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What Is Popcorn Brain? | POPSUGAR Health

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What Is Popcorn Brain? | POPSUGAR Health

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I’ll be the first to admit that I’m chronically online. Whether it’s debriefing reality TV, reporting on a new TikTok trend, or decoding my personal color analysis, I’m deeply saturated in social media culture. Sometimes, I even catch myself scrolling Instagram while watching TV. If this sounds all too familiar, you may be experiencing a case of “popcorn brain.”

“Popcorn brain refers to a mental state that is described as having a fragmented attention span, scattered thoughts, and rapidly switching from one topic to the other without hesitation,” says Reena Patel, a parenting expert, positive psychologist, and board-certified behavior analyst. The informal term was originally coined by David Levy, a researcher at the University of Washington, in 2011, to describe the way your screen-overloaded thoughts swiftly transition from one topic to another, resembling popcorn kernels rapidly popping into popcorn, she explains.

Just know that popcorn brain is not a disorder or disease, and there is no formal diagnosis, says Jessica McCarthy, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist and founder and clinical director of Elements Psychological Services. Instead, the phenomenon refers to a mental state caused by excessive screen time and overstimulation from the internet, she says.

But how does popcorn brain actually develop? And what are the risks? Here’s what experts told POPSUGAR.

What Is Popcorn Brain?

Popcorn brain is a colloquial term used to describe a shortened attention span due to excessive screen time and overstimulation from social media, Dr. McCarthy says. “When the brain is constantly bombarded with sensory information like flashing lights, appealing sounds, and the repetitive tapping and swiping of a finger on the screen, there is a greater likelihood of a scattered and chaotic thought pattern forming similar to the chaos of popcorn kernels popping simultaneously.”

The brain then works harder to keep up with the incoming information from the screen in front of you, leading to a shortened attention span, Dr. McCarthy explains. “It’s like the brain is exposed to a high-stimulation environment, like a casino or amusement park, every time it’s in front of a screen.”

Again, “popcorn brain” is a relatable term, not a medical diagnosis. But although modern screens are a relatively recent phenomenon, there is evidence that increased screen time is linked to decreased attention spans, according to a review analyzing scientific evidence in World Psychology. For example, a study in PLOS One found that preschoolers who spent more than two hours per day on screens were more likely to have inattention issues.

How Does Popcorn Brain Develop?

While studies have found measurable differences in the brains of heavy and light screen users, it’s impossible to say if their media use causes those differences, the World Psychology review notes. But experts have some theories about how screen time changes your attention span.

Dr. McCarthy suggests that your brain becomes “trained” to receive instant gratification and reward through use of a screen, particularly when you pop around the internet and bounce from different apps or web pages within seconds.

When you’re scrolling through content, your brain releases chemicals that make you feel good, such as endorphins or dopamine, she says. That can help you feel less stressed or happier. But it’s possible that eventually, your brain will learn to prompt you to reach for your phone anytime you feel the slightest discomfort, she explains.

Over time, the exposure to high-stimulation content could further train what your brain deems as a “reward,” and eventually, the brain may view the use of technology as the threshold for satisfaction, Dr. McCarthy says. In turn, she says, this could make it more difficult for other activities to meet the same threshold, decreasing the likelihood that activities outside of technology will be as engaging.

So how do you know if you have popcorn brain? “If you feel like you have 100 tabs open in your brain at any given moment and can’t close or complete a task, then you may have popcorn brain,” Patel says. Additional signs include the inability to focus and increased stress, anxiety, or fatigue.

What Are the Risks of Popcorn Brain?

The following are common risks associated with the phenomenon, according to Dr. McCarthy.

  • Distractibility: Popcorn brain essentially puts your brain into mental overdrive, leading to decreased focus and inattention.
  • Anxiety: The sheer amount of information due to popcorn brain can cause feelings of sadness, overwhelm, and frustration, especially if productivity is impacted.
  • Difficult Socialization: Social media can create feelings of connectedness, but it can also facilitate isolation and exclude opportunities for interpersonal communication. Plus, the more you rely on tech, the less motivation and energy you may have to create meaningful connections in real-time.
  • Physical Health Issues: Increased time can negatively impact sleep, posture, vision, and physical activity levels, both in the short- and long-term.
  • Delayed Gratification: If the brain becomes used to immediately receiving a reward or decreasing discomfort with a few clicks of a readily available button, it can lessen your ability to tolerate discomfort.

How to Prevent Popcorn Brain

It’s plain and simple: limit your screen time. It’s easier said than done, but Dr. McCarthy suggests allowing yourself a couple minutes of scrolling after a task is completed, or, if it’s a longer task, after a certain portion of the task is accomplished.

If completing your to-do list is overwhelming, Patel recommends organizing your tasks in order of importance. This can help you intentionally and methodically create a routine to eliminate distractions and create focus.

Turning off notifications and only checking messages at designated times is another incredibly effective strategy to foster focus, Patel says. So, instead of checking your phone when it pings, check it on your own time, Dr. McCarthy adds.

Finally, do your best to purposely schedule time away from technology. The PLOS One study found that kids who participated in an organized physical activity for two hours a week were less likely to experience mental health consequences from screen time. But whether it’s exercising, grabbing a phone-free meal with a friend, or reading, Dr. McCarthy recommends finding an activity you love that eliminates the temptation to turn on your phone.

Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graduate from Emory University and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in PS, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.



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