Lost in the shuffle: Unpacking popcorn brain – Causes, effects, and few hacks

Apr13,2024


How much is too much? If you have landed on this article, it means you either were fascinated by “Popcorn” in the headline, or it was a typical irresistible habit to pick up your phone every few minutes to check without a good reason.
Picture this: you are at home watching your favourite series. You hear a ting and pick up your phone; suddenly, there is a gush of work emails and notifications from social media and apps on your phone.You are now engaged on your phone and television without batting an eyelid. Yikes, the washing machine buzzes, and so does the oven. It’s getting out of hand, yet you feel a distinct pride that you are adept at multitasking. Nope, it’s not just multitasking; it’s what we are discussing today.
The term ‘Popcorn brain or kernel brain’ was first coined in 2011 by David Levy, a quality-of-life researcher at the University of Washington. It reflects the tendency of the mind to hop from one thought or task to another in a manner reminiscent of popcorn popping in a pan—quick, sporadic, and unpredictable. It’s not just social media; the digital and gadget world is worsening it.

Is your attention span popping like popcorn? Here’s what you need to know about “Popcorn Brain”

In a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, India was among six other countries where a majority of those surveyed saw mobile phones as something they don’t always need. It took almost half a decade for this situation to degrade to this stage. In a way, we can blame its impact on the way the digital world is coded today, coupled with the rampant digital invasion of our lives. We crave stimuli every few seconds, bringing out an impatient version of ourselves.
“The brain is highly elastic, meaning it can adapt to changes in its environment. However, prolonged exposure to screens, especially in the form of rapid-fire stimuli and constant multitasking, can overwhelm the brain’s capacity to process information efficiently. This can result in cognitive overload and hinder the brain’s ability to consolidate memories and form new neural connections effectively,” explains Dr Vivek Barun, Consultant – Neurology & Epilepsy, Department of Neurology, Artemis Agrim Institute of Neuroscience.
Dr Ashima Ranjan, Consultant – Psychiatry, Yatharth Super Speciality Hospitals, asserts that while the term itself may not have a scientific basis, there is growing evidence suggesting a link between excessive screen exposure and cognitive impairments. “Excessive screen time can result in attention deficits, decreased concentration, and impaired memory function, resembling popped popcorn’s scattered and fragmented nature,” Dr Ranjan notes.
Excessive screen time often displaces other activities crucial for brain health, like physical exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation through activities like reading or problem-solving. “While the term’ popcorn brain’ may be slangy, the underlying concerns about the impact of excessive screen time on cognitive function are legitimate and necessitate attention in our increasingly digital world,” shares Dr Barun.
Still reading this? You’re doing a good job fighting it out!
Withering relations

