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The Psychology And Philosophy Behind Collecting

AJ Plai


Sigmund Freud theorized that the act of collecting ties back to the time of our toilet training. Freud suggested that the loss of control and what went down the toilet was a traumatic occurrence to us human and thus in our subconscious we develop the desire to collect things as a mean to try to gain back not only control but “possessions” of that which were lost so many years ago.......

O.K. if I tried to rephrase what I just shared in a non-academic language is that we human collect because of the trauma we faced when we couldn’t control and keep our poo poo when we were toddlers - man that sounds pretty bizarre (in a funny and entertaining way - no disrespect to Mr. Freud) while at the same time stirred my brain into thinking really deep about the purpose, the psychology and even the philosophy behind our beloved hobbies of collecting, whether they be fossils, minerals, books, etc.

Thus in this blog, I will attempt to share my thought and theories that are my own take on this particular subject. Though I will have to say in advance before you read that this is in no way an attempt to be academic in nature - just pure ramblings for the purpose of my own amusement and if it turns out to be enlightening then all the better! So here it goes:

**switching on psychological rambling mode**

My perspective and belief is that collecting is an act that is stemmed from our human nature’s instinct that reacts towards “Fear” and “Uncertainty”, and there are quite several motives and psychology behind collecting that I believe support this notion:

Fear of Mortality

A collector collects due to a deep rooted fear of mortality and whether if you will be remembered or leave legacy after you have passed away. We can observe collectors of this type who often will go on to donate collections to public institutions or create museums to exhibit their collections. We as human (at least I believe most of us are anyway) desire to be remembered in some ways and thus our collection or what we have contributed will leave a mark in history and in essence immortalize us with our legacy which is our collections.

Fear of Being Alone

Some collectors start collecting as a mean to seek company of like-minded individuals who share similar passions or to experience acceptance as be part of a unique society, group and culture; for we human are social animals that instinctively seek group safety and social belongings or we become lost and terrified. This motive therefore, is also based on our fear instinct that has been implanted in our psyche.

Fear of Non-Existence

I think it’s probably sensible to assume that we all collect in order to know more about ourselves or to remind us of who we are, our interests, our loves, our passions and our nostalgic pasts. Thus the motive of collecting from this perspective is related to our fear instinct. For to remind of ourselves is to reinforce ourselves that we exist while at the same time reminding us of moments of happiness that make us feel alive - and those moments for collectors are the times we interact with and make ourselves surrounded by the objects of our obsessions. In addition we could say that, the act of building a collection creates a type of blueprint of our inner psyche and of a person’s life through the objects the collector acquired and cherished - the experiences the collector went through in his life. Therefore, the act of collecting is the act of painting a portrait of our life stories and our souls, through objects that speak about our love and fascinations. It reinforces our identity, our memories and our existence.

Fear of Uncertainty & Chaos

Collecting as a mean to create meaning to an otherwise seemingly chaotic world. We as collectors collect by gathering groups of objects that form cohesiveness or relationship between the pieces or to tell a certain story behind those naturally unrelated pieces and thereby forming meaning to the collection. Some collectors form collection in response to certain problems or sense of wonder of the chaos presented in front, and by building a collection the collector is able to tackle that problem. For example, a collector might face the question of “How can I represent the diversity of the Eocene mega fauna of North America?” (problem / chaos) and thus the collector embarks on a collecting quest to gather specimens that would build a complete collection of Eocene North American mega fauna specimens collection (solution / order). The act of collecting creates a collection that in essence, becomes the solution to the collectors dilemma. This, I would also say that is part of our deep rooted human psyche of fear of chaos and the unknown, and thus our instinct is to try to limit the chaos by creating orders (or illusions of order) to an otherwise chaotic world (in our perception at least) much in the same ways as how the early humans banded together, formed groups and created cultures or rituals to face the world’s problems or threats. Collectors on the other hands, tackle the chaos by creating order in the collection and in so doing the collector gains a semblance of power and control over disorganization and chaos.

Fear of the Absence of Aliveness

Collecting is without a doubt, a pleasurable pursuit for collector, whereas an audiophile takes pleasure in listening to music, food connoisseur indulges in the enjoyment food & wine, or art aficionado indulge in art appreciation and possession. We collectors induce our senses of aesthetics and pleasure from acquiring and creating collections of objects in order to feel enjoyment. In a way, this could be viewed as related to our fear instinct because we fear to not being able to feel the pleasurable pursuits in life. For we human feel alive when we experience such pleasures, whether the pleasures be from the indulgence of consumable & wearable objects or simply to possess and be surrounded by the things that give us joy like our collections.

