Marie Kon-Don’t: Your Brain on Self-Control

What Marie Kondo’s cleaning madness teaches us about neuroscience 

By Divya Radhakrishnan and Emilee

Popularized by Marie Kondo, the ‘KonMari’ method has grabbed interest on both sides of the Pacific. The latest craze was sparked by the Netflix series that records her attempt to improve domestic bliss in American families (Figure 1). In 8 short episodes – and 5 “where are they now” video clips, Marie sells the idea of self-control in managing the stress caused by the mess of past shopping expeditions.

Much has been written about her recent success. Some attribute it to the Netflix effect, while others chalk it up to the turn of the year. And then there are those who attribute it to the psychological principles that underpin Marie’s methods – just as they did in 2015, when the KonMari method first gained global attention. This may not be too far off the mark, considering Marie Kondo herself shared on Twitter that the presence of a plan helps us keep to our resolutions

Figure 1: Worldwide search interest for “Marie Kondo” for the 12 months ending 3 March 2019. According to Google Trends, four of the top 10 countries belong to what we classify as “the global South”: Singapore, Argentina, Malaysia, Uruguay. 

But these musings aren’t new. There is sound neuroscience behind the Konmari method, and nearly every other organizing hack that we know. 

The Neuroscience of Tidying Up: Clearing Mess Frees Our Brain

  1. Mess causes Stress

According to research by Princeton University, mess overloads our visual systems, thereby creating stress. (The visual system refers to the part of the central nervous system that enables us to process the things we see.)

Typically, our local neural networks deal with it by grouping similar items together, thus allowing our homeowners to find the things they need.

But when Marie makes them take out all of their clothes, shoes, bags, and books, their neural networks get overwhelmed, and the visual cue causes stress to go through the roof. The cascade of stress hormones triggers the fight-or-flight response. Chemically-speaking, epinephrine triggers an adrenaline rush, and cortisol keeps the body revved up (and in spring-cleaning mode) until the mess gets to manageable levels.

  1. Greater rewards lead to better-formed habits

When Marie asks homeowners to identify what sparks joy, she is asking them to define their intrinsic value of tidying up. Finding what sparks joy leads to a habit, but how?

Computational methods are particularly useful in understanding this. One such method is

reinforcement learning, which according to Richard Sutton and Andrew Barto, is about “learning what to do… so as to maximize a numerical reward signal”.

As the homeowners tidy, they explore what items spark joy, and what don’t. By doing this, they learn how to maximize their reward signal; and as it becomes more natural, tidying-up turns into a habit.

  1. For greater success at tidying up, start with things that you don’t love

Marie has a prescribed order: starting with clothes/shoes and ending with sentimental items. This is smart because the habit created by spring-cleaning clothes and shoes acts as a defense against the “pain” of tidying up.

Clearing off sentimental items triggers the anterior cingulate cortex and insula (parts of the brain) in the same way that the sensation of pain does. Researchers came to this conclusion by observing hoarders, as they feel an emotional connection to everything, and think of themselves as indecisive. Hoarders also seem to have a pathological tendency to over-eat according to other research – clearly, a case of one bad habit begets another one. 

So by following this order, Marie allows the homeowners to acclimatize gradually to higher activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, thus settings the homeowners up for a more successful spring-cleaning session.

Don’t want to be Kondo’d? Be aware of your shopping brains!

Neuroscience research suggests that a network of brain connections is responsible for the inhibition of basic impulsive drives. 

A goal valuation-based model where each goal that helps control instinctive desires are valued together in the vmPFC or the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This allows for competing goals to be valued together. It does not reduce self-control to a single process, or a normative task of top-down processes. So when you go shopping, being goal oriented when evaluating things to buy helps inhibit the drive to purchase. In neuroscience language – self-control is not reduced to a single process or a normative task of top-down processes. Instead, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex’s (vmPFC’s) goal-oriented approach inhibits the drive to purchase by comparing the value of each item.

That’s because our instinctive behaviors are controlled by complex interactions between the cortex and the brain stem in our brains. Fortunately for us, this region is modulated by the prefrontal cortex – otherwise we may indulge in every whim and every instinctive behavior that we feel. For instance, the instinct to run away when faced with a public speaking task. The way our brain stem is wired may force us to run away, but the cortical response keeps us standing. Similarly, when our instinctive nature is exploited during a shopping frenzy, it is the prefrontal cortex that puts on the brakes. 

But first, a caveat: Knowledge about brain activation while shopping or clearing up clutter is illuminating, but can it alone help control our urges? 

Why is Marie Kondo so appealing?

Marie Kondo is not the first to propound these approaches to de-consumption. Her value lies in being able to explain old philosophical methods and wrapping it in a form that is easy to understand and adopt. She clearly has catapulted it to stratospheric levels, by acknowledging and celebrating the Eastern cultural influences behind her method. 

The Buddhist philosophy of detachment or letting go by cutting and throwing away things or dan-sha-ri popularized by Hideko Yamashita essentially speaks the same language. Similar roots of detachment can be found in Hindu texts like the Bhagwad Gita (Chapter 5 Verse 22) of ‘not taking delight in sense objects’. In the Quran a similar reference to the abomination of humankind due to the accumulation of material wealth can be found. 

However, Indian, Arab and African regions don’t seem to have been influenced by the decluttering queen (Ref Figure 1: Google Trends). Do people in this part of the world need a lesson in Neuroscience? Understanding the 3 ways in which clearing up frees our brain to do more productive work and helps us exert some self-control would be helpful. What are they? Mess causes stress, greater rewards lead to better-formed habits so start clearing up the things that give you a high, first; for greater success in tidying-up start with the things you are not sentimental about!   

 References: Level of clutter in the USA, among middle class families“Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices” Sutton, Richard S., and Andrew G. Barto. Reinforcement learning: An introduction. MIT press, 2018.

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