If you’re wondering why it’s a smart idea to declutter your life and home, then consider this: Clutter is not just a physical problem but a mental one as well. You may not know it, but the pile next to your dresser is legitimately competing for your attention against the pile outside of your closet door! And it’s getting it. Attention that could be going to you or your family! The problem with all of that visual overstimulation is it’s causing “mental decline and decreased sharpness1.” Let me give you the lowdown on this nerdiness.
The Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI) did a study back in 2011 where they cluttered up a visual space with a bunch of stuff to see how the visual cortex and the brain see it…or if they do at all. The results, which seem so obvious as I was reading it, found that the visual system is limited in how much it can process under these overstimulating conditions2 Even if the people were able to see the extra visual clutter, the brain was no longer able to retain the primary information. The brain couldn’t pull both things off at 100%. Your brain has to multi-task to take in so much visual clutter and it is just as exhausting for your brain as multi-tasking is. Now, before I continue:
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Which brings me back to the mental decline it’s causing you. This finding was from research compiled by the author of Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy, and Focus, where Chapman combined 30 friggin’ years of her own research into helping us amp up our brain power. I found another study that validated it! Stanford Professor, Clifford Nass, founded an entire lab, CHIMe Lab, dedicated to researching the effects of multi-tasking on the brain since more and more people seem to think it’s some amazing skill3.]! Wrong.
- When you have clutter in your house, your brain is multi-tasking to focus on something
- You’re probably trying to focus on anything but the clutter though, like your child, a phone call, or the dinner you’re cooking
- You actually become worse at keeping mental information organized, like where you put your kid’s permission slip and their scarf while trying to find your keys you just set down
- Switching back and forth between tasks becomes difficult, so you probably forget that you were even looking for a scarf and leave without it
- Imagine trying to go to school, remember appointments, or even recall stuff you already knew
- At the end of the day, you feel exhausted even if you haven’t really done anything because…cortisol
Cortisol starts to pump when you’re stressed. All that clutter and stuff you keep forgetting now is stressful. First, it’s self-perpetuating, which means that having increases in it cause the brain to get used to to it and use it more often out of habit. Second, cortisol causes one part of the brain to deteriorate, the hippocampus for all you nerds out there like me, which is what controls learning, memory, and stress control. Does Alzheimer’s disease ring a bell? Finally, it can cause the prefrontal cortex to shrink, which controls your concentration, how we make decisions, our judgement calls, and socializing. What about depression? Anybody?4
I can’t help but add in my own two cents. I mean, I do have a few degrees, so I think I’m pretty smart. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say there is also a link between those whose lives became cluttered before they ever began multi-tasking. I, personally, didn’t multi-task my whole life. I’ve always been busy, but not multi-tasking. If I had to pinpoint when the last time I remembered living a life of single-tasking, it would have to be before this phase of my life started. When I cleaned…I cleaned. When I cooked…that’s what I was doing. If I was chatting with someone…no one bothered me. But, before my last degree started, my Orderly Other and I had just moved in together, and the clutter factor that I had spent years dwindling down had just been reignited!
So, I had the clutter first. Then I had everything vying for my attention while I worked hard to sort through all of this stuff. And I feel like me trying to gain control over the clutter has caused me to multi-task more frequently! I’m constantly working at getting our possessions down to what is actually important, useful, or simply beautiful and, in the meantime, am not very effective with it all. How to reverse it? I have no idea yet…but when I figure it out, I will be sure to let you know my findings.
But, this is for anybody…regardless of working status, parent status, pet status, or relationship status: You need to get your home under control before you rewire your brain into one hot, forgetful mess! I, just like you I’m sure, just want the time and the focus to start with the basics of getting rid of a bunch of junk because it bothers me everyday. But you should know, just like I know, that it is attainable. Retraining ourselves to do one task at a time, declutter one space at a time, focus on one problem at a time will ultimately leave us more productive, tidier, calmer, and with less to do cause we did it right the first time! We’ve got this. Just take this info as the proof in the pudding that simplifying your life isn’t just about a pretty scene…it’s about mental health too and healthy habits!
Check my sources…
- Chapman, S. B. (2013). Why single-tasking makes you smarter. ↩
- McMains, S., & Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience : The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(2), 587–597. http://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-10.2011. ↩
- Public Broadcasting System (Producer). (2009, December 1). Interview Clifford Nass [Interview Transcript ↩
- Borelli, L. (2015). Stress and the brain: high cortisol levels can damage brain structure, cognitive function. ↩