Tech bros bring us some of the best (read: weirdest) wellness trends. They're the ones who started guzzling Soylent when there was still just one flavor. They're the ones who started saying that microdosing LSD could improve productivity. And now they've thought up a new happiness hack: dopamine fasting.
No, it's not a new eating plan à la intermittent fasting. This technique requires depriving yourself of the basic joys in life for an extended amount of time. Yes, really. It sounds absurd, but young professionals — and even some neuroscientists — are standing behind it.
“We’re addicted to dopamine,” James Sinka, a Silicon Valley techie and dopamine fasting fan told the New York Times. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher.”
“Your brain and your biology have become adapted to high levels of stimulus," he continued. "So our project is to reset those receptors so you’re satiated again,” he said.
It kind of makes sense. It's like alcohol. Maybe when someone first starts drinking, one beer would give them a nice buzz. But if they drink often, they'll need more and more to feel that same sensation. Sinka, and other people who believe in dopamine fasting, say the same thing can happen with the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brain.
So to "reset" their tolerance, they intentionally avoid activities that might cause their dopamine levels to spike. When they end a fast, everyday experiences feel even better. Sinka claims that after a fast, he feels more energized, more excited, and more ready to take on a day's work.
Despite the name, the method isn't about dopamine alone. “Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced, and makes for a catchy title,” Dr. Cameron Sepah, a professor at UCSF Medical School, told the New York Times. “The title’s not to be taken literally.” Sepah, a dopamine faster himself, describes the practice as more of an overall stimulation fast.
What is dopamine fasting?
First things first: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that deals with how we feel pleasure, motivation, and is an important factor in our brain's reward system. It doesn't make us feel good in and of itself, but it does make us more motivated to chase down the things that do make us feel good. We receive hits of dopamine when something excites us — anything from seeing a cute dog on the street or getting an Instagram like from a crush to eating an amazing meal to having a great conversation with a friend.
To dopamine fast, you halt any kind of stimulation, period, for an entire day. There's no talking, no eating, no exercising, no making eye contact, no playing with animals. You can go for a walk if you dare, but you'll risk seeing someone you know or accidentally interacting with something that'll stimulate you (like a cute tiny dog going for a stroll). All you're really allowed to do is... sit, write, and maybe read (but nothing overtly stimulating, so no 50 Shades of Grey).
Proponents of the practice claim that after this fast, your dopamine tolerance levels will be lowered, your brain will be "rebooted", and you'll be able to appreciate every day pleasures more than you would have before.
Does it actually work?
There are mixed reviews on whether or not a stimulation fast will actually reset your brain.
"It is true that any sort of intense stimulation to any part of the body and brain, cause the sensors of that stimulation to 'turn down'," Peter Sterling, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, tells Refinery29. "This is basic biology. So when we live by getting great surges of dopamine from rich foods, alcohol, nicotine and the rest, our dopamine receptor densensitizes and then we need more."
"Meditation, withdrawal from social interactions and drugs etc., probably does reduce these surges and I expect would restore sensitivity to small pulses to which we were normally sensitive," Sterling continues. He likes to call these "sacred practices" instead of dopamine fasting. He says this can restore sensitivity to life's small daily pleasures, and it won't harm your mental or physical health.
Others are not so convinced. Joshua Berke, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, told BBC that "dopamine does not have a straightforward relationship to ‘pleasure’ or ‘happiness," and he's “not aware of any evidence at all” for the practice. “This is a fad, not a controlled study,” he continued. “It certainly sounds plausible that taking a break from obsessively checking your social media account and partying every night is good for you. [It’s] just unlikely to have much to do with dopamine per se.”
To be clear, Sinka says that he only does a 24-hour fast once every quarter — aka four times a year. If you're interested in trying out a stimulation fast yourself, there's no scientific reason not to — you'll just need to prepare yourself for the long, boring day ahead.