Is Dopamine Fasting a Way to Fix Your Brain or a Silicon Valley Fad?
The newest fast in the name of well-being doesn’t just call for giving up your favorite foods. Instead your aim is to abstain from all of your most pleasurable activities.
“Dopamine fasting” has hit Silicon Valley, with some people in the area striving to reset their dopamine levels by completely abstaining from anything that brings them pleasure: smartphones, social media, Netflix, video games, delicious foods, eye contact during conversations, and — yes — even sex.
James Sinka, a startup founder in San Francisco who has embraced dopamine fasting, 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.”
Dopamine fasters subscribe to the idea that the more we’re exposed to the exhilaration of dopamine, the more we need to pursue higher levels of stimulation to achieve the same effect.
Cameron Sepah, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and executive coach, developed the practice this year.
In his guide to dopamine fasting, Sepah wrote that “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.”
Sepah believes that dopamine fasting is “the antidote to our overstimulated age.” But his original version differs from the version embraced in Silicon Valley, which takes his concept to extremes. Sepah doesn’t recommend avoiding all stimulation — especially human interaction, which is beneficial — but only giving up a specific problematic behavior, like scrolling on social media, for as little as one hour a day.
We talked to experts about the science behind dopamine and whether or not a “fast” can help your brain.
So can dopamine “fasting” help your brain? Experts say maybe, but not for the reasons people may think.
Taking a break from a stimulating activity (or all of them) “will stop turning on the dopamine system over and over like everyday life does, but it isn’t going to reset it,” according to Kent Berridge, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan.
“That’s not that clearing your mind won’t allow you to enjoy pleasures more,” he told Healthline. “It just won’t be a result of the regulation of dopamine.”
Trying to reset dopamine levels in order to increase pleasure may rest in a misunderstanding of how dopamine works in the first place.
Decades ago, dopamine was thought to be the pleasure chemical. But researchers now understand how it works — and its nuances — more deeply.
Dopamine is better understood as being a chemical in the brain related to motivation — and thus an important part of discussing addiction treatment — but it’s a bit more complex than that. It’s part of a larger rewards system in our brain.
Rewards are things we both like and want.
“The liking and wanting of these things is separately assigned, and dopamine is responsible for the wanting,” Berridge explained.
To break down this dual system, take the example of a text notification sound. You hear the sound go off, and you want to see what the text says. That’s because the notification sound has triggered dopamine. The text might not be a message that brings you happiness.
“These [social media] cues are perfect little triggers for dopamine systems — whether we’re liking these things or not,” Berridge noted.
While getting a hit of dopamine with a new text can be invigorating, according to Berridge, it can be distracting and distressing if it goes too far. If you feel drawn in by social media, which “continually retriggers a state of desire,” or another source of constant dopamine, he said that it’s understandable to want to distance yourself or escape the source.
It’s clear that many people are seeking ways to escape bad habits that result in a response that doesn’t feel good, whether it be loneliness or overeating.
They won’t find a total solution in dopamine fasting. But Berridge noted that it’s one important element of resisting temptation.
“Dopamine fasting is a great strategy,” when it’s not taken too far, such as avoiding eye contact. “It’s just not the total solution,” he said.
In fact, studies on how to successfully resist temptation have found that having a concrete procedure, like seeing the dessert tray at a party and choosing to walk past and stand away from the sweets, is very effective.
Still, “We can’t just ask the world to go away and not tempt us anymore,” Berridge pointed out.
Actually dealing with temptations or negative feelings or behaviors is different from the dopamine fast. To do this, Berridge recommended practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness can help you come up with ways to deal with difficult things you’ll encounter daily, while still enjoying everyday life.
To practice mindfulness, the next time you find yourself bored and reaching for your phone to scroll through social media mindlessly, pause and take note of what you’re thinking and how your body feels. Then choose something else to do instead, like take a walk or make tea.