Fear of Powerlessness

Collecting can be viewed as an act that I think came from our hunting instinct - to explore our sense of wonder of the unknown, to challenge the goals of acquisitions of hard-to-find objects; this in my view is in essence “the thrill of the hunt”. This particular collecting mindset is also based on our response to our fear instinct for when we hunt, we transform ourselves from being powerless prey to being powerful hunter and dominators - thus hunting (or in essence collecting) is an act to overcome our fear instinct while the “hunting” and while at the same time the journey of the hunt makes us feel alive. Also, when thinking about this motive I think it makes sense as we tend to see many collectors tend to be drawn to fossils of creatures of great power and ferocity or majestic beauty. For some collectors to possess such specimens make the collectors feel the power of those long dead creatures probably in similar manners in how hunters have trophies of their hunt to show their skills as hunters to overcome such beasts.

Now don’t these reasons and psychology of collecting sound much more appealing than Sigmund Freud’s potty training explanation? But, before some may think that “Collecting = Fear” may seem like a degrading notion at first glance, I present to you my next theory:

**switching on philosophical rambling mode**

Fear of Being just another Animal - Collecting to Transcend Humanity

Despite our instinctual fear that drives us to collect, the act of collecting is also an act of human transcendence and transformation. Some collect objects of power to symbolize the attaining of that power or the conquering of such powerful force that ultimately makes us feel more powerful than who we are without the collection. An act of collecting transform us into more powerful being (whether physically, socially, economically or spiritually): a person with no social distinction or significance can become conservators, scholars and even admired icons of historical significance. Collecting can transform the powerless into the powerful, the ignorant into a scholar, a hoarder into a curator and in many cases, turning common man into sage.

Our fear of mortality, uncertainty and instability of our universe makes us human so special and able to achieve our transcendence from mere creatures of survival instinct into creators, innovators, artists, philosophers or sages. Thus it is the shadow that allows us to appreciate the light; the fear of death that makes us cherish the beauty of life; the brutality of our darkest side that gives rise to the reactionary opposites that make us saints, protectors and self-less beings capable of great courage and heroism.

Therefore, even if the psychology of collecting comes down to “Our Fear of Mortality” (death with no legacy or inability to feel “alive”), “Our Fear of Non-Existence” (due to the lack of social presence, acceptance or without a group to belong); that very fear creates motives for us to have “Desire for Transcendence” into something more than what we are. Thus I would make the case that the act of collecting is both instinctual (as a reaction to our deep rooted fear of mortality & physical existence) and spiritual (as a path [and an enjoyable one!] towards transcendence of the human existence).

**switching off philosophical rambling mode**

My goodness after I just wrote all that, I just had an idea that the next time, when I meet people who think my collecting and obsession with eclectic objects are weird, bizarre or non-sensual, I can start quoting my philosophical ramblings that my collecting hobby allows me to transcend spiritually and start going into Zen mode - that’s should be entertaining to say the least, lol. Who would have thought our hobbies could be so spiritually stimulating.

Anyway that’s all for my rambling for today. Hope you enjoy the blog entry :)


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:) (switching on personal opinion mode)

AJ, you might have captured the motivations of some that collect, but I hope that those motivated by the "fear of" anything are in the minority.

I have encountered far more people that appear to motivated by a rational desire to understand more about the history of life on this planet and/or they are fascinated by the age and beauty of fossil remains. In contrast to any deep seated "fears", the satisfaction and pleasure derived from creating their collection is more often the result of a continuing series of minor and major personal accomplishments.

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I wholeheartedly agree that most people's basic motivation for collecting things are fascination, passion and fun. Although in my rambling article, I was trying to explore more towards the subconscious motivations why human develop the urge to collect things. So when I was trying to rationalize such subconscious motivation, I hypothesize that it may be linked to our fear instinct of the unknown of inability to control certain factors in live or the desire to control such factors (well well, now that I just put that into words, may be Mr. Freud was on to something after all…. still, the poo and toilet training is still a little hard to swallow, lol)

Anyhow, thx for the opinions guys, this blog is purely meant to be an entertaining and amusing rambling, not to be taken as serious attempt for academic or philosophical discussion - just pure fun and thought exercise on my part. ;p It's still pretty interesting to ponder about it none-the-less.

