Understanding Your Brain and Clutter

18 May 2020

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle Report.

In springtime, many Americans take on a major project: cleaning their homes from top to bottom. We often call this kind of work "spring cleaning."

Part of spring cleaning often involves clearing out clutter. We do away with things we no longer need – like old magazines, toys from our childhood, collections of things we no longer collect ...

If we are to believe the many stories on Marie Kondo, the Queen of Clean, clutter adds unnecessary stress to our lives. Clutter is holding us back from our dreams and goals.

But is it?

To answer this question, I spoke with an expert on the subject -- Sabine Kastner of Princeton University. She has been studying how the brain processes clutter for 20 years.

From the start of our interview, Professor Kastner wants to make two things clear: Not all clutter is bad. And our brains can deal with it.

The media, Kastner says, often writes about clutter in a very simple, black-and-white way: Clutter affects the mind and we need to clear it out. But Kastner says it is much more complex than that. For starters, she says, our brains are designed to deal with clutter.

"Clutter is all around us -- all the time -- as soon as we open our eyes. And the fact that we do not perceive it as that...just speaks to this enormous capability that we have to deal with it."

Kastner uses a Christmas tree as an example. When we see a Christmas tree, we know what it is -- a sign of the winter holiday season. We do not need to see each separate item hanging on the tree to understand this.

Dr. Sabine Kastner teaches an 8th grade class in Mumbai, India about how the brain works, Nov. 22, 2019.
Dr. Sabine Kastner teaches an 8th grade class in Mumbai, India about how the brain works, Nov. 22, 2019.

Kastner says very early in the development of our eyesight, we begin to group objects that we see. This helps us to structure our environment. She explains that it helps us sort out anything that is not necessary.

"The attention system in our brains actually likes clutter because that is what it is used to. And it is using this cluttered environment to make meaningful selections from it."

Not one size fits all

When we talk about clutter and how best our brains perform around it, Kastner says there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The idea that an uncluttered workplace is better, she says, is not "universally true."

Kastner says some people need to see their work. If something is carefully put away, to them it does not exist anymore. Out of sight, out of mind. For other people, objects can stimulate their creativity and give them ideas.

"Then there are other people who actually like that clutter. And they, you know, clutter their environment because it actually helps them. It almost like stimulating their brain to do something."

However, other people are unable to work in a cluttered environment. Kastner notes that some people may get distracted by having lots of things around them. These people may need more organization and less clutter to work well.

Some people do not care either way. Whether the area is cluttered or clear -- they work the same.

And for others it may depend on the project. For administrative work, they might need a clear workspace. But for more creative projects, they may need many things around them.

Like Kastner said earlier, it is complex.

However, on one thing, she is very clear: One way is not better than another. People need to be able to design their workspaces, she says, in a way that works best for them.

"But again I think it's important to take this all into consideration when you create workspaces because you need to give people, I think, the individual choices -- whatever serves them best."

To know how your brain reacts to clutter, Kastner says you need to take an honest look at your home and work environments. What is working and what is not? If your home or office is cluttered and you cannot find anything, you may need more organizing. However, if your house or office is cluttered but you can find everything you need – then perhaps your brain works fine around clutter.

Kastner gives this warning: Do not continue doing something that is not working for you.

She has another warning: We should not blame clutter for all of our stress and lack of productivity. There could be many issues involved in both.

Now, if you are wondering which way Kastner prefers...she likes clutter! Both at home and at work. In fact, she says she feels sad if her workspace is too clean.

"But I know a lot of people who really need clear workspaces. Those would be spaces that would depress me. I would never excel in spaces like that. But I know that there are people who really excel in these spaces. So, they are just different from me. I think that's great and that's wonderful."

Kastner says our brains are all so different and that is what makes us who we are.

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report. I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

clutter – n. a crowded or confused mass or collection

interview – n. to question or talk with (someone) to get information

perceive – n. to attain awareness or understanding of

capability – n. the ability to do something

selection – n. the act of choosing something or someone from a group

stimulate – v. to excite to activity or growth or to greater activity

distracted – adj. having one's thoughts or attention drawn away : unable to concentrate or give attention to something

prefer – v. to like better or best

depress – adj. to be low in spirits