Serious Collectors: Genius or Madness?

Neither collector nor minimalist, I am suddenly interested in the psychological aspects of collecting. On a recent visit to a friend’s house, I was impressed and almost overwhelmed by his extensive collections of miniature guns.


I was also taken with his passion for the subject and listened patiently as he extolled the virtues of certain items. An otherwise sane and interesting man, I wondered where and why this passion for collecting started and became such an important fixture in his life. And in trying to figure this out, I uncovered a treasure-trove of information.


Not a recent phenomenon, collectors have been around from early days (rock collectors?) to today. As our world has become more sophisticated, so have the items, tools, and reasons people save stuff.

 When I started researching the subject, I discovered that lots of sane, balanced folks collect stuff for a variety of reasons. When I try to find a certain pattern in most collectors, I cannot find an overall common thread. Collectors acquire their precious items for almost as many reasons that there are precious items. And precious is certainly in the eyes of the beholder.

 For people who collect, the value of their collections is emotional. Ranging from connecting themselves to a period or to a time they feel strongly about to the thrill of the hunt, the reasons for a developing a passion for collecting differs in each individual. The commonality, however, is it seems collecting is a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be completed. My friend Linda finds her joy by walking shorelines all over the world, head down, seeking sea glass pieces. She ignores the casinos, the lures of the waves, intent on stumbling upon her next glass find. Her home is filled with displays of sea glass, each with a story of its own.

 Recently speaking with another avid collector, Ron Phillips, I learned more about the utter passion collectors feel about their collections. His most recent and probably most beloved collection is miniature working guns. His extensive collections are displayed throughout his home and he can talk about them in detail for a very long time, passion exposed in every sentence. He not only collects them now but also manufactures them. He has taken his collection passion to a whole new level.

The big news

But quirkiness aside, there is ample evidence that collectors are on to something when it comes to brain health. Apparently, the skills and concentration involved in collecting can establish neural connections which may transfer to other important survival skills.

Really. Collecting can make you smarter! According to Ed Decker in “8 Reasons Collecting Things you Love is Good For Your Brain,” he lists ways the connection between serious collectors and improved brain function works: For example:

  • Collecting awakens a desire for knowledge. Thiscan transfer to many areas of interest, broadening horizons. Just realizing how much information is out there on any subject can promote 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. 
  • Builds observational skills. Concentrating on the collection’s details makes the brain become more cognizant of details in the items collected. Little details, previously unnoticed, now come into sharper focus with better tuned observational skills.

 Inspires creativity. According to Ed Decker, “Artists and writers often collect things that they find either visually stimulating or things) 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. “And combining and recombining them in novel and original ways to come up with a new idea or product that serves a purpose.”

Learning more about the motivation for collectors to collect offers great insight into the workings of our often-mysterious brain functions. As science expands the connection between collectors and genius, an indisputable link may prove the links between the two.

What a validation for me! I collect refrigerator magnets, and according to my kids, to excess. “Nah”, say I, “I am a genius-in-training.”


written by Donna Powell



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