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The neural signature of procrastination

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29th-Aug-2018       
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Timothy A Pychyl Ph.D. :
I was delighted to see the publication of this study! A team of researchers from the Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany conducted a very interesting and important study. They took a rare neuroscientific approach to the study of action control and procrastination. Using a sample of 264 young adults, they conducted fMRI brain scans to explore the neural correlates of the ability to initiate and sustain action. The theory behind this research is not something that I want to take on for this blog post, but we have published previously on this topic (see reference below), demonstrating that an inability to initiate action, known broadly as state orientation, is related to procrastination. Theoretically, we could even say that this aspect of action control is a causal factor in understanding procrastination. The really interesting thing about this most recent study is that Caroline Schlüter and her colleagues have now linked this inability to control action to anatomical differences in the brain as well as functional connections between brain regions.
They found a relation between the gray matter volume of the amygdala and difficulties in initiating action (theoretically this is known as decision-related action orientation). The authors note that "individuals who are state oriented when it comes to initiating actions and therefore tend to hesitate or procrastinate show higher amygdala volume" (p. 5). This physiological research provides the neural signature of what I and my colleagues have referred to for years as an "amygdala hijack." For example, in our recent edited volume Procrastination, Health and Well-Being, my co-editor, Dr. Fuschia Sirois (University of Sheffield) explained that the mood-regulation that defines procrastination can best be understood by this shorthand expression, "amygdala hijack."  To understand this, you need to understand a little more about the amygdala.
As the authors explain, the amygdala is a neuroanatomical hub for fear-motivation behavior. Put simply, it's the "fight or flight" center of the brain. During fear conditioning, it encodes distinct memories that become critical in decision-making situations, because this is when the affective significance of a given behavior, stimulus, threat, or reward needs to be evaluated. Is the situation a threat, something I should avoid?
In this respect, the amygdala guides the selection of actions by using previous experience to select desirable behaviors and inhibit others. Of course, as the authors write, ". . . this means that individuals with a larger amygdala volume have learned from past mistakes and evaluate future actions and their possible consequences more extensively. This, in turn, might lead to greater concern and hesitation, as observed in individuals with low AOD scores (Blunt & Pychyl, 1998)."
In addition to larger amygdala volume, the researchers also explored how this neuroautomical hub was connected to other brain regions. The question here was focused on functional connectivity rather than anatomical size. Here the researchers again found an unique difference related to the amygdala between those with action control difficulties and those who do not have trouble initiating behaviors. Specifically, interindividual differences related to action control were related to differences in resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) - a region of the brain that is known for the top-down regulation of the amygdala and various facets of self-control.
Although any single study has limitations which the authors certainly address, this is an exciting contribution to the literature on action control and procrastination. This neural signature of action control maps on very well to our theoretical understanding of procrastination as a problem with emotion regulation.
Finally, it's important to remember that biology is not destiny, our brains can change. Learning occurs, and we often refer to this as neural plasticity. For example, research by Adrienne Taren (University of Pittsburg) has shown that even 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation shrinks the volume of the amygdala, increases the volume of the prefrontal cortex and changes the connectivity of these brain regions.  If you're prone to the amygdala hijack that we know as procrastination, it may be time to learn how to down-regulate your emotional response to the tasks in your life. It's certainly possible, and now we have a little better understanding of just what might be going on in terms of our neuroanatomy.

(Timothy is the Director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education and faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada).

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