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A fascinationg and yet usually taboo subject among collectors. I like trying to understanding what motivates people. As a life long collector I've had many close friendships with other collectors and casual experiences with countless other collectors. If the subject arises they have a stock supply of relationalizations for why they collect which do not include underlying pshchological reasons. They mistakenly view any implication there are subconsicous emotional motivations for collecting as implying some kind of insanity.

There's always the hobby, recreation respone. It's just fun, they enjoy it, it's a great way to spend their spare time. I've heard this from manically obsessive hoaders who every inch of their home is cluttered with their hobby to the extent it's almost impossible to walk through the living room without stepping on something. But they see is as just fun stuff they do on their spare time. They don't have a problem even though they spend their rent money on more stuff they don't need and struggle financially.
Yep, I know people like this. And I've heard all the reasons why they don't have a problem. I've known people who are as disabled by collector hording as alcoholics and drug adicts.

There's no shortage of those folks, yet it all comes down to how well adjusted a person may be. A well adjusted person who can reasonably manage their life can also manage hobbies even if their is a tendency to go to excess. But applied to a maladjusted, neurotic person with underly emotional issues and collecting can quickly get out of control.

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I've been to Freud's flat in London, and I can tell you he was an avid collector of antiquities.

I collect fossil because I have a obsession about time...

- I collect antiques

- I collect antiquities

- I collect antiquarian books

- I collect ancient coins

- I collect clocks

- My primary training and work has been in real-time programming

I can't stand not knowing the exact time. I have anxiety when I don't have my watch. I've studied methods of time keeping. I worry about time slipping away. I wonder about the nature of time. I think Einstein's time bending is really neat. I love movies that involve moving in time. When I go somewhere, I want to know what happened there over the last 4 billion years, in case I missed anything. I have a master clock in my house that is synchronized to the national atomic clock, and I keep all the clocks in my house synchronized off that one.

My son's favorite joke is to ask me what time it is, while sitting in a room full of my clocks.

Tick, tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick,tick, tick, tick, etc.....

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Megatooth Collector


I enjoyed this blog, thought it made for an interesting read. Many will immediately say that they collect because the enjoy it. Though that perception of enjoyment is a conscious thought or realization. I think there is much more to it than, it's "just fun" with it comes to serious collectors... I do think there is a subconscious aspect and/or personality traits that acts as a driving force. Not everyone collects. why is this? What personality traits motivate a certain subset of people to collect and why are some more obsessive than others? My wife could care less about collecting anything.. and she makes fun of me for being a "serial collector". As a child I collected baseball cards, then coins in high school, and eventually fossils as an adult. I have given up baseball cards and coins.. they just don't interest me anymore. I do also collect Hard Rock cafe pins when I visit a city that has one. I have often thought about why I have always liked to collect things.. what is it about my personality that drives me to "make a set", "complete a collection", "have one of something from each location" ,etc. It's hard to say for sure. Either way, this blog was food for thought. thanks for sharing!

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Back in the 19th century science puzzled over the "imponderable agents" of electricity, magnetism, and light. Now that those things have been fairly well described, the only imponderable agent that still surrounds us is time. It's woven into the fabric of the universe, but nobody knows what it is or where it is going, or what happens to the left overs. =-}

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Wow, this has turn out to be one very interesting and intellectual topic more so than I anticipated!

As for my own experience and motivation to collect, it began from very simple motive of childhood nostalgia - the exposure to nature documentaries and books sparked my fascination with prehistoric beasts especially with dinosaurs and shark. But as I matured I began to be drawn to the whole concept of human's fascination with death and mortality that reminds me almost every time when I look at fossils for they serve as reflection and reminder of how nothing lasts forever and death and decay is inevitable for all life. As an agnostic who doesn't subscribe to the belief of life-after-death from a theological perspective (I have always been more of those leaning towards the concept of how our physical particles and consciousness "returning to the stars" concept), I find the idea of admiring such objects that represent an aspect of death (albeit, one of such beautiful form and grace) helps remind me of the beauty of life and the mystery of the universe that appeals to my sense of curiosity and artistic appreciation at the same time.

