Popcorn brain: could the snack be the key to understanding why it’s so hard to concentrate? | Psychology

Name: Popcorn brain.

Age: 13.

Appearance: Like overexcited popcorn kernels popping around in a pan. Or, if you prefer, in your microwave.

Can popcorn kernels be overexcited? Seems unlikely. Not the point. “Popcorn brain” is a metaphor to explain the multitasking and overstimulation caused by the digital world. It was first coined in 2011 by David M Levy, whose books include Mindful Tech and No Time to Think. Now, he says, the design of many of our most-used apps “seem uniquely suited to scatter focus”.

Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. I was watching TikTok panda fails. Pandas are so useless. Why aren’t they extinct? Focus! Levy’s suggestion is that the brain has become so accustomed to incessant digital yip-yap – notification dings, new tabs, adverts, fatuous content, cute pandas – that it mimics that frenetic pace.

I see the former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger won an award for being in that play. The Pussycat Dolls were woeful, weren’t they? Please, will you concentrate? Apparently, the popcorn brain phenomenon has got worse in the past two decades, in line with the rise of social media. According to one survey, the time a person can focus on one thing has declined from about two and a half minutes to about 47 seconds over the past 20 years.

Aston Villa’s home form is a concern. When is Tyrone Mings coming back to shore up Villains’ leaky defence? Stop this mindless scrolling. According to the psychologist Dannielle Haig, social media platforms use algorithms to feed us information, notifications and entertainment. Each piece of new information triggers a dopamine release, rewarding our brain and encouraging us to continue this cycle of seeking and receiving new stimuli.

I wonder if anyone got to taste that lifesize Taylor Swift cake someone made for the Super Bowl? Haig says: “Over time, this constant demand for attention and the rapid switching between tasks can lead to a feeling of mental restlessness or the brain ‘bouncing around’ as it struggles to maintain focus on any one task for an extended period.”

Oh, God, she’s right! How can I stop wasting my life on studying Villa’s home form and Scherzinger’s CV? There are lots of self-help books advising us on how to reclaim focus, such as Aditi Nerurkar’s The 5 Resets: Rewire Your Brain and Body for Less Stress and More Resilience.

Yawn! Even the subtitle sounds boring. What can I do that doesn’t involve reading self-help books? Set tech-free times, put your phone in another room (with notifications off) and periodically delete apps, suggests clinical psychologist Dr Daniel Glazer. Or, if you’re lucky, accidentally leave your phone on the bus, like I did.

Don’t say: “Can there ever be too many cute kitten videos? That question is rhetorical.”

Do say: “I’m a member of homo sapiens, not – pauses for dramatic effect – phono sapiens.”


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