On the tram this afternoon a friend commented that learning is a very inefficient process. I think this is especially true for PhD students, partly because it is so easy to get distracted.

When I was doing my PhD I suspended my facebook account –  but the fridge was still a great source of distraction. Aside from eating I managed to get distracted by email, web surfing and – worst of all – Obsessive Article Collecting (OAC) syndrome.

I’m sure I am not alone insuffering OAC syndrome. Plenty of students in our workshops tell me they suffer from it too.  The paper “Innovation in PhD completion” by Kearns, Gardiner and Marshall begins by describing a day in the life of a PhD student, which may sound familiar if you suffer from OAC syndrome:

“You’re sitting at your desk ready to start writing: it’s 9:30am . You think “I’ll just check my emails for 10 minutes and then I’ll get started on the literature review. You open up your email… it’s from an honours student in your dept [is looking for] a reference [in] your field – do you know where to find it? You think, “It’ll only take a few minutes…”. So you log into the library catalogue. Eventually with a sense of great satisfaction, it’s found and emailed off …

It’s 10:15am “well” you think “I may as well get the rest of these emails cleared”; glassware not cleaned in lab yesterday – send back saying it wasn’t me; astronomical society bash tonight – send back saying sorry I can’t come; interesting reference from co supervisor – send back saying thanks and go look up the reference – feel very satisfied when found, printed, stapled and put in a pile with 40 other articles. It’s 11am “Well it’s been a busy morning, time for a cup of coffee with Ben…”

I chuckled, but felt slightly pained, at this accurate description of some of my PhD days. The authors go on to describe an excellent therapy program they have put in place to try to reduce these kind of ‘work deferment behaviours’. But while I was reading the paper I was struck by the repeated use of the word ‘satisfied’ in relation to finding journal articles.

Here’s the thing. Of all the work avoidance strategies, hunting for articles must be one of the most deeply satisfying. It can be hard to stop once you get going – why is this?

Lately I have been browsing a little through the literature on Information Addiction, which I have to say is a little confronting (especially since lately I have had my finger poised over the Twitter ‘refresh’ button for #juliagillard).

The hypothesis behind much of this work is that finding information can cause a rush of dopamine  – which is called in behavioural science circles a ‘reward stimulus’. Over time our brains can become sensitised to the anticipation of the dopamine reward – even though the reward itself brings us diminishing returns. In other words: the sensation of wanting more information doesn’t have an ‘off switch’.

In an interesting post in science blogs, Jonah Lehrer points out that our information addiction is not random: we are not “indiscriminate curiosity machines”. Our cravings for information are personal – and in a PhD student highly so.

According to Lehrer, the brain isn’t “interested in responding to the reward itself” but wants to find the “first reliable bit of information that predicts the reward”. This might provide another explanation for OAC syndrome, especially when you take into account that we tend to get more hooked on finding out stuff we already know.

If consuming the information is not as addictive as looking for it, could it be that the act of searching out articles is a ‘fix’ that we start craving? If you can’t stop searching for articles – and don’t spend time reading them – are you hooked on your PhD?

Someone doing their PhD in this area will probably be able to offer more insight, but just for fun, I’m going to take my theory seriously for a moment and offer 3 ways of breaking the OAC habit, adapted from advice offered to smokers:

1) Go cold turkey: just stop downloading for a week and spend time reading what you already have.

2) Remember the four Ds: Delay, Deep breathe, Drink water or Do something else

4) Remove the props: disconnect from the internet so you cannot connect to databases.

Now I should probably encourage you to go and read some of those articles 🙂

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