‘Popcorn brain’ could be the unexpected reason for your dwindling attention span
Are you finding your focus jumping around at the moment?
If your brain has been feeling a little bit foggy recently, you’re certainly not alone.
Maybe you’ve found yourself struggling to focus on one thing at work, or flitting between various different life admin tasks when you’re at home?
You might be suffering from a phenomenon known as ‘popcorn brain’ in the world of psychology – and it’s down to our scrolling habits.
‘Popcorn brain refers to the tendency for our attention and focus to jump quickly from one thing to another, like popping corn kernels,’ clinical psychologist Dr. Daniel Glazer tells Metro.
Dr. Daniel explains that heavy social media usage encourages this brain behaviour by providing a constant stream of stimuli – such as notifications, new posts, adverts and more – all vying for our attention.
‘This conditions our brains to get accustomed to and expect frequent distractions and immediate gratification,’ he adds.
‘As a result, activities requiring sustained concentration like reading, work projects, or in-person conversations become more difficult.’
And worryingly, research shows average attention spans are declining – with the time a person can focus on one thing dropping from around 2½ minutes to around 47 seconds over the last 20 years (in line with social media use climbing).
So as we spend more time online, popcorn brain continues to grow. But what exactly is it about social media that is shattering our attention spans?
It turns out the very design of certain apps has this power – what with algorithms feeding us a constant stream of information, notifications, and entertainment, all tailored to our interests and behaviours.
Dr Daniel explains: ‘Some key aspects of popular apps seem uniquely suited to scatter focus – like variable reward schedules, micro-dosing of dopamine, and purposefully addictive designs optimised to maximise engagement over well-being.’
As we get a small hit of dopamine from checking these apps, we tend to go back for more – and it’s difficult to break the cycle.
So how can we protect our brains? Dr Daniel says there are a few things we can do.
‘In terms of solutions, setting designated tech-free times, consciously pausing to focus on a single task, and periodically deleting apps may help regain control,’ he adds.
‘The key is approaching social media more intentionally rather than letting it dominate attention on its terms.
‘Building in tech-free routines and habits can enable enjoying social media without destroying focus capacity.’
How to stop mindless scrolling:
1. Firstly, admit there’s a problem
As with dealing with any additive behaviour, you firstly need to accept this is a problem. Then start to explore why it’s happening.
Ray Sadoun, a mental health and addiction recovery specialist, comments: ‘You need to become aware that you are mindless scrolling. Each time you pick up your phone, ask yourself why you’re reaching for it and whether you have a positive end goal in mind.
‘Often we pick up our phone as a coping mechanism, so it’s important to check in with yourself and see if there is anything you are trying to solve by scrolling.
‘For example, check that you aren’t hungry, tired, bored, or upset about something. If any of these apply, think of a better way you could address the problem, such as reaching for a healthy snack if you’re hungry or journalling if you’re feeling down.’
This awareness will help you understand the habit more – which is the first step on the road to making a change.
2. Consider the role of timers – and if they will work for you
We’re all familiar with the screen time function on our phones, but do timers actually help?
‘Any tools, digital or not, which help us critically engage with our digital practices -and highlight where our time is spent on our devices – are useful and draws our attention towards the embedded habitual and compulsive responses to our digital companion,’ says Dr Rachael Kent, a digital health expert at King’s College London,
‘However, be conscious that digital screen management tools will still, to an extent, add to your screen time and generate some digital fatigue.’
It’s worth pointing out that timers won’t actually stop the act of mindless scrolling, they’ll simply limit it before it carries on for too long.
If you want to actively stop getting lost in the scroll, there are some other avenues to go down.
3. Start using your phone for a purpose…
Often we use our phones to kill time – but this simply fuels a mindless scrolling habit.
Instead it’s good to get into a routine of only picking up a phone when you can say exactly why you’re using it.
Rachael adds: ‘Your phone is not your companion, so try and stop picking up your phone as a habit.
‘Decide before you pick up your phone what you’re using it for (e.g. to call a friend, or for dinner inspo).
4. Then, try to scroll with purpose, too
Yes, it is possible to scroll with purpose, says Ray Sadoun.
‘Sometimes, we want to wind down at the end of a long day and getting updated on the lives of others isn’t always a bad way to do this,’ explains Ray.
‘For example, you may scroll through Facebook and enjoy seeing photos of friends’ holidays or cosy days at home.
‘Another example of scrolling with purpose is when we see an interesting hashtag and we decide to research it, gathering information about the topic.’
The scrolling becomes mindless when we either begin to do it with no clear goal in mind, or when we get wrapped up in it and hours pass without us realising.
Instead if we change our mindset by telling ourselves we are using social media for a particular purpose – such as to see what a friend is up to or to find a product to purchase – then we are engaging with the apps more effectively.
This should change our relationship with them as a result.
5. Break the habit by creating distance
Interestly, experts say a digital detox sometimes isn’t enough to form healthier long-term habits.
‘You need to physically create boundaries and distance from your devices and use them with specific intention,’ adds Rachael.
This could be by going cold turkey and ditching your device all together for a few days.
‘If your phone or social media is taking over your life you should have a break of at least three days,’ says hypnotherapist and psychologist Aaron Surtees.
‘This is the minimum amount of time that you will feel any form of benefit.’
Alternatively, creating physical distance between you and the phone – such as placing the device in another room when relaxing at home, or leaving it at home or in your bag (with notifications off), when out socialising with family and friends – can also help.
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