Popcorn Brain: The Tech-Induced Change In Our Attention Spans, Explained By Our Neuropsychologist

Recent data suggests that the average human attention span is 8.25 seconds. If this number doesn't mean anything to you, then consider this: Goldfish have an average attention span of nine seconds. Let that sink in for a minute. And unfortunately, our prognosis doesn't get much better either, considering that in just 15 years (from 2000 to 2015) our ability to remain attentive dropped by 25%. Amidst this chaos and gloomy picture of decreased cognitive abilities, we are now being bombarded with a new term: "popcorn brain."

Gliz spoke exclusively to New York City neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Director of Comprehend the Mind, to shed light on this new term: "'Popcorn brain' refers to our minds constantly jumping from one thought to another, similar to how popcorn pops sporadically in a pot. One's thoughts will jump from one idea to another, without much depth or focus. It describes a state of scattered attention and rapid shifts in focus," she said. 

If you think this reminds you of a term we all already know, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), then you are right. Much like with ADD, individuals with "popcorn brain" face several cognitive difficulties. As Dr. Hafeez explained, "popcorn brain" results in individuals who find it challenging to stay focused on the task at hand, which inadvertently leads to poor performance. This restless state of mind eventually leads to a sense of mental exhaustion as well.

The origins and causes of popcorn brain

"Popcorn brain" is not an official term to be found in psychology books. "While it's challenging to pinpoint the exact moment or platform where this term first emerged, it likely gained traction through ... platforms like TikTok, Reddit, or Twitter," Dr. Sanam Hafeez exclusively told Gliz. "It's common for new terms and phrases to emerge within online communities, where users share experiences and insights related to mental health and cognitive functioning." So, while users interacted on social media platforms and discussed the topic of how multitasking and stimuli overload lead to decreased attention span, the term "popcorn brain" resonated with their experiences and became viral.

Talking about stimuli overload, Dr. Hafeez explained that this change in our attention span is indeed tech-induced. "With the constant availability of information and stimuli through smartphones, social media, and the Internet, many people experience shorter attention spans, reduced ability to concentrate for long periods, and increased distractibility. The Internet provides instant access to vast amounts of information, leading to changes in how we acquire knowledge, solve problems, and retain information," she said.

Unfortunately, our constant exposure to technology has negatively impacted not only our brains and our cognitive abilities but our psyche and emotional well-being as well — which is a good reason to consider the benefits of making your morning routine phone-free. "The rise of technology has influenced aspects of mental health, including stress, anxiety, and self-esteem," said Dr. Hafeez. "Constant connectivity and exposure to curated online personas can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, fear of missing out (FOMO), and pressure to present an idealized version of oneself online." 

How can one mitigate the adverse effects of popcorn brain?

We asked Dr. Sanam Hafeez if "popcorn brain" is something serious that requires treatment or whether it's simply the way our brains are evolving — and essentially adapting — to the surrounding environment of increased stimuli. "For some individuals, 'popcorn brain' may not pose significant challenges, while for others, it may require more intentional management. If it leads to persistent difficulties with attention, focus, and productivity, it may be beneficial to consider strategies for managing screen time and social media use," Dr. Hafeez exclusively told us. "Setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, and incorporating regular breaks from technology can help mitigate the effects of constant stimulation on attention and cognitive functioning," the neuropsychologist said.

According to Harmony Healthcare IT, the average American stares at their phone for just over 4.5 hours each day. If you do the math, this adds up to about 70 days per year, so it's no wonder why our brains are constantly on overdrive! Especially if we consider that the typical time spent on a webpage is less than one minute — sometimes only 20 seconds — before we click away and begin to consume different content on another page (via Cross River Therapy), it's easier to understand why we can't stay focused.

So, how do we mitigate this? Dr. Hafeez suggests that we devote our time to activities that require cognitive engagement and focus (sans the distractions), such as reading or other creative pursuits. Physical exercise is also a great way to literally shift our minds away from the shallow web browsing that causes "popcorn brain." There are several quick and easy at-home workouts you can try, and let's not forget that heading outdoors can help improve your overall health — cognitive, physical, and emotional!