What is Procrastination? It is a trait that causes individuals to delay tasks indefinitely, either when feeling overwhelmed or when a more pleasurable task is at their disposal. There are several different kinds of procrastinators: active, passive, arousal, and avoidant, to name a few. A battle between the Limbic System and the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) regulates the procrastination trait. The PFC is a negative regulator, and the Limbic System is a positive regulator for the same. Thus, it is hypothesized and proven that failure of the cognitive control system leads to the generation of the procrastination trait. Additionally, resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have uncovered another region of the brain, the Default Mode Network, which is also found to be a positive regulator of procrastination. Therefore, procrastination does not simply equate to being lazy; it is a tightly regulated process with several neural substrates.
Source: BBC Science Focus Magazine
Do you remember the last time you put off submitting an assignment till the end moment or decided to watch TV instead of completing some important work? We’ve all been there at some point in our lives.
When bombarded with several tasks simultaneously, some people tend to hold off tasks till the last moment and sometimes way past deadlines, intentionally. In psychology, that is what procrastination entails. From the health perspective, it is a phenomenon that is not considered a mental health disorder but rather a habit. It can be scientifically defined as- voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite being worse off because of the delay (Steel et al., 2007). There are different types of procrastinators; passive procrastinators tend to put off work due to indecisiveness and inability to take prompt decisions, and active procrastinators who delay their work until the last moment, as they work well under pressure. Additionally, you also have the arousal procrastinator who delays tasks to attain stimulation and the avoidant procrastinator who blames his inability to complete a task on insufficient time rather than their own incompetence . A common trigger for procrastination is a person’s personality trait, where extroverts attribute their procrastination to their need to socialize, and introverts explain their procrastination by choosing to seek solitude .
The neuroscience of procrastination involves a battle between two regions of the brain, The
Limbic System and The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). The Limbic System is the region of the brain that controls emotions and behavioural responses. The two major structures involved are the Hippocampus and the Amygdala . The Hippocampus controls the association between memories and our senses and is also vital for spatial orientation. The Amygdala regulates our emotional responses, including pleasure, fear, anxiety and anger. The Limbic System is also known as the affective processing system, responds to internally generated information. The PFC controls the planning of complex cognitive behaviour, determination of personality traits, decision-making, and moderation of social behaviour. In short, it helps in the planning and execution of goals that have been set; thus, it has been described to carry out an executive function.
It is also known as the cognitive control system and carries out executive functions to regulate goal-directed behaviours. When the brain is faced with a task, the will to perform it or put it off is determined by the winner of the battle between the Limbic System and the PFC .
Evidence from previous research has demonstrated that procrastination occurs due to the failure of the cognitive control system, that is, the PFC. Suggesting that the activation of the
PFC is negatively correlated to procrastination, and the activation of the Limbic System is positively correlated to procrastination behaviour. This occurs as the PFC needs to be continuously engaged for its effects to be prominent and long-lasting in terms of making decisions. On the other hand, the Limbic System is automatic and is always ready to strike as soon as one starts to feel disconnected from the task at hand .
Here’s an example:
When a student who dislikes Mathematics is asked to solve a math equation, it will be perceived as an unpleasant task by the brain. This will stimulate the limbic system to initiate an “immediate mood repair”. It will direct the individual to take up a more pleasant task, such as watching television, leading to the release of Dopamine. Dopamine controls the reward and pleasure centres of the brain, thus giving a sense of being rewarded for putting off a ‘boring’ task.
Various scales have measured the procrastination trait over the years; in the recent past, resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (RS-fMRI) has been used to uncover the neural correlates of procrastination. These studies stressed on another region of the brain the DMN (Default Mode Network), whose activity was found to be prioritized over the inhibitory control exerted by the PFC, or in another case where the anterior PFC control on the DMN was absent. The DMN was found to regulate the procrastination trait6 positively.
These studies suggest that procrastination does not simply correlate to being lazy. There is an intricate network within the brain that tightly regulates the procrastination trait, a part of this network follows the motto “Why do it today when you can just do it tomorrow?”
1.Steel, P. (2010). Arousal, avoidant and decisional procrastinators: Do they exist?
Personality And Individual Differences, 48(8), 926-934.
2.Johnson, R., & Stewart, D. (2002). The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences: A Review. Behavioral and Social Sciences Librarian, 21(2), 73–83.
3.The limbic system. Qbi.uq.edu.au. (2021). Retrieved 7 June 2021, from
4.Why Do We Procrastinate? Science ABC. (2021). Retrieved 7 June 2021, from
5.The Science Behind Procrastination. Arc UNSW Student Life. (2021). Retrieved 7 June
2021, from https://www.arc.unsw.edu.au/blitz/read/The-Science-Behind-Procrastination.
6.Zhang, W., Wang, X., & Feng, T. (2016). Identifying the Neural Substrates of
Procrastination: A Resting-State fMRI Study. Scientific Reports, 6(1).
Credentials: Master’s student at Sunandan Divatia School of Science (2020-22), M.Sc. in
Bio: Interested in determining the link between Neuroscience and the Arts, an amalgamation of two of her favorite fields.
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