Domestic Workers Week is 5th – 11th November – a time to celebrate all those people who work hard to keep our Harfield houses (and our minds) in good working order. So what can neuroscience tell us about having a clean and tidy home?
By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.
According to a recent article in MindShift Ninja by Ayla Khosroshahi, keeping our homes clean, tidy and free from clutter reflects a healthy state of mind. We have all seen or heard about those TV programmes that document hoarders, or how dirty people’s homes can get before they call in the experts to help! Often, people who allow their homes to descend into extreme untidiness have an underlying mental health issue that needs to be resolved – they might feel too stressed and busy, or depressed by previous unresolved traumas, too tired to clean up. Piles of dirty laundry, dishes, and papers are endless to-dos for the brain. It’s exhausting, stress maintaining, and inhibits the brain’s ability to focus and make good decisions. This is where domestic workers become more than just cleaners for our homes – after a visit from our domestic worker, pay attention to how good they make us feel and how easier it is to think with a cleaner, tidier home! As such, a domestic worker can almost be regarded in the same light as a therapist! Our home environment can truly set the scene for our mental activity from morning until night every day! But what can neuroscience and brain processes tell about what is happening when we de-clutter our homes?
Ayla Khosroshahi of MindShift continues, “From your computer desktop, to your car, to your fridge – clutter is clutter and it affects you, whether you consciously see it or not. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) [have] mapped the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli. The research concluded that optimal focus and information processing requires a clutter-free home and work environment. The research illustrated that a decluttered and organized home and office can help you to be more calm, productive, happier and focused”. So neuroscience confirms that a clean and tidy home also makes for a clean and tidy brain! In particular, it is suggested that 5 major things happen in the brain when living with a cluttered, dirty house:
Overload: When things are all over the place and there are piles of dishes to clean, clothes to iron, and many things to finish or tidy up, our brain becomes ‘cognitively overloaded’ with information – conflicting cleaning and fixing goals around the house compete for attention, thus overloading our visual processing system and preventing us from visualising other (better) goals, such as career and life goals, going for a nice meal or planning to have friends over for supper. According to the ‘bottleneck’ theory of attention, our visual system can attend to only a limited amount of information, so as Ayla Khosroshahi confirms, less clutter around the home definitely means more for the mind.
Stress: Having an untidy home with conflicting tasks that never get done can lead to an increased release of cortisol (the stress hormone), which disrupts normal homeostasis (equilibrium) in the body and mind. This can lead to unhealthy habits such as eating unheathy food in order to temporarily feel better, oversleeping, binge-watching TV in order to avoid ones household duties or becoming reclusive and anti-social. Over time, stress can lead to anxiety and depression, with the adoption of unhealthy mental coping strategies, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Time perception: When there are too many unfinished jobs around the house to pay attention to, it can feel as though there is not enough time to get things done. Alternatively, if one’s house is ordered, clean and tidy, it will usually feel as though there is extra time to do all the other great things available to do in life – when one feels calm, time seems to pass much slower, and much more pleasantly.
Numbness: Due to the overwhelming nature of a cluttered, dirty house that never gets clean and tidy, it can sometimes be easier to adopt mental defense mechanisms – avoidance, denial and even ambivalence (“it’s not that bad”). Norms become shifted in the mind, and soon a person is able to accept the new status quo of a dirty, untidy home. This in turn can affect our own appearance and standards of personal hygiene, and also how we relate and interact with other people. Numbness can lead to shutting down from the outside world and the positive influence of other people in one’s life.
Resistance to change: Living in a dirty, untidy space that becomes the norm can lead a person to resist any form of change. The world becomes rigid and fixed, and a person can go on living habitually doing the same thing for years without personal growth or self-improvement, and indeed – without the necessary help of a domestic worker – an increasingly untidy, dirty home. In terms of resistance to changing a dirty, untidy house with unfinished jobs there are three possible categories. The first is cultural – a person thinks that they can do what they want with their space, who should tell them what to do? The second is personal – what good will a tidy house do for them, what’s the benefit for them of making any effort? And finally, intellectual – related to numbness, a person living in a dirty, untidy house might not even make the connection that their house is dirty or untidy.
It is very helpful for personal development and optimal mental health to consider if any of the above apply! Reflecting on these issues may help to improve our living environments and lead lives with better all-round mental health. So what are the ways that one can avoid this downward spiral towards a dirty, disorganised home and mind? According to Ayla Khosroshahi in the article The Neuroscience of Spring Cleaning, we should think in terms of a two-step process: declutter and reorganise. To declutter, go through everything in your house room by room: clothes in the wardrobe, magazines stacked up in spare rooms, old bits-and-bobs saved for a rainy day, or to fix later on. Then, use post-it-notes to decide whether to keep, trash or donate (maybe to one’s domestic worker, if it’s still good quality). And only keep or donate things that truly add value to your life or to someone elses – don’t try too hard to convince yourself of an item’s value – if you need to convince yourself, it’s probably not so valuable! After the declutter, look again at your living or working space and don’t fall into the re-clutter trap! Use your new space to do fresh new things, and spend time reflecting on how the new space makes life feel better and new possibilities possible!
Maybe take time during Domestic Worker’s Week this year to donate more valuable things in your house to your invaluable domestic worker– who has likely been making life better all these years, and perhaps even maintaining sanity! So let’s remember to say a big thank you to the Domestic Workers of Harfield Village!
Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.