beside the physical and digital, clearing out our mental clutter is the most challenging and important way to a calmer mind. Everyone functions differently and has different mechanisms to doing so, but by being mindful of the science of our distractive surroundings, we can take a big step in the right direction.




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