I intended to tell you about this paper some days ago, but for some reason didn’t get around to it. It was not procrastination on my part. Nothing so energetic as that.
Why is procrastination so prevalent? Why is it that I, of course not you, tend to postpone tasks, even on matters which are of interest to me but require exertion, and instead seek distraction? Why do I take all these pointless excursions into weather forecasts, updates on developing news stories, protracted discussions on the finer points of obscure technologies and sundry bits of trivia? Worse yet, why does the little I get done only happen in those brief moments when I tire of my own distractions, and the postponed task takes on its own aura of interest?
Enough of this. I must concentrate hard on this new paper which avers that the difference between doers and dreamers lies deep in the brain. Action control, they call it, and locate it in the amygdala. In my case Absolute Paralysis seems closer to the mark, but let us amble forwards.
The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control
Caroline Schlüter, Christoph Fraenz, Marlies Pinnow, Patrick Friedrich, Onur Güntürkün, and Erhan Genç. Psychological Science 1-11. DOI: 10.1177/0956797618779380
Individuals differ in their ability to initiate self- and emotional-control mechanisms. These differences have been explicitly described in Kuhl’s action-control theory. Although interindividual differences in action control make a major contribution to our everyday life, their neural foundation remains unknown. Here, we measured action controI in a sample of 264 healthy adults and related interindividual differences in action control to variations in brain structure and resting-state connectivity. Our results demonstrate a significant negative correlation between decision-related action orientation (AOD) and amygdala volume. Further, we showed that the functional resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex was significantly associated with AOD. Specifically, stronger functional connectivity was associated with higher AOD scores. These findings are the first to show that interindividual differences in action control, namely AOD, are based on the anatomical architecture and functional network of the amygdala.
The authors set out to look at why some people achieve their goals and others do not. Doers seem more capable of inhibiting irrelevant information, perhaps a frontal lobe function. The subjects were 264 university subjects, rarely the most representative human beings. They filled in a questionnaire about how they responded to reverses and disappointments; to boredom; and to distractions, to measure their action proneness on those three dimensions: 12 questions measured emotional preoccupation after failure; another 12 measured action versus hesitation in neutral circumstances; and 12 measured immersion in activities versus distractability.
Men were more able to get over emotions to reverses and disappointments than women, who tended to hold on to emotions and ruminate. However, when bored, men found it far more difficult than women to initiate new actions. Men and women were equally likely to remain immersed in an interesting activity.
The main finding when looking at all the subjects was that “individuals who are state oriented when it comes to initiating actions and therefore tend to hesitate or procrastinate show higher amygdala volume.” The correlation between amygdala size and the measure of action orientation was r= -0.235 which is not very big, but is the only area showing any noticeable correlation.
The authors say:
Thus, 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.
Regarding action control, 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. This, in turn, might lead to greater concern and hesitation, as observed in individuals with low AOD scores. Interestingly, it seems as if the amygdala is especially important when the results of a particular behavior are uncertain. This might explain why state-oriented individuals are especially vulnerable to the effects of uncontrollable outcomes and failures, whereas action-oriented individuals seem less affected by possible negative consequences.
In this population, it would seem that a large amygdala makes people fearful and therefore, in times of stress, hesitant and more likely to ruminate and procrastinate than leap to some concrete action.
Naturally, one has to be hesitant about this (perhaps I have a large amygdala), because the study is based on self-report rather than some experimental test of procrastination. Also, given that there are three major measures of action and 42 brain regions of interest, the sample size of 264 subjects, while having sufficient power, could still be prone chance findings.
This raises a more general issue: how do we ensure that we only compare brain regions with important aspects of behaviour, not a long list of possible one derived from countless questionnaires? One way would be to restrict brain scan studies to two measures: the general factor of intelligence and the general factor of personality. That would ensure that research focused on important matters. As ever, I can think of a counter-proposal. Perhaps the only important difference between one person and another, the only one which makes any impact on the world, is whether people get things done, or just dream about them.
Poetry makes nothing happen.