Note: this article was originally published elsewhere last year.
Daydreaming is important — studies have repeatedly said as much — but maybe you shouldn’t daydream too much, as a recent study by researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum has come to the conclusion that — after looking at MRI scans of 264 individuals — the brains of doers differ from those of procrastinators.
Before we explain how they came to that conclusion, it’s worth going over a few basic terms: the first is the amygdala, which are two almond-shaped clusters of neurons buried deep within the brain. The amygdala helps you process smell, store memory, rewards your brain with dopamine, and helps you “assess different situations with regard to their respective outcomes.” If you’re trying to recognize a smell — if you beat a video game level and pleasant graphics fill the screen — if you’re unsure whether or not it will be worthwhile to go to a concert in the evening — all this goes through your amygdala. There’s also the “dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.” This section of the brain currently appears to have a role in blood pressure, heart rate, attention, the anticipation of reward, impulse control, emotion, and — more broadly, though this appears to still be an area of active research — decision-making.
It’s helpful to have an understanding of these two sections of the brain when you read that “Individuals with poor action control had a larger amygdala” and that “the functional connection between the amygdala and the so-called dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dorsal ACC) was less pronounced.” These results led Erhan Genç — a member of the research team at Ruhr-Universität Bochum — to hypothesize that “Individuals with a higher amygdala volume may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action — they tend to hesitate and put off things.”
The study has sparked a wide-ranging conversation on Reddit, with questions being raised as to neuroplasticity (with an excellent reply reminding us about just how contextual neuroplasticity is) to former procrastinators chiming in with their autobiographical two cents to teachers talking about how they might apply the gist of this research in the classroom. (“This is great supporting evidence as to why teaching kids to take risks in the classroom is so effective.”)
The study works towards finding a neural base for some of these patterns — why, at the level of our hardware, things work in the way that they do — but — just as there was an active question as to the neural base of non-canonical uses of the nervous system — it’s worth wondering what a certain neural base actually looks like here when we can see so many different things come from the same seeming place — how a larger than usual amygdala seems capable of translating itself into procrastination; into a larger than average number of unique responses to a Rorschach test, autism, or the fact that “after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, … MRI scans show that … the amygdala appears to shrink.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it may feel a little like looking at birds and dinosaurs and knowing that each come from the same place.
But they do. And that’s the next thing to be figured out.