Silicon Valley is obsessed with ‘dopamine fasting’ to stay sane. It might actually work, but not because of dopamine.

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  • Dopamine fasting is a hot Silicon Valley trend that involves taking a time-out from presumed “problematic” and “pleasurable” behaviors such as cruising through social media, gaming, masturbating, having sex, eating (especially the emotional kind), and thrill-seeking.
  • Neuroscientists say that there’s nothing dopamine-draining about a tech or sex fast. In fact, it would be better billed as a “stimulation fast.”
  • “You can totally block the dopamine system and it doesn’t change a human or an animal’s ability to feel pleasure,” Stanford Neuroscientist Russell Poldrack told Insider.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For the last few months, Silicon Valley tech circles have been abuzz about dopamine fasting.

It’s a term that was first coined in 2016, and recently re-popularized by UCSF psychology professor and venture capitalist Cameron Sepah, who said he was looking for a way for himself and his clients to better maintain focus, disconnect from their devices, regulate emotions, and not get swept up in to a culture of constant notifications, arousal, and bingeing.

“You can’t abstain from technology altogether, but this provides a structure to limit or compartmentalize in a way that allows your brain to reset a bit,” Sepah previously told Business Insider. “It’s what healthy people do: turning your computer off at night, taking time off on weekends, taking vacations.”

Russell Poldrack, a professor at nearby Stanford University, has noticed a lot of excitement about the idea around the Bay Area in recent months.

“I see it once a day,” he told Insider of the talk about dopamine fasting that now permeates his news feeds.

Poldrack isn’t opposed to the idea of taking a prescribed break from a buzzing phone ( he’s on sabbatical right now himself, holed up writing a book about habits and self-control). But he says connecting the ideas of arousal and pleasure to the brain chemical dopamine is wrong. Instead, we should think of it as a “stimulation fast.”

Dopamine is often misunderstood as the “pleasure” chemical, but it’s more linked to motivation, desire, and drive

Poldrack, like any seasoned neuroscientist, will tell you that dopamine is a tricky brain chemical to pin down.

“Any one thing you’re going to say about dopamine to characterize its function is going to be wrong,” he said. “But it would be hard to find something more wrong than associating it with pleasure, because we know that dopamine has nothing to do with the experience of pleasure, at least directly.”

Instead, it’s more accurate to think of dopamine as a driver. It prompts us to want things, and that drive doesn’t necessarily change just because we stop doing certain activities.

“You can totally block the dopamine system and it doesn’t change a human or an animal’s ability to feel pleasure,” Poldrack said. “What it changes is the degree to which they want things out in the world, and the degree to which they will actually go do something to get those things.”

Dopamine does respond to both pleasurable and unexpected experiences, just like it responds to all sorts of interesting experiences we have every day. This may be where the confusion begins.

junk food snacks chips processed

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“Dopamine certainly turns on when you experience something pleasurable for the first time,” Poldrack said. “But that doesn’t mean that dopamine is the thing that is causing one to feel the pleasure.”

Without dopamine, you wouldn’t do much of anything, on your phone, or otherwise. When you think of dopamine starvation, Poldrack suggests, think of the catatonic patients sitting around in Oliver Sacks’s “Awakenings,” with no will to act. Or imagine a lethargic, lab rat that can’t summon the will to leap over a hurdle for a little extra food.

“Even if you go to a week long meditation retreat, your dopamine system is still running during that week,” Poldrack said. “It’s doing different things, but it’s not as if you turn off the system.”

He suggests that a “stimulation” fast may be a more apt term for the hours, days, or weeks one chooses to spend without phones, computers, games, or sex.

Dopamine fasting may still be a good idea, despite the name

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A bit of time spent meditating, getting offline, and in quiet solace can be an excellent endeavor, no matter what you call it.

Take Colin O’Brady, the endurance athlete who became the first person to cross Antarctica on a solo, unaided journey last year. He says a key part of the reason he successfully crossed the coldest, windiest, driest continent on Earth is because before he went, he’d participated in multiple 10-day vipassana meditation retreats, sitting in silence and meditating for 10 hours each day.

“It’s completely free to go and it’s just been a great way to have more awareness around myself, my mind, my body, my spirit,” he told Business Insider last year.

Poldrack agrees.

“The kind of practice at self-control that one engages in, in doing one of these fasts, can be useful – if only just to give you a feeling of mastery over your own behavior,” he said.

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel, executive director of the Mindsight Institute in California, has written extensively about how to develop a mindful brain. He’s told Business Insider before that becoming aware of one’s “interior life,” by tapping in to the feelings and sensations of body and mind is a great way to begin.

Studies have shown that quiet, meditative retreat may strengthen your ability to empathize with others, help boost memory, and improve focus. Just don’t think it’s going to fundamentally alter your brain more than any other action of the day would.

“As we go throughout the world, our brain is always changing,” Poldrack said. “I don’t think there’s any sort of special way in which a stimulation fast is going to change your brain.”