A Procrastinator's Brain Isn't Built the Same Way as a Doer's Brain

While social and psychological factors may play a role in procrastination, the brain may also be hard-wired to hold off on doing things. Yakobchuk Viacheslav/Shutterstock

Some people's brains just may not be geared toward getting things done.

In fact, from a scientific perspective, a procrastinating brain looks significantly different from that of someone who doesn't procrastinate.

At least that's what researchers at Germany's Ruhr-University Bochum concluded in a new study — the first of its kind, they say, to look at the brains of procrastinators and "doers," as non-procrastinators are called in a press release about the research.

In all, 264 brains, belonging to both men and women, were subjected to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Then each participant filled out a survey gauging the ability to rein in impulses and control their actions.

The research team developed a scoring system called decision-related action orientation (AOD), which divided participants into two groups: doers and do-not-ers.

This revealed a profound physical difference between the groups' brains. Specifically, subjects classified as procrastinators had a larger amygdala, a two-part brain structure that's involved with processing emotions, especially fear. They also had a less pronounced connection between their amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region that uses information from the amygdala to "select actions that are to be put into practice," the researchers explain.

A question of risk aversion

3D rendering of the brain showing the limbic system.
The amygdala may keep us safe by flooding us with a healthy sense of fear in the face of the unknown. decade3d - anatomy online/Shutterstock

Until now, we've been been looking at procrastination mainly as the result of certain social and psychological conditions — people get in a procrastinating state of mind and maybe, with a little support and guidance from others, they can get out of it.

But the amygdala's role in procrastination suggests the behavior may have deeper roots. Some people might procrastinate simply because they're more averse to risk.

"People with higher amygdala volume appear to be more state oriented and therefore tend to hesitate to initiate an intention and tend to delay the beginning of tasks without any good reason," the researchers note, as Science Alert reports.

Since the amygdala processes fear based on past experiences that had negative results, it may be playing it safe — and refraining from taking action.

"This could mean that individuals with a larger amygdala volume have learned from past mistakes and evaluate future actions and their possible consequences more extensively," the authors explain.

"This, in turn, might lead to greater concern and hesitation, as observed in individuals with low AOD scores."

That wariness of an uncertain outcome may lead to a kind of paralysis: A person holds off on doing a task until the last minute, or ends up doing nothing at all.