"Popcorn Brains" - A Modern-Day Plague: How Information Overload Affects Us

Written by Henrik Rothen

Mar.26 - 2024 11:23 AM CET

Photo: Shutterstock.com
Photo: Shutterstock.com
In the age of digital overload, the phenomenon of "popcorn brain" is increasingly altering our ability to focus and process information.

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Just as kernels of corn transform into popcorn when heated in a pot, with each kernel popping one after another until the pot overflows with this snack, a similar process happens within our brains under the massive influx of information and stimuli, leaving less and less room for efficient, uninterrupted functioning.

But what exactly is a "popcorn brain"?

The term "popcorn brain" refers to symptoms related to the nervous system's functioning, resulting from the excess of information received from the outside world.

Primarily, it pertains to concentration issues, as our thoughts "jump" from one to another, making it difficult to focus on a single activity.

David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the impact of modern technologies on human functioning, first used this term in 2011.

Identifying "Popcorn Brain" Symptoms

A key symptom of the "popcorn brain" syndrome is the inability to focus on a single task. For instance, while cooking dinner, you might start laundry and, in between, scroll through your phone checking the latest posts on social media.

When watching a movie, you might reach for your phone to check a notification and then proceed to read a message. Meanwhile, you open social media apps and glance at the TV screen simultaneously.

This race after technology, consumed information, and messages means that thoughts jump from one to another, resembling the effect of popcorn kernels popping in a heated pot. This ultimately leads to excessive fatigue, a feeling of weariness, and a lack of satisfaction from undertaken activities.

Researchers from the University of California discovered that in 2004 the average focus time on any screen was 2.5 minutes. By 2012, this average dropped to 75 seconds, and currently, individuals focus on a single screen for an average of 47 seconds.

This confirms that concentration on a single subject is diminishing, and we often "flip" from one piece of information to another. Furthermore, it was found that the average person checks their phone up to 2617 times a day.

This confirms that addiction to technology is growing stronger and more prevalent.

Physical Symptoms of "Popcorn Brain"

The deluge of information directly affects the nervous system's functioning. Individuals spending too much time in front of screens may notice the following symptoms:

  • Headaches

  • Neck and shoulder pain

  • Eye strain and burning

  • Vision problems

  • Excessive sleepiness or hyperactivity

  • Physical exhaustion

Dealing with Symptoms of Nervous System Overload

David Levy, in addition to researching how technologies impact the human brain, has also developed several principles to maintain concentration and overall mental condition.

When feeling overwhelmed by information from screens, Levy recommends looking out of a window for at least two minutes.

This slows down brain activity, making it easier to calm down and refocus on the task at hand. Gazing at natural views also helps relax and reduce stress levels. Another solution to limit technology in daily life is to stop or minimize exchanging text messages.

Levy encourages replacing this form of communication with phone calls. Hearing another person's voice has a calming effect, aids concentration on the conversation topic, and improves relationships better than maintaining them in written form.

Setting a time limit is another crucial element to reducing "popcorn brain" symptoms. For children, introducing limits - such as one hour of screen time a day within a specific time frame - is beneficial.

If adults work with screens daily and receive information from all directions for eight hours, it's advisable to set a limit on additional internet use outside of work hours.

This could mean that screens are "off-limits" in the morning or for the first two hours after returning from work, or alternatively, all screens in the house are turned off two hours before bedtime.

Five Principles to Reduce Risks

To mitigate the effects of excessive screen use, it's beneficial to adhere to several principles that positively impact memory, concentration, sleep, and overall well-being.

  • Engage in outdoor activities.

  • Before starting another task, ensure you've finished the one you began.

  • Avoid mindless scrolling; only reach for your phone or computer when seeking specific information.

  • Participate in activities with a larger group of people - this reduces involuntary phone checking when bored or idle.

  • Try meditation and establish your own pre-sleep rituals that require calming down and placing your phone or computer away from you.

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