Do You Have 'Popcorn Brain'? Here's the #1 Sign You're Suffering From This Common Condition

Woman with 'popcorn brain'

Think back to the time before smartphones, tablets and computers were very much a part of our daily lives. You likely got engrossed in conversations more. Lingered outside longer. And generally, gave your attention to things fully instead of thinking about scrolling Instagram or checking your email.

According to astounding research compiled in 2022 by Vision Direct, the average American will spend 44 years of their lives staring at their screens.

As a result of all this screen time accumulated between work and our personal lives, it’s no surprise that our attention spans are waning and interest in real-deal, non-electronic activities aren’t as interesting as they once were.

Known as “popcorn brain,” it’s something that more and more people are likely experiencing on a day-to-day basis.

What Is Popcorn Brain?

The term “popcorn brain,” which has entered our lexicon fairly recently, is often attributed to technology and quality-of-life researcher David Levy, who originally coined the term in the early 2010s at the University of Washington Information School.

Thoma Laudate, Ph.D., Clinical Neuropsychologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, breaks down the term, saying that “popcorn brain” describes what some theorists think is someone's decreased attention span and interest in everyday life when their brain becomes used to the more fast-paced, interesting and rewarding world of the internet and social media.

“The ‘popcorn brain’ metaphor is referring to the experience of quickly processing electronic tasks at a rate similar to following each of the kernels of popcorn as they pop in a pot,” Laudate explains.

Although popcorn brain might sound like an exotic disease or illness, Laudate assures that it’s really only a description of how some people feel when they spend a lot of time interacting with social or other electronic media.

Related: 'I Never Realized How Much I Mindlessly Scroll Until I Deleted My Social Media Apps for Two Weeks'

What Causes Popcorn Brain?

Laudate says that the theory behind popcorn brain is that our brain may get used to the fast pace and good feelings that can be triggered by constantly navigating through content on our devices. It may then be harder to focus on the things that are less flashy and less immediately rewarding in our non-online lives.

“This may be similar to the idea that if someone is used to the ‘sugar high’ of eating a lot of super-sweet candy every day, they may then be less motivated to instead eat an apple since an apple is not quite as powerfully sweet and, therefore, not as rewarding,” Laudate says.

Laudate adds that other ways of communicating, such as texts, can also be quick and constantly demanding of our attention. “This is the nature of these media and a large part of what we enjoy about them,” he says. “But like most things we humans enjoy, sometimes it can be too much.”

Related: Here's How to Figure Out How Exactly How Much Time You Should Be Spending On Social Media

The #1 Sign You're Suffering From Popcorn Brain

Laudate says that there isn’t a formal list of signs or symptoms around the concept of popcorn brain.

But one big giveaway that you may have this? “Real life” activities may really lose their luster. You may have much less interest in engaging in real-life activities than in the past.

But popcorn brain isn’t the only thing that can bring on this lack of interest in the happenings of your life. Laudate adds that there are other reasons you end up developing a short attention span and prefer to spend time online, such as when people are experiencing high levels of depression or anxiety.

Other Signs of Popcorn Brain

“In general, people should look out for indications of stress, such as feeling less interested in interacting with others and doing tasks offline, feeling anxious or down in mood, being easily irritated, having trouble winding down, difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, muscle tension, headache and generally feeling run down,” Laudate lists, adding that these things may or may not represent symptoms of popcorn brain, but could be indicators that reducing your online time, or getting support from a professional, may be helpful.

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How Can You Prevent Popcorn Brain?

Laudate says that if the concept of popcorn brain is indeed true, cutting back on screen time would likely be helpful for those who feel their online use is negatively impacting their offline life.

“Moderation in social media and internet use is always encouraged,” he advises. “Build in breaks. Set times in your day when you will not go online or check alerts. If you are online for long periods as part of your work, occasionally get up for some water or to stretch. In your personal life, set an alarm to remind you to put down your phone and walk away from your computer for at least several minutes every hour. Instead, do something non-tech that you enjoy. Play with your child. Give attention to your pet. Go for a short walk with a loved one.”

Laudate goes on to say that if popcorn brain or other stresses in your life are making you feel so anxious or so low in mood that it’s interfering with your real life (job, relationships, etc.), talk with your primary care doctor about it. “Your doctor may recommend talk therapy or other things that can help you reduce your stress and get you feeling better,” he explains.

Next up, find out how to take a break from social media.