Hoarder gene may prove deadly

RO CAMBRIDGE
Last updated 11:48 29/01/2013

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Is your kitchen drawer a repository of half-empty matchboxes, bits of string, rubber bands, jar lids, screws, dried-up ballpoint pens, corks and bottle caps, unidentified keys, scraps of Christmas paper and those little scribble pads that real estate agents send you?

If so, you may carry the recently identified hoarder gene. Researchers believe that the gene is a legacy of our Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors and affects the behaviour of a significant proportion of the modern population.

People in whom the gene is dominant are strongly predisposed to collect objects from their environment and store them as a hedge against future shortage or calamity.

Thousands of years ago, this gene prompted useful survival behaviours like gathering plant materials for food, fire and shelter, and hunting wild animals for meat and clothing. Ironically, in the 21st century, it seems the gene may actually be endangering our personal survival.

Commentators cite the example of a Las Vegas woman whose body (crushed under piles of junk in her home) was not uncovered until four months after she'd been reported missing - in spite of the fact that police sniffer dogs had searched the house and that her husband still lived in it.

But the gene may prove fatal to more than just humankind: scientists postulate that it may be the hidden driver of the rampant consumerism which threatens the planet.

Complex and expensive genetic testing is the only certain way to determine if an individual is carrying the hoarder gene. However, scientists have developed behavioural tests which are easy to administer and almost as accurate.

The kitchen drawer question above is just one of 100 questions on the hoarder gene discovery and screening tool. Other questions include: "Can you still walk into your walk-in pantry?"; How many pairs of reading glasses do you own?"; "Is there enough room in your garage to park a car?"; "How old were you when you began renting space in an off-site storage facility?"; "Are you plagued by irrational thoughts (seldom/sometimes/frequently) that arson may be the only way to declutter your (sitting room/home office/dog's kennel)?"

All research points to the fact that the gene (and the behavioural pattern associated with it) is very widely distributed, although bearers of the gene are more highly represented in some human populations than others.

For example, a recent local study has revealed that almost all stallholders and shoppers at Nelson's Sunday Market carry the gene. A similar study completed at Founder's Book Fair, local op shops and recycle centres turned up similar results.

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In fact, the hoarder gene is thought to be so ubiquitous that as many as 75 per cent of shoppers at big-box stores may be operating under its influence.

I would really like to live in the pristine and clutter-free way they do in magazines but I've never been able to. I've never been able to achieve a home with soothingly blank walls, acres of pale unruffled carpet and a single artfully arranged totem on the gleaming coffee table.

I haven't been able to restrict myself to one small, impeccably curated, perfectly stacked collection of books. And now I know why. It's relief to know it's not my fault . . . it's all caused by the hoarder gene.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. I am descended from a long line of East End market traders, bargain-hunters and op-shoppers.

My grandmother was a hunter and gatherer until well into her 70s, arriving home from daily rambles with a handbag full of lollies filched from the pick'n'mix counter at Woolworths or oddities picked up at a local auction house: a rusted tobacco tin full of old postage stamps, a doorstop in the shape of spaniel, a collection of tiny bird's eggs tucked into a bed of cotton wool or a packet of hair nets and some sheet music.

I was musing on this topic while at the library the other day when a copy of Oprah Winfrey's magazine caught my eye. Air-brushed to within an inch of her life, Oprah beamed from the cover urging readers to "Declutter Your Life" and promising guidance on "Saying Goodbye to the Stuff that's Weighing You Down" and "What to Keep and What to Toss".

I'm still reeling from the discovery that the authors of the promised articles seem to be carriers of the hoarder gene in its most rampant form.

How else to explain Claire, with a display rack of 50 matching bras and underpants in her bedroom? Or Brooke, purring over the clever cabinet which holds 125 pairs of shoes? Or Elena, happily posing with 300 scarves?

And what about Martha, who under the heading "Expert Advice, Insight, Really Smart Moves" explains how, on the eve of a business trip, she went to an all-night pharmacy and bought "travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner, a tiny tube of toothpaste, three packs of gum, two bottles of nail polish, extra reading glasses, three candy bars, a scented candle, six dog toys, five nutritional supplements and two pens - one shaped like a cactus and one that lights up in six colours". And then declares this to be proof that her "Putting Your Purchases on Pause" technique really works because she didn't shop at the mall or an expensive boutique.

I feel duty bound to warn Oprah about this terrible undiagnosed condition among her staff. I'll be sending her a home genetic testing kit and a copy of the hoarder gene discovery and screening tool - just as soon as I've ordered this amazing bookcase I read about in Oprah's magazine: it converts into a very serviceable coffin when the reader reaches THE END.

- Nelson

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