Mental health expert says spending too much time online is leading to 'popcorn brain'

A woman lying down using her mobile phone
-Credit: (Image: Getty / Gary Burchell)

Warnings are being sounded about the dangers of excessive screen time, which experts claim can 'literally fry your brain'. The term 'popcorn brain' has been used to describe the effect that relentless social media and screen exposure can have on our minds over time.

The analogy is simple: just as corn kernels burst into popcorn with heat, our brains may react similarly under the constant stimulation from our screens. This doesn't mean our brains actually 'pop', but rather they experience a kind of 'frenzy' due to the rapid and disjointed nature of the digital world, overflowing with information.

Dr Aditi Nerurkar, a Harvard-trained physician with expertise in mental health, discussed this phenomenon with Steven Bartlett on his podcast, Diary of a CEO. She explained to Steven, "Most people have popcorn brain... It is a biological phenomenon, coined by a psychologist name Dr Levy and it is essentially your brain circuitry starting to pop based on over stimulation.

"It's not that your brain is actually popping but it's that sensation of popcorning because of spending too much time online. It is hard to disengage from what's happening online because there's a constant information stream and it is difficult to live fully offline where life moves at a decidedly slower place."

"This is something 'nearly everyone does'," Dr Nerurkar observed, highlighting the rarity of seeing someone without their phone in hand while queuing at shops or strolling down the street, reports the Express.

She further noted that during times of stress, we are "especially prone" to what she terms 'popcorn brain', driven by an "onslaught of bad news" that taps into our "primal urge to scroll for danger".

Dr Nerurkar doesn't believe people need to turn into "digital monks" and completely shun screen time.

"It's about setting digital boundaries. In every relationship in your life, you have boundaries - with your partner, children, colleagues - because relationships need them to thrive so why don't we have one with our phones? With our phones it is simply porous," she explained.

TikTok also saw New York University neuroscientist Dr Wendy Suzuki weigh in on 'popcorn brain'. She explained: "Popcorn brain refers to the constant stimulation our brains get from all of our digital devices. Our brains get used to those quick, intense bursts of information and instant gratification."

"That might just sound like normal, everyday life to you, but long-term popcorn brain can lead to cognitive impairments like decreased attention span, anxiety and decreased productivity. So, if you think you might be suffering from popcorn brain, here is what I suggest you do [this week]."

"At least once this week, put that phone away and engage in your favourite non-digital hobby - like reading, painting, music, boxing. Whatever it is, make sure it's not on a device and make sure you love it."