So in the sense, I guess I could be categorized as "Fear of Aliveness" & "Collecting to Transcend Humanity" collector type according to my own theory. :)

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Many thanks Plai for your well elaborate and complex shot at the concept of collecting! I would like to add my two cents as well here even thought not written in the "psychologic rambling mode".

The reasons for collecting for me are manifold and they have changed over time, some were cumulative other new reasons have replaced older ones. When I was a kid, I loved dinosaurs. I loved their size and their ferociousness. It did not really emerge to me during that time to start a collection as I also did not have any role models to copy this behavior nor did and do I live in a fossil rich region. During adolescence other things got more important and it was only after I was twenty-five when I saw the jaw of a megalodon in the national aquarium in Baltimore. Dang!! There it was again. I was super impressed. Not only by the size of the jaws but also by the beauty of the teeth. Meanwhile I had studied at the university, learned about biochemistry, genetics, I had read about geology and was also interested in astronomy. With this largely changed intellectual background my perspective on these things had changed. It was no just about the size and ferociousness, it was more about the idea of emergent properties that fascinated me. A specific sequence of bases determined an object (in this case the tooth), that not only gave a phenotype to a genotype, but that geological processes, totally unrelated and independent, played hand in hand with the biology and created a completely accurate copy of what once was. A genetic code chiseled into stone! None of these processes were guided by consciousness and none of these alone would have led to a fossilized tooth, yet the combination of them managed to produce it, emergent properties. I was also fascinated that things can endure over time scales that we fail to imagine. These things were about the same age when the old greeks defined democracy as when Ronald Regan became president, did not matter to them, just a blink of time.

The more I got into collecting megs, the more I strayed away from these kinds of thought and the more the actual object gained my attention. The inherent aesthetics of the teeth became important to me. Every tooth is a unique piece and although every well preserved tooth has root, blade, bourlette, serrations, all of them look different, like faces. A femour of a dinosaur species for example looks more or less the same to me as every other femour of that species, but the megalodon teeth they are all different. Different positions in the jaw, different sizes, colors, shapes, bourlettes. Speaking about bourlettes, imagine megs did not have any, they would looks so much less interesting, also without serrations. So I started to look for as aesthetic as possible by selling older stuff and hunting for the best. There is of course no such thing as a perfect tooth but I got obessed with quality. And just as there is no such thing as a perfect tooth there is no such thing as a perfect person. The older I got the more I realized all the things I do wrong and that there will never be a time when I can get perfect. Maybe collecting “perfect” megs is a subconscious way to try to overcome the perception of own imperfection by externalizing this on the object I collect.

No matter how much we learn during our life, we are never perfect and we are never complete. We always fail to understand things in many fields of knowledge and we fail to achieve masterhood, simply because we do not have enough time to do so. My drive to collect as perfect as possible teeth later got a touch of obsessive-compulsive behavior. I needed to have a complete collection. I needed, a red tooth, a green tooth, a blue tooth. I wanted one from every part of the world. South America, North America, Africa, Asia. I was seeking for the completion in my collection that I could never achieve in myself.

Lastly, life during studies and later was always very stressful. When I am stressed, I very often hold on for a second and I think about my collection, or when I can’t fall asleep I think about what is missing in my collection, that calms me down. Life is complicated, full things I do not understand and challenges I am afraid of tackling. Collecting teeth, never was stressful or complicated. It gave me a kind of balance in my life, a counter point to all the stress. Very straight forward, uncomplicated and unintellectual. And even though I am a scientist, I always kept the scientific thought out of it. I love the idea of evolution but I was never really interested in whether Otodus Obliquus was the predecessor of Auriculatus Aksuaticus or whatever. I just needed a protected shelter in my mind to escape from the stresses of life mentioned above and to shut down a little. I loved my earthbound and unscientific way to look at my teeth. No solving of equations, no thoughts whether something is logically, statistically or intellectually correct or not, just me and the teeth….

And as I spend more and more money on teeth, I started to ponder whether it was a good idea to invest from a financial perspective. Not about earning money, but about not losing too much. Making money out of my collection was never important to me, but on the other side I did not want to lose too much either. I think I have always managed to keep the expenditures in the green….kind of….

So I think this is it. I don’t think that fear was a driving force at any stage. But it plays in a little from time to time. The thought of not being perfect could be interpreted as kind of fear. And the requirement of a mental shelter to hide from everydays life’s struggles as well. But this just came along with building a collection and was not a driving force.

