“I’ll do it tomorrow.” Right, but tomorrow never comes. There are many studies on the psychology of procrastination, but brain imaging is giving researchers neurological insight into procrastinators’ brains by revealing differences in brain structure in people who habitually put off doing things until the last minute. Don’t expect the IRS to cut you any slack if your brain is wired for procrastination—but this new research may be interesting reading while you are postponing filing your tax return.
Not surprisingly, procrastinators tend to be people who have difficulty with self-control. For example, some people procrastinate because they are unable to resist short-term pleasurable activities when they should be doing less thrilling long-term tasks. Even though the consequences of missing a deadline are severe, like the IRS coming after you or doing a shoddy job on a project, procrastinators opt for the more pleasurable distraction despite the consequences. Delayed gratification is the issue here, but inhibiting distraction is also pertinent to procrastinating. These are both executive brain functions, which are centered in the prefrontal cortex. When people faced with an unpleasant task give into a feel-good activity while putting off a more important activity, weaknesses in neuropower inside the prefrontal cortex are to blame. Some of those weaknesses can be seen on a brain scan.
An interesting study by Zhang et al., analyzed brain activity in people who procrastinated in comparison with a control group. The experiments were not conducted while people were procrastinating, but simply while they rested letting their minds wonder. That approach, called resting state fMRI, gives information about how the basic function of the brain differs in different individuals. Just as everyone’s voice is a bit different, so too is everyone’s brain. What the researchers found was that procrastinators tend to have hyperactive default mode network activity. The default mode network is the network of brain regions that are activated when a person is thinking about others or themselves, recalling the past, and planning for the future; that is, not focusing on a task at hand. In procrastinators, neural activity in two regions of the prefrontal cortex that provides top-down control on the default mode network (the ventromedial and ventrolateral regions of the prefrontal cortex) was found to be lower than in people who do not procrastinate.
In a recent paper published in the journal Brain and Cognition, scientists took this research one step further by using structural MRI to find out if the physical structure of these brain regions differs in people who procrastinate. They gave 151 test subjects a psychological exam to quantify their level of procrastination. The test included such questions as “I often find myself performing tasks that I had intended to do days before,” for example. What the data showed was that procrastinators had significantly less grey matter volume in the brain regions that are involved in self-regulation. You can’t look at a person and tell if he or she is a procrastinator, but the scientists in this study can look at the MRI of a person’s brain and make that prediction in the same way a doctor can see heart problems in a patient by looking at cholesterol levels in blood. “Procrastination can be predicted by grey matter volume of the orbital frontal cortex and the medial frontal gyrus…which are the key regions of self-control and emotion regulation,” they conclude.
So feel free to blame your brain for your habitual procrastination, but that will not help you escape the consequences of missing deadlines. What may help is to appreciate that there is a biological component to why some people are habitual procrastinators. If you happen to be one of them, recognize that you are going to have to work harder to avoid distraction and resist immediate gratification in the face of a looming deadline like filling out your 1040 and mailing it before April 15. But don’t let this new research become another excuse to procrastinate. Just as a person’s resting heart rate is influenced by genetics and exercise, so too is a person’s brain structure and function determined by what you inherit and what you do with it. A large body of research on neural plasticity would indicate that procrastinators should be able to change their brain by changing their behavior. That’s a benefit you can claim without fear of audit.