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Mix it with slang such as fear of missing out (FOMO), phubbing, and doomscroling, and we have a problem now that’s impacting not just us but our loved ones, too. Sukriti Ahuja, Clinical Psychologist at Artemis Hospitals, opines that the popcorn brain can be a significant obstacle to closeness and emotional connection in relationships. “It might be difficult to completely participate in meaningful conversations and experiences with someone constantly distracted or has continual mental chatter. This can affect one or both partners,” she notes.
The prolonged impact of being immersed in the digital world includes communication breakdown in relationships. Constant distractions and fragmented attention make it difficult to engage in meaningful conversations, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts.
In relationships, quality time is essential for building intimacy and connection. However, individuals being physically present but mentally absent diminishes the quality of time spent together. Meaningful relationships thrive on deep emotional connections, which require focused attention and active listening. Disengaged time with partners results in shallow interactions and a sense of emotional disconnect.
Don’t worry, it’s neither new nor are you alone. In a recent interaction with ETIMES, actor Vidya Balan, too, confessed to ‘suffering’ from it. It impacts not just you but those around you. “It’s so easy to get lost in that visual world. We have lost that connection with ourselves. We yearn for human connections. Even when two people are sitting together, they are on their phones. There have been times when my husband and I used to sit across the table, and he has asked me why I was looking at the phone. Then, I used to look at the phone for the sake of it. So now when we sit at the table, we consciously put our phones facedown, or we put them away,” the actor said.
Parent-child relationships, too, are becoming a victim of this phenomenon. Recently, a smartphone brand published results of its survey highlighting: “Consumers claim to spend an average of 6.5 hours on their smartphone per day, a 32% increase from the pre-COVID era”.
The survey further found that 74% of Indian parents feel that smartphones may hurt their relationship with their kids. 9 out of 10 confess that their children display some signs of aggression owing to their extended smartphone usage, while 85% feel that their children find it challenging to mix with other kids in a social setting and the overall outdoor experience to be daunting.
In today’s digital age, children are increasingly exposed to screens from an early age, whether through smartphones, tablets, computers, or television. Sometimes, it offers a slice of ‘me-time’ to parents. But is it worth it? Child and healthcare experts do not feel so.
Constant distractions and fragmented attention during interactions with children can make them feel neglected or unimportant, weakening the parent-child bond. It infringes upon bonding time, which is epochal in building a strong parent-child relationship and modelling a child’s social behaviour, Dr. Ranjan notes. “Over a period of time, this develops into inconsistent parenting styles. “Children thrive on consistency and predictability in their environment. However, parents with popcorn brain may struggle to maintain consistency in their parenting approach, leading to confusion and insecurity in children,” Dr Ranjan adds.
Since parents serve as role models for their children, shaping their behaviour and attitudes, sustaining such environment models unhealthy habits of distraction and impulsivity, which children may mimic, further exacerbating the problem in future generations.
There are, of course, physiological impacts which also warrant attention. Dr Maramganty Vamshidhar, Sr. Cataract and Refractive Surgeon, Maxivision Eye Hospitals, shares, “Excessive screen time often comes at the expense of physical activity, leading to sedentary lifestyles and poor overall health. Reduced physical activity levels can negatively impact children’s energy levels, mood, and cognitive function.”
What can we do?
For couples, acknowledging the problem exists is a good start. Relationship experts recommend couples can improve their ability to connect on a deeper level by encouraging each other to practice mindfulness exercises like deep breathing, meditation, or simply being fully present in the moment. An intent to find opportunities to reconnect and deepen bonds, despite the everyday distractions, is necessary. Rituals and routines, like a technology-free dinner time rule mentioned by Vidya Balan, can help rekindle the fire in your relationship.
Partners can effectively cultivate more understanding, empathy, and closeness within the framework of their relationship by admitting and actively confronting its existence, which will lead to a more contented and fulfilled relationship.

Short attention span & constant distraction? Dr Vivek Barun explains Popcorn Brain & how to fight it!

For parents, Niru Agarwal, Trustee, Greenwood High International School offers a solution, “Parents and children should realise that life can be diverse and heterogenous and that children need not remain staid. Sometimes, children would stick to just one kind of task, which may stunt their growth. Hence, they need to be active both within and outside homes and balancing their activities would help in their intellectual growth and make them more confident individuals. Too much of either would result in the growth of a unidimensional personality.”
With summer breaks on the anvil, this could be a good time for worried parents to make amends. Ensure kids have a schedule, especially during the holidays, and have something to look forward to daily. Lack of routine could lead to the development of habits that are not conducive to learning; Children could wake up every day excited to learn things they haven’t before. A new day every day is highly fulfilling for them.
Parents’ hectic work schedules and the active school life of their kids may not allow them to focus on other skills, and parents may not find the time to teach crucial life skills to their kids during the academic calendar.
Learning skills other than routine work will help students handle the larger world better. Hence, summer holidays are of great importance as both children and teachers can spare time to learn things other than academics.
Volunteering is another fantastic way for kids to give back to their community, develop empathy and compassion, and learn about social issues. They can also learn and replicate the skills involved in social work, which will help them in the future. Look for opportunities at local food banks, animal shelters, or charity organisations.
Art as therapy is another solution to bridge relations. Encourage kids to express their creativity by enrolling them in a local art or craft class where they can freely paint, draw, and make things. They will be able to think logically and express their creativity while engaging in art classes. Enrol kids in music lessons so they can learn how to play an instrument, sing, or even write songs on their own.
So, next time you reach for your phone without a real need– pause and reflect: Is it really worth it?

The secret to true happiness: Teachings of Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 55



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