We live in very stimulating times. The non-stop bombardment of information and indulgences that is modern life has transformed us into needy, pleasure-addicted thrillseekers! That’s the conceit the proponents of “dopamine fasting” are running with, at least. Richard, a full-time life coach who runs a YouTube channel called ImprovementPill, posted an instructional video on dopamine fasting in November 2018 that has garnered almost 1.7 million views. “I came up with the concept when I was in a rut,” Richard told VICE.
Some blog posts have credited him as the inventor of the practice, but Richard says he first heard the term “dopamine fasting” floating around self-improvement internet forums a few years ago, and remembered it again as a college student who felt drained and lethargic from partying and slacking off watching Netflix and neglecting healthier habits—doing “nothing,” in his words. “I was like, what if I just doubled-down on doing nothing and just did a lot of nothing for a whole day, I wonder what that’s gonna do?”
A dopamine fast is the supposed antidote for the inattentiveness that plagues us, the burnout induced by too much of too many good things. It consists of a period of abstention from earthy delights like sex, drugs, and, in some extreme cases, talking to other people, for 24 hours or more. The desired end result is a neurochemical “reset”—a brain decluttered, procrastination banished, focus sharpened. If the idea of abstaining from anything fun in order to increase your mental clarity is appealing, congratulations: You and the notorious biohackers in Silicon Valley are on the same wave.
Before we get too far into it, it’s best to know that dopamine fasting probably doesn’t really have a lot to do with dopamine—definitely not enough to merit the moniker, according to researchers familiar with the neurotransmitter. MEL Magazine’s report on dopamine fasting compared the practice to meditation, specifically “Vipassanā meditation,” and one faster they interviewed told them dopamine fasting was a reaction to our present-day understanding of the brain (“A lot of the concepts have been used for a very long time, but in the modern era we understand neurology”), though probably an overextended one.
“My main problem is this: If someone wants to demonstrate that this is an effective therapy, then they should not just offer it as ‘effective’ on the internet, and start a fad in California,” John Salamone, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut, told VICE via email. “I feel that it is misleading to call this ‘dopamine fasting,’ as if dopamine was the only thing being affected.”
Salamone also emphasized that the idea that dopamine equals pleasure is a pretty serious oversimplification. “Dopamine is involved in many functions, including motivation, emotion, learning, and reinforcement. The role in mood is complicated, so dopamine is not just a ‘pleasure chemical,’” Salamone said. “People often attribute the pleasure induced by food or drugs to dopamine, [but] there is evidence indicating that interfering with dopamine transmission does not alter hedonic reactivity to food, and that dopamine antagonist drugs do not consistently block the subjectively rated euphoria induced by drugs of abuse.”
But beyond the misnomer, health and media psychologist Nancy Mramor said she could imagine the kind of break a dopamine fast entails being useful—though a little more rigorous than the average person needs. “Normally, a person is not overly concerned with all of these things at once, but is more over-indulgent in one or two,” she told VICE. “For example, a measured amount of TV watching, reading, or coffee drinking can fit into a balanced life. But if something like reading has become a way of escaping from life, responsibility, and human interaction, then it would be wise to take a break.”
Mramor said that a mental health professional would be more likely to recommend a tiered approach than a leap to total abstinence. “Often, a person needs to take a break from something in order to get in perspective, gradually reintroducing it into their life until it reaches an agreed upon level and staying there,” she said. “If the individual is in therapy, the client and therapist could work together to establish a good level of use.”
A viral article posted on LinkedIn by University of California San Francisco assistant clinical psychiatry professor and “executive psychologist” Cameron Sepah put dopamine fasting back on the radar in early August. The post linked the practice to Silicon Valley, dubbing it the “hot trend” akin to intermittent fasting. “It’s unclear what the long-term implications of this overstimulation are on our brains, but in my private practice working with executive clients, I have observed that this interferes with our ability to sustain attention, regulate our emotions in non-avoidant ways, and enjoy simple tasks that seem boring by comparison,” Sepah wrote. “We may be getting too much of a good thing, especially when dopamine reinforces behaviors that are out of line with our values.” He also links dopamine release to addiction: “Even behaviors such as gaming or gambling can become problematic and addictive through the reinforcement that dopamine brings.” MEL spoke to Sepah, who admitted the term “dopamine fasting” was more about provoking a reaction than maintaining accuracy. “The term is technically incorrect, but ‘stimulus control 101 for dealing with addictive behavior’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it,” he said.
But Jaime Castrellon, whose research on dopamine’s impact on value computation and self-control has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience, took issue with the language in Sepah’s dopamine fast article equating pleasure-seeking with addiction.
“Engaging in everyday activities is typically normal and should not be compared to substance or behavioral addictions,” Castrellon said over email. “Generally, higher levels of dopamine has been linked to positive feelings like excitement and ‘wanting’ to engage in something pleasurable. These feelings support learning positive outcomes from past decisions and keep us motivated for future ones.”
Sepah’s article states that dopamine fasting is not a one-size-fits-all practice, because not everyone derives pleasure from the same stimuli. But he suggests a few basics for fasters to cut out: sex, internet use, shopping, pleasure eating, thrill-seeking, and recreational drugs.
Richard’s dopamine fasting approach is more restrictive: He cuts out all activities besides writing, taking walks, and drinking water. The YouTuber said that although he’s only dopamine fasted three times in his life, it’s been a restorative experience every time. “It’s kind of like a reset button,” Richard said. The day after a dopamine fast, he said, his motivation is always sharper than before. “You end up doing all the things you ‘should’ be doing. Since you just spent a whole day doing nothing, anything sounds fun.”
Castrellon said temporary abstinence may not affect dopamine levels, especially if you’re taking time off from fun by staying home all day, in familiar territory. “We would still expect to see dopamine release in response to cues in the environment,” he said. “Maybe you don’t turn on Netflix when you get home, but just seeing the TV itself triggers dopamine to release because it’s been associated with watching Netflix.”
Castrellon did add that if dopamine fasting were to impact the brain’s levels of the neurotransmitter, it could have a “reset” effect, just not the same one Richard described feeling. “If abstaining from everyday pleasurable activities and goods did have an effect, we would actually expect the brain to re-calibrate and become more sensitive to whatever rewards you’re still getting—like water or plain food, since those would now be the only thing left to give you pleasure,” he said. But, due in part to the fact that everyone has different brain chemistry, there’s no formal research on this subject in particular; so far, we’ve only got lifestyle bro pseudo-trip diaries to work off of.
From a mental health perspective, Mramor said a dopamine fast could also be a useful tool for gaining perspective on your habits and establishing boundaries with yourself. “Anyone taking a break will begin to notice the many times a day they indulged (‘I would have been eating junk food right now,’ or ‘I would have had my phone on all night’), raising conscious awareness of their behavior and the destructive level of it,” she said. Of course, this leaves open the possibility of extreme abstinence. I’d say it’s only a matter of time before we hear about someone heading out into the desert to forgo fun permanently, but they since they’d have sworn off posting forever, we’d never even know about it.
Richard, for his part, acknowledged that dopamine fasting’s benefits could absolutely be rooted in the placebo effect, but still encouraged anyone considering it to give it a try. “There’s really no risk—it’s not like a change in diet, or some sort of medication or supplement,” he said. “After you do it, you’ll know whether or not it works. You can’t really get hurt from doing nothing.”
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