Disney fans might be some of the biggest collectors out there – whether its autographs, mugs, pins (my personal obsession and even the subject of this paper) or memorabilia of all sorts (looking at you, John Stamos). Disney has definitely capitalized on human tendency to want to collect things. But why do we collect?
Let’s Ask Neuroscience
Fundamentally, the reason that we do anything is because we receive a reward – typically a release of the neurotransmitter (which is just another name for a chemical in the brain) called dopamine – for doing something that satisfies a need. For example, when we eat Dole Whip, in addition to our digestive system breaking down the fats and sugars of the vegan soft-serve treat, our brain releases several molecules of dopamine that make us feel happy. The same kind of reward likely (I haven’t’ found any research studies looking at brains of collectors) occurs when a collector acquires a new item for his or her collection, which reinforces collecting as a desirable behavior.
Dopamine is also released during the process of expecting a reward. Based on studies with rats learning to obtain food, scientists at the University of Michigan found increased levels of dopamine in the mesolimbic area of rats’ brains in the steps leading up to receiving a pellet of sugar, including during the time in which the rat was literally taking steps towards the other side of the cage where the sugar was located. So dopamine in this area increases once I begin on writing a paper because the goal state of the paper being finished is that much closer. Is it possible that the same kind of process is at work during the several steps of collecting?
Much of our understanding of collecting comes from what we know about when collecting goes a step too far (have I used enough step colloquialisms yet?) and turns into hoarding. Hoarding is defined as collecting that interferes with an ability to use a room for its intended purpose. A few theories have been put forth as to why people start, continue, and find it hard to stop hoarding and dopamine plays a role here too.
One of the theories that seems to explain the other theories attributes hoarding behavior to differences in brain activity that underlie deficits in decision-making. The areas of the brain that are responsible for decision-making are found in the front-most part, called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is connected with many other parts of the brain, including dopamine pathways. However, exactly how the prefrontal cortex differentially affects dopamine changes in the mesolimbic area for hoarders versus collectors is not yet well understood.
Even though we know what parts of the brain are involved in hoarding and a little bit about how dopamine works in rats trying to obtain rewards, this isn’t quite the whole story about why we collect. Before we had fancy brain scanning techniques to study dopamine changing second by second, researchers used interviews to figure out why people are motivated to collect. Some of the most common reasons for collecting were:
1. Arranging and re-arranging – I think this is one of the biggest reasons I collect pins. I love figuring out how I want to display them either on pin boards or lanyards to take into the parks whether the lanyard is meant for trading with others or to just engender conversations with other park-goers.
2. Social interaction as a result of collecting – The joy I get from arranging my pins ties into the social motivation of collecting through the conversations and memories I’ve made in the parks as a result of collecting pins but there are also lots of online and in-person communities to join and interact with for each unique collection. With so many Disney fans, every collector is bound to find someone to show off to or discuss with.
3. Competition and status over others – But there is another side to the social interaction that motivates other collectors who enjoy when they sense that they have moved up in the ranks of best collection. Bragging about acquiring a rare find for a great deal can make for a good story but also has effects on the storyteller’s and the listener’s dopamine pathways.
4. Investing – There are several Disney collectors who purchase rare items so they can sell them for a profit later. Often this can coincide with being motivated by acquiring knowledge of a particular kind of collection – more expert collectors know when to buy and sell items in a collection to turn the most profit and receive the greatest monetary and neural reward.
4. Sentimental value – Like most good souvenirs, items in a collection may have been rewarding to the collector because of the emotions or memory connected with them, whether past or future – some collectors collect because they want to leave a legacy and know that their items will live on past them. My personal pin collection is not solely for this reason. I deliberately try not to buy things just for them to remind me of one trip in particular and I often trade for pins rather unceremoniously with strangers on the Internet, but the act of finding a trading partner, going to the post office to mail a pin, and checking the tracking status of my incoming pin are most definitely ensuring that I will do it again and again.
So why do we collect? It could be any or all of the reasons I’ve discussed today. Or maybe we’re just following in Walt’s footsteps – he was quite the collector after all. Maybe we should examine the dopamine pathways left in his brain after all of these years…
What do you collect and why do you enjoy collecting? Let me know in the comments below and thanks for reading!