Social Media Is Giving Us Popcorn Brain

It goes beyond just being a bit scatterbrained

popcorn brain illustration of hands holding cell phones with text bubbles
We Are/getty images

You’ve worked all day and you’re ready to chill on the couch and relax. You queue up the latest season of Love Is Blind and watch approximately seven minutes of it before opening Instagram, scrolling through a few (dozen) TikToks and checking your Hinge for any new matches. If you find it nearly impossible to focus on one thing at a time, you might be dealing with popcorn brain, a term for when your brain jumps from one thing to another (like a bag of popcorn popping in the microwave). Below, meditation coach Leah Santa Cruz explains why popcorn brain is harmful, and what to do to counteract it.

Meet the Expert

Leah Santa Cruz is a meditation coach and one the Co-Heads of Meditation at Balance, a meditation platform. With a background in cognitive and behavioral science followed by a decade working in fast-paced careers for Microsoft and tech startups, she experienced anxiety and burnout firsthand. Meditation became her path to healing, and today, with more than 1,000 hours of yoga and meditation training under her belt, Santa Cruz serves as a trusted senior teacher, having taught more than 5,000 meditation classes spanning ten countries and five continents.

First, What Is Popcorn Brain (and What Does It Have to Do with Social Media)?

 “Think of popcorn brain as your mind hopping around frantically, like popcorn popping off in the microwave—never settling in one place for too long,” Santa Cruz says. She explains that it’s always been a problem in the modern age, but has ballooned in recent years largely thanks to social media. “These platforms are engineered to make us addicted and subsequently deregulate our nervous system for their profit. They do this with notification sounds and visual badges that send our brains into high alert, fast moving videos that catch our eye and keep us engaged while feeding us a steady diet of likes and comments that light up our brains with little dopamine hits.” She says that all of that noise (both literal and figurative) makes the body and brain go into a state of alarm that lasts throughout the day as we continue checking our devices. “This constant stimulation encourages our minds to keep jumping from one thing to another, making it a challenge to focus on anything for an extended period.”

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popcorn brain close up photo of a woman texting
Tim Robberts/getty images

Why Should We Be Concerned?

“The impact goes beyond just being a bit scatterbrained; it actually digs deep into our overall well-being,” Santa Cruz tells us. She explains that most digital platforms, especially social media, keep us in a near-constant state of alertness, ramping up our stress hormones and anxiety levels. “This habit of constantly scrolling and checking our phones easily becomes an addiction. The biggest sign is this scattered attention, subtly but significantly affecting our lives. It's tricky because it’s normalized in our culture—everyone's doing it, so it doesn't seem like an issue.”

Still, she says, it undermines our ability to truly connect with others and to immerse ourselves in work or hobbies, and can lead to mood swings, anxiety, attention disorders, suffering relationships and even physical health issues and depression. “In essence, our capacity for deep, meaningful experiences is being eroded in exchange for fleeting moments of satisfaction.”

3 Ways to Counteract Popcorn Brain

Santa Cruz advocates for relearning the art of “long attention.” Remember when you were a kid and could get lost in an activity for hours? That’s long attention. “It might take some practice, but dedicating time to these kinds of practices that require uninterrupted attention helps our brains build new pathways,” she explains, noting that after a while, you’ll notice a shift towards feeling more at peace and more connected with people and activities, and rediscovering the joy in being fully present in the moment. Here are four things to try.

  • Meditation can offer a powerful antidote to popcorn brain. Per Santa Cruz, meditation teaches us how to gently guide our attention to rest where we want it. “This practice of being fully immersed, without the need to switch or multitask, can transform our mental landscape,” she explains, and adds that meditation newbies can benefit from guided or personalized meditations like those offered in the Balance app.
  • Pick an activity that you can really dive into without any screens involved. The key here is to stay fully present with whatever activity you choose, whether that’s reading a book, doodling in an adult coloring book or pretty much any other hobby. “See if you can be immersed in something for two to three hours with your phone off,” Santa Cruz suggests. “Feel the fear and cravings that come, wanting you to check your messages or do something else. But stay with this activity.”
  • Practice doing nothing for a few moments. Just be. Notice what impulses and sensations arise within you. It might feel weird at first (and like you have one million other things you should be doing), but you might be surprised how at peace you can feel.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...