And yes, I also enjoyed the thought of having a collection that can keep up with many other collections out there…. J

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That's a very elaborate and in-depth view on collecting, Mexx. You speak like a true connoisseur collector who display passion, curiosity and aesthetic appreciation :)

I get a very similar stress-relieving experience that is a little quasi-spiritual, when I am surrounded by the objects of my collection also. Collecting and collection appreciation provide a beautiful escape from the daily chaos, and allow me to get into my inner self to reflect a lot of things, or transport my mind to a different state of relaxation and wonder, similar to a meditation sometimes.

Thx, for sharing, I really enjoy reading your thought also.

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I think I can echo similar sentiments as others as to why we collect - relaxation, getting out into the outdoors (tho' that doesn't explain buying fossils), thrill of discovery, hope of finding something new to science. It's something to do...everyone needs a hobby.

I am a collector by nature - I think I get that from my mother's side (someone mentioned OCD?). Also, when you're a kid looking for a hobby, and you find something that fascinates you at an early age, I think it tends to stick with you. My obsession remains partly because of the nostalgic factor of how I felt about the subject when I was a kid - the books I read in the Elementary school library, the fossils that I found or were given to me, or that I saw in someone else's collection. That sticks with me, I think because it was imprinted when I was a wee spit of a boy. ;) -Even though the novelty of it has worn off somewhat since I know more about the subject now and there is less out there for me to find that I haven't already found, all I need to do is conjure the sense I had of it as a kid.

I found also that I tend to like old things in general - antiques, traditional and early music, etc. and the preservation for posterity of all of the above... so that might have something to do with it too.

My only remaining question is how to dispense with my collection when I get older or if I have to downsize!

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I feel like part of collecting, the part aside from wherever your particular interest lies, is greed.

I hesitate to say greed, however, because it has such a negative connotation with it.

But whenever I come home from collecting, no matter what I found, I always want to go again.I always want to find MORE. I have hundreds of rock and fossil specimens and I'm sure some of us have thousands. But I feel as though no matter how well preserved a trilobite I find, or how complete a eurypterid I find, I always want to find MORE. If I could I'd be out everyday, searching for better specimens.

I collect coins as well, and the same thing applies when I'm coin roll hunting, the process of searching through rolls of coins for errors, proofs, or old business strikes. And as many buffalo nickels, silver quarters, and wheat pennies I find, I always want MORE. I could search and collect and explore forever. So I believe that the root of collecting, no matter what you collect, lies in want, greed, or whatever you call it. Again, I feel the word greed is too harsh, because I love giving people specimens of stuff I've found so they become interested in collecting. But then again, I could fill a thousand houses with stuff I hope to find in my lifetime.

Sometimes, I think it's good to take a break from collecting and remember that the fossils aren't going anywhere. As long as they are fossils they won't anyway.

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I have a brief contribution to this blog. I believe collectors or collections can converge through two primary logics of practice. One being, from a philosophical point of view that asserts materiality posits a sublime object of ideology. The ideology for our purposes can be the desire to posess knowledge about the Earth's past. Fossils do this quite well. They are truly representative of science in general, evolution, geology...the list goes on. Then there is the second and more Freudian logic, which follows that the "telos", the aesthetic beauty of a fossil in both its form and its overall appearance approaches our conceptualization of art. Art itself approaches a sublime object of ideology, something representative of an entire world of people, their culture, their day to day practices and so on. So I think here we can revert to the Freudian objective of control in that art fills the void between the symbolic and imaginary conceptions of the world and the real, unknowable and thus quite traumatic parts of existence.

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I started to passionate myself for the collect of fossil when i tried to know what species were a very damaged trilobite and an ichnofossil of worm i found in my garage.

I love to have well-preserved ones. But i find the weathered and damaged very interesting because they show how work time, weather, pressure of the rock and also how the living beings put up with long-dead ones. Like the men who made the fossils they found in silex useful for handling, or used fossils for their parure.

I also collect books on antiquities and when i work on an archeological site (as amateur), i love to find usual and used objects because they tell things on their owners.

Hunting fossils made me encounter and speak with people i would not have known without that. It is also a way for me, as are the stars in the night sky, to remember that we are an animal among others, a part of the great universe.

With that blog you collected the attention of collectors.

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