Dopamine fasting” is the hot new trend in Silicon Valley — but what is it, exactly? The catchy title has helped the practice catch on, but it’s also caused lots of confusion about what it means.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in our brain’s system for motivation, reward, and pleasure. The idea behind dopamine fasting is that we may be getting too much of a good thing in today’s attention economy, and so we need to carve out time to go without stimulation from things that can become addictive — smartphones, TV, internet, gaming, shopping, gambling.
“Taking a break from behaviors that trigger strong amounts of dopamine release (especially in a repeated fashion) allows our brain to recover and restore itself,” wrote Cameron Sepah, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, in his original guide to dopamine fasting (published in August) that seemed to have set off the current trend.
Sepah suggested that without such breaks, we become habituated to high levels of the chemical, so we need to seek out ever-higher doses of stimulation to achieve the same pleasurable effect. He’s gotten a number of his clients — many of them Silicon Valley executives — to adopt dopamine fasting, which he says is based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
But it has since been taken up by folks who are taking it to extremes, avoiding everything from friendly conversation to eye contact.
James Sinka, a young start-up founder and dopamine faster, told the New York Times, “I avoid eye contact because I know it excites me. I avoid busy streets because they’re jarring. I have to fight the waves of delicious foods.” And one woman tweeted about how she bumped into an old friend in San Francisco only to be told “he was on a ‘dopamine fast’ and thus had to cut our convo short (lest he acquire too much dopamine).”
These people have interpreted dopamine fasting as being about, well, reducing dopamine. But if that’s your goal, you’ve got a problem, because generally speaking, dopamine is not under our control.
Dopamine floods your system when you experience unanticipated things — finding chocolate where you didn’t expect to find any, for example. But if something becomes expected (there’s always chocolate in your office snack room at noon), then dopamine starts firing in anticipation of getting that reward. In other words, telling yourself you’re going to abstain from indulgent snacks tomorrow won’t necessarily work because your mind would still anticipate them. So, can somebody really fast from dopamine?
“Well, if they’re anticipating anything — like eating chocolate or having a conversation — that’s not something you typically have conscious control over,” Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University who specializes in addiction, told me.
Sepah told me that what guys like Sinka are doing is not at all what he had in mind, adding that his guide makes clear that dopamine fasting is not an avoidance of dopamine or anything stimulating.
So what is it, really, and can it actually help us deal with addictions that are making us suffer?
“The point of dopamine fasting is to increase behavioral flexibility, by reducing impulsive behavior for extended periods of time,” Sepah emailed me. Basically, by avoiding stimuli like smartphone notifications and exposing ourselves to negative feelings of anxiety, boredom, and loneliness without giving in to the temptation to distract ourselves, we can weaken our conditioned response to grab our devices anytime they ding or we feel bad.
This is classic behaviorism, and it’s perfectly fine, as far as it goes. The idea that we should practice exposing ourselves to anxious, bored, or lonely feelings without resorting to our usual escape methods, like checking our phones, is one you’ll find in countless CBT-based guides to tolerating distress.
And the idea of carving out specific times to avoid certain stimuli is something you’ll find in millennia-old practices — Buddhist meditation, say, or the Jewish Sabbath, which involves abstaining from electronic devices for a day but also involves engaging in prosocial activity. For that matter, dopamine fasting seems not all that different from common-sense wisdom like simply taking a break or enjoying a weekend of camping.
A perennial frustration with Silicon Valley is that it tends to come up with “trends” that it markets as innovative new discoveries, when they’re really tried and true practices. That’s largely the case here. Dopamine fasting is less a new trend than a practice that we already know is good for us. Couched in neuroscientific terms, it’s been given the sheen of cool — then marketed back to us.