I’ve always had the kind of room that’s slightly messy, enough to be permissible in the eyes of a guest, but also enough to bring my mother grief when she visits.
When I’m slammed with work, my room gradually decays into a pile of bed sheets, laundry, coffee cups, and papers; All physical manifestations of my psychological state, and my room points to one thing: Stress.
What’s cool about rooms is that they say more about us than we think they do, and surprisingly, there’s a whole academic discipline dedicated to exploring the relationship between people and their places. The discipline ranges from urban planning to philosophy, collectively comprising place theory or environmental psychology.
A cleanliness spectrum can be derived from the states of living spaces, moving from compulsive hoarding disorder to methodical messiness. The research behind this stuff is pretty compelling.
Compulsive hoarding disorder is a psychological condition characterized by a deep-seated attachment to large quantities of objects that dominate the space of a home. Though it might be viewed as something taboo and laughable, hoarders are just like us — they suffer from anxiety, over-attachment, co-dependency and depression. Some hoarders even have cognitive deficiencies that hinder their ability to properly categorize things in their life, which is sometimes diagnosed as a symptom of OCD.
James Gibson, a contemporary psychologist, maintains a theory of affordances, which propounds the idea that an affordance is what an object allows its user to do with it, usually in the form of fulfilling a personal need; for example, a door knob affords twisting, while a cord affords pulling.
The ravaged mental health of hoarders filter their perception of certain objects’ affordances — you might see a plastic bag as affording you the ability to carry your groceries, but a hoarder might see its affordance as a support system for his emotional and mental stability.
We all have an emotionally filtered perception of objects’ affordances, though they might not be extreme. I keep movie tickets and receipts because I see them affording me periodic reminiscence when I think about the people I was with when I watched that movie or ate that In-N- Out burger.
The research behind methodical messiness is the greatest comeback for all the teenagers who never wanted to clean their room.
A recent study found that messy desks stimulate creative activity. Kathleen Vohs, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, found that a disorderly environment releases its inhabitant from conventionality, whereas a tidy environment seems to compel its inhabitant to remain within something familiar. This pattern is likely due to the notions associated with keeping a clean or messy room — it’s normal for a parent to yell at his children to clean their rooms.
Cleanliness is linked to notions of propriety, respect, and responsibility, whereas messiness is condemned to be a trait related to neglect, laziness, and sluggishness.
Kathleen Vohs’ research has proved that messiness could be beneficial for one’s creativity capacity. The researchers instructed participants to find different uses for a ping pong ball, only to find that those who were in a messy room figured out more creative uses than those who were in a tidy room.
Urban planning theory has a lot to say about this finding, with the idea of “loose spaces” by environmental psychologists Karen Franck and Quentin Stevens. Humans ‘loosen’ a space (park, plaza, parking lot) in order to fulfill their personal needs (think of people using grass for picnics or staircase steps for a musical performance). Many spaces possess a particular kind of physical feature that “invites people to appropriate them for their own uses.” So, in terms of Vohs’ research, a messy room invites creativity, while a clean room invites conventionality.
Innumerable factors play into these patterns, ranging from social customs to familial relations to cultural upbringings and more.
The way urban planners design our public spaces are strikingly similar to the way we ‘design’ our rooms without knowing it — creative individuals might not care as much about space cleanliness than those who think logically, conventionally, and practically. It must be noted that this correlation found between creative action and messy rooms does not prove causation — having a messy room won’t make you a creative genius. Though it can give you a creative genius aesthetic.