Design & DIY

Whatsits and thingamabobs: the science behind our urge to collect

At my childhood cottage on Keats Island, B.C., collections lived in every corner. Small villages of rocks formed on side tables; jars of green, blue, and brown sea glass winked on the window sill; ferns and flowers dried between book pages. More ambitious acquisitions—a deer skull or an abandoned wasp’s nest—my parents relegated to the porch.

These days, my collections are more on the modest side, consisting primarily of a few stones, shells, driftwood, and an old, rusted railway spike, most of which I keep on a table next to my writing desk.

Everyone is a collector in our small town of Atlin, B.C., which is cottage country to Whitehorse, Yukon. My neighbours’ homes are full of fossils, smooth river stone, and 19th-century gold mining artifacts, often displayed with shrine-like reverence, alongside artwork, family photos, and well-loved books. But it’s not just natural and found objects that we collect. One friend has a collection of gas station giveaway glassware. Others keep long-out-of-print Sears Roebuck catalogues and Harrowsmith magazines. My husband, Robin, takes great pride in his vintage tool collection.

To my mind, there’s something special about cottage collections. Unlike collecting fine art or antiques, there’s little financial incentive to owning a bunch of rocks. Nor is decorating your home with these treasures particularly demonstrative of superior taste. A pocket’s worth of pebbles will hardly win you the admiration of your peers (least of all a fastidious spouse).

So, why do we do it? What’s behind this undeniable impulse to collect?

It’s a topic that intrigued Dr. Shirley M. Mueller, an adjunct associate professor of neurology at Indiana University and a passionate scholar and collector of Chinese export porcelain. Mueller, who owns at least 200 Chinese teapots, recognized that, at times, her collecting behaviour was irrational. “I thought, I’ve been trained in neurology and neuroscience…I need to figure out why I’m doing this.” In her book, Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play, Mueller explores several scientific studies about our need to collect. A desire for novelty plays an important role, and she pointed to one study that sheds light on how our brains respond when they encounter the novel and the unique.

In the Oddball Experiment, a subject is shown a series of ordinary objects while being monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When the subject is shown an “oddball” object, the part of the brain that registers uniqueness lights up. This brain centre, conveniently called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), is full of dopamine-synthesizing neurons, which are part of the reward system, and can influence future behaviour. “When people pick up a stone because it’s prettier or more interesting than the rest of the rocks on the shore, there is a little
bit of stimulation of the novelty centre,” says Mueller.

According to Mueller, our brains may have developed this way because it conferred an evolutionary benefit. If a hunter-gatherer came across a unique object, stimulating their novelty centre, it might lead them to further explore in anticipation of greater reward, at least until they determined whether the object was beneficial or not.

Evolutionary theorists have also suggested that a collection would have signalled an ability to accumulate resources and would therefore help attract a mate. We have come a long way from hunter-gatherer society, and your average, modern-day collector may have any number of reasons for collecting. According to Mueller, some people collect to obtain intellectual satisfaction and mastery. Identifying, researching, and cataloguing requires knowledge, discipline, and a keen eye. Collections may also afford us a heightened sense of control and order. Mueller says collecting can have a “cocoon-like” effect, whereby collectors can find solace and structure, by researching, rearranging, or simply just looking at their pieces.

Children are avid collectors. Studies have found that between 70 and 90 per cent of children collect, often beginning at age six and peaking at 8 to 11 years old. Anyone experiencing their second (or third) childhood, may collect because they enjoyed the hobby in their youth.

In a 2013 study, published by the University of Cincinnati, researchers surveyed more than 10,000 undergraduate students and found that 83 per cent of participants reported collecting items from nature as children. Rocks and stones (78 per cent) were by far the most commonly collected item, followed by shells (42 per cent), leaves (21 per cent), and insects (20 per cent). And those who collected natural objects in childhood were found to have a greater connection to nature as adults.

Mueller also thinks that collections help us connect to a time or place that we love, which to me is the most compelling theory. For instance, my husband collects “jars of smells” filled with fir needles and juniper berries—a single whiff transports you to long summer walks in the alpine. “There’s evidence that shows collecting objects from the natural environment gives you a sense of comfort and stimulates the pleasure centre,” says Mueller.

Like cottages themselves, collections are a personal landscape, a place where our minds, unencumbered by life’s responsibilities, are free to notice the unusual, admire beauty, and return to a child-like appreciation of the world.

My collection of driftwood, shells, and stones encompasses many places—a South Pacific Island, a Yukon railroad, the lakeshore by our home. And when I pick up a smooth stone and roll it in my palm, I’m eight years old again, combing the beaches on Keats Island, sun beating down on my shoulders, searching for my next treasure.

Fiona McGlynn, a frequent Cottage Life contributor, collects zines from the 1960s.

This story originally appeared in the June/July ’22 issue of Cottage Life.

Trinket or treasure?

Your cottage may be packed with old stuff, but how can you tell if any of it is valuable? Frances Botham is the owner of B’s Antiques in Huntsville, Ont., and she’s been in the antiques and collectibles business for more than 30 years.

“I get people that call or email me with pictures of items and ask, ‘What is it, what can we do with it, what’s its value?’” Botham will give her opinion or direct people to specific sites, museums, and auctions that specialize in a particular collectible. “If you get three quotes from different auction services, that will give you a pretty good idea of an item’s value.”

While the internet is a great place to start your search, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask an expert. “Research, talk to people, send emails out with pictures,” said Botham. “Don’t just look it up on Google because it’s highly unlikely you’ll find the exact piece you’re interested in. For example, a particular broach can be worth anywhere from $10 to $1,000, depending on the company and when it was made.”

Trending: 2022 collectibles

Antiques and collectibles may stand the test of time, but some are more sought after than others. Here’s what Frances Botham says collectors are coveting in 2022.

“Primitive” objects
“‘Primitive’ hand-hewn butter bowls from the 1700s–1800s. Some that used to be worth $50 or $100, now go for thousands.”

Kitchen items
“There are all kinds of kitchen collectibles that people are crazy about: wooden paddles, moulds, chopping boards, breadboards. Some of the breadboards have beautiful designs and words, carved by someone 200 years ago with just a knife. All of these things are really collectible now.”

“Basketry is very popular: fishing creels, wool baskets, sewing baskets. Some of the Indigenous-made baskets are astoundingly intricate. People will pay hundreds up to thousands of dollars for them.”

Duck decoys
“Duck decoys were flat for a while, and now they’re really coming back,” said Botham. “True collectors don’t like the ducks that are realistic, they like the rustic ones—crudely painted, crudely carved—they’re great for decoration.”

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