6 Ways Being Around Clutter Affects Your Brain, According To Science

by JR Thorpe
Nomad Soul/Shutterstock

We've all been there: a bedroom filled with piled-up clothes, books you're definitely going to read one day, and four hundred socks, or a living room strewn with old tea cups and an apparently infinite number of magazines. Seeing clutter regularly is sometimes an unavoidable fact of life: people form attachments to their possessions for obvious reasons, and since we live in a society where we're encouraged to buy things constantly, we often end up with living areas full of Disorganized Stuff. Unless you're a true minimalist or can organize your life like a pro, you've likely lived among clutter at some point — and it turns out that it's actually kind of stressful for your brain to exist among a bunch of mess.

There's definitely value in streamlining your stuff. Marie Kondo's tidy-and-toss KonMari method went viral a few years ago, and her new Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, is a massive hit, with its deceptively simple maxim to only keep those things which "spark joy" in your life. Apart from the benefits of having a tidier space (not feeling the pressure to read all those books you promised yourself you'd dig into, perhaps?), there's a good neurological reason to get rid of things that can't neatly be tucked away. Here's what your brain does when faced with mess.


You're Overloaded By Stimuli

On the basic level, a lot of stuff in your visual field (the area that your eyes can see) creates a lot of stimuli for the visual cortex to sort out, classify, and file. That can actually be quite difficult. "Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important," psychologist Sherri Bourg Carter explained for Psychology Today. If there's no underlying system, this unending clutter can feel very overwhelming for the brain over long periods of time.


Your Stress Levels Skyrocket

There's a link between living among clutter and higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that's an integral part of the body's stress response. A 2010 study found that, in heterosexual couples who live in cluttered spaces, women tend to have higher cortisol levels than normal over both the daytime and at night, when cortisol should normally drop. That, in turn, affected the mood of their partners. Men who did housework in cluttered environments also showed high levels of cortisol.

“Clutter is in the eye of the beholder. The people who talked about it were the ones who had the cortisol response," lead study author Dr. Darby Saxbe told The New York Times. The person who's responsible for navigating the clutter the most, unsurprisingly, tends to be the one who gets most stressed about it.


You Have A Lot Of Competing Agendas

Seeing clutter can pull your brain in many directions at once. Should you tidy that — or sort that — or put that away — or read that? That, apparently, isn't good for cognitive functioning. Too much distraction in the visual cortex is difficult for the brain to sort through; a study in 1998 by the National Institute of Health found that when shown a lot of different information at once, the brain's sensory responses "dampen," or become weaker, than if the information is shown one at a time. Multiple stimuli "suppress each other," according to the NIH. And that makes decision-making and attention more difficult.


Your Attachment To Your Possessions Can Be Overwhelming

Many of us hold onto our stuff because we've invested it with serious psychological value: memories, love, hopes for the future, or aesthetic delight. The "love of stuff" is very human. My husband and I, for example, are the kind of maximalists who own a candelabra shaped like a monkey and 40 types of tea. However, too much of that possessive love can be bad for the brain.

A study in 2016 found that, while personal attachment to objects can make us feel more "at home" in a space, too many of them can take away that benefit. Clutter, the study showed, could make people feel more negatively about their space, and impact their relationships and mental health. "It's the danger of clutter, the totality of one's possessions being so overwhelming that it chips away at your well-being, relationships, and more, drowning in a sea of stuff," said lead author Dr. Joseph Ferrari in a press release.


Your Judgement Becomes Less Reliable

A study in 2006 found that when we try to make judgements in cluttered environments, our brains operate differently: not only do we tend to make the wrong call, but we're often far more confident in that call than we should be. Perceptual clutter leads not only to an increase in judgment errors, but also to an increase in perceived signal strength and decision confidence on erroneous trials," the study says — presumably because all the visual stimuli and confusion makes us less capable of thinking clearly, even if we're absolutely sure we're making the right decision. It's not clear why clutter spikes our confidence erroneously, but if you're making life decisions it's probably best to do it in a clean room.


You Become More Impulsive

Do a lot more internet shopping than you would in a perfect world? It might be down to your messy surroundings. A study in 2014 found that people seated in cluttered rooms were more likely to say 'yes' to purchasing things impulsively than those who were seated in organized ones. " We expect that if an individual creates a messy environment, their surroundings would be more mentally depleting and lead to an even lower sense of personal control," the study authors wrote.

Again, this is probably down to confusion breaking down our decision-making protocols, but it also means our impulse control is affected, making us more likely to act without thinking things all the way through. Which is how you end up with 14 pairs of fluffy socks ordered on eBay.


If you haven't been feeling motivated to clean up the clutter around you, let its effects on your brain be the push in a less messy direction.