8 Reasons Why Collecting Things You Love Is Good for Your Brain

 

People collect many types of things, for many reasons. My choice is rhinos—that is, rhino figurines. It’s an odd thing to collect, I guess, judging from the bemused reactions I get when guests see them perched around my house. I’d like to say I began accumulating them to support their protection (they are in danger of extinction), but that wasn’t it. My interest started after I saw them up close for the first time 15 years ago, from inside my car at Lion Country Safari in Florida.

Currently on display in my home are small rhinos made of wood, metal, plastic, ceramic, rubber, glass, and hematite (a mineral). I have adult rhinos, baby rhinos, rhinos standing, and rhinos lying down asleep. I also have a rhino eraser, a pen with a rhino head, a rhino Christmas ornament, a bobblehead rhino, a rhino wine stopper, a rhino ring-toss game, and four T-shirts and one pair of shoes emblazoned with rhino images.

My passion for rhinos is due partly to my appreciation of irony, which is in ample supply for this animal. The rhino looks like a dinosaur but is a mammal (and a mammal with staying power—it’s been around for 60 million years). It looks like a powerful killing machine but is a vegetarian. Its horns look like large bones, yet they’re made of the same stuff as fingernails (keratin). Rhinos can weigh more than 5,000 pounds and they have stubby legs, yet they can run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

But there are many reasons other than irony for building a collection. We collect things simply because we like them, or to preserve the past (antiques and heirloom photos), or as investments (gold, fine wines, vintage cars). As collections grow, they become a personal history that can take on more prominence with each new addition. “Collecting can ground you in the present while giving you a sense of the past,” notes writer Jane Dagmi.

8 Ways Collecting (Within Reason) Can Benefit Our Brains…and Our Lives

Compulsive hoarders who can’t seem to throw anything away have a serious problem. One’s choice of collectible may also reveal an eccentricity or two. I met a woman who had collected so many antique cookie jars that she’d installed special shelves for them that spanned every wall in her house. An acquaintance has an apartment filled with snow globes, creating a permanent wintry feel in his home.

For typical collectors, here are 8 reasons why their hobby is good for them:

1. Builds observational skills. You tend to become more cognizant of details in the things you collect, which can make you a better finder and seeker in general. Objects and their features that might have been lost in the background before you became a collector will stand out, bridging the gap between unknown and known. As a boy I had a vast collection of toy animals that I would bring outside to “live” in the desert (my sandbox), a lake (birdbath), or the jungle (under rhododendron leaves). Having these creatures made me want to find out more about the real-life versions, and I spent hours poring through the family set of illustrated encyclopedias. My interest and growing knowledge evolved into a love of nature hikes…and a knack for being the first to spot wildlife on a walk.

2. Improves organizational thinking. Collections often call for sorting into categories, whether it be stamps or coins…or rhinos (for example, in order of horn length). This can translate into more productive thinking in other tasks, especially when studying for tests and doing research for school papers or work projects.

3. Enhances pattern recognition. Categorizing objects enhances our ability to recognize common characteristics and detect gaps in a pattern. As Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein wrote in Psychology Today, “the collector also knows the surprise of finding something that doesn’t fit the collection pattern: Is the mismatch a fake? An exception? Something that belongs in another collection? Broken patterns are often the ones that teach us the most by challenging our preconceptions and expectations.”

4. Awakens a desire for knowledge. Just realizing how much information is out there on any subject can give you a greater thirst for learning itself. Knowing a lot about any one thing provides a reassuring sense of command in that subject, which is both useful and great for self-esteem.

5. Inspires creativity. Artists and writers often collect things that they find either visually stimulating or that trigger feelings of connection between different elements. The simple forms in the artwork of Spanish artist Joan Miró, for example, were influenced by objects he picked up and saved during walks, including stones, driftwood, and seashells. According to creativity researcher Shelley Carson, Ph.D., author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life (Jossey-Bass), “Creativity is the act of taking bits of information—from your internal store of memories, knowledge, and skills or from the external environment—and combining and recombining them in novel and original ways to come up with a new idea or product that serves a purpose.”

6. May forge a commitment to a good cause. Prominently displaying certain types of collections can remind us of important causes and even lead us to actively support them. Learning about rhinos certainly led me to donate to preservation efforts, as well as raise awareness about their plight.

7. Fosters social connections. Finding others with a common interest can provide an instant icebreaker, as well as an opportunity to share a passionate interest. Great friendships often sprout from common ground.

8. And may pave the way to a career. Kids who collect rocks may become geologists. Those who collect postcards from other countries may become travel writers or foreign correspondents. My favorite example is a certain 19th-century student at the University of Cambridge who liked to collect beetles. This interest nurtured a fascination with all living things and became the focus of his life’s work. His name: Charles Darwin.

Do you have an unusual collection? Feel free to share your passion with our readers by commenting about it below. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find a place to display my new rhinos.

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8 Comments

  • Tara Green
    Posted May 1, 2014 6:44 am 0Likes

    Wonderful article, Ed! And I love that you’re a Tigers fan.

  • Ray
    Posted May 2, 2014 9:03 pm 1Likes

    Who knew such a simple hobby could have so many benefits! This is a great look at how a seemingly unimportant passion/interest can offer complementary advantages. Makes me admire those like you who have kept to their collections for years on end!

  • Sharon Ray
    Posted May 9, 2014 5:18 pm 1Likes

    I collect Wizard of Oz and for a few years now I’ve been doing two Wizard of Oz collectors blogs. I can not put into words the joy I get from collecting and doing the blogs. And how many things I’ve learned through Oz while doing research for my blog. The Smithsonian, Thomas Kinkade, jewelry of all kinds, dolls (my favorite subject), the history of Hallmark and most recently Dylan’s Candy Bar. I absolutely love the research part of it. And learning about the Wizard of Oz in general. So many facets and such a rich history. I’m really glad you did this article and I enjoyed reading about the rhinos. I like seeing what else people are into. And the article is a wonderful argument for collectors who are stuck around people that just don’t understand. Thank you!

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  • tammy
    Posted July 15, 2015 8:43 am 0Likes

    I love this!

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  • Anand
    Posted March 23, 2016 4:49 pm 0Likes

    I loved your post on collecting. I collect research data in PDF format. I am not too concerned if my collection has financial returns or not. I just love to do research.

  • Regina
    Posted March 6, 2018 6:56 pm 0Likes

    Great article, I was trying to think of reasons why collecting things is so important and the only thing I could come up with was that many collections preserve history, but I think everything you listed is spot on! Collections are fascinating and I’m glad people have all kinds of them.

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