Dopamine fasts: Why Silicon Valley tech workers are avoiding food, TV, sex, music, exercise and eye contact

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure 

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Thursday 07 November 2019 21:56
Tech workers are trying a new trend called 'dopamine fasting'

A new craze is gaining traction among tech workers, and it entails doing absolutely nothing.

As humans become increasingly subjected to endless choices, whether they be for food, romantic partners, or content, some people believe we run the risk of becoming overstimulated - which, in turn, could make it difficult to regulate emotions.

According to Dr Cameron Sepah, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who published an article on the topic on LinkedIn, this overstimulation eventually makes us less sensitive to dopamine - a neurotransmitter in our brains that plays a role in how we feel pleasure and motivation.

“We may be getting too much of a good thing,” he explained.

To counteract this state of being, Dr Sepah suggests dopamine fasting 2.0 - a concept that sees people limit behaviours that “trigger strong amounts of dopamine release” to allow “our brain to recover and restore itself”.

Acknowledging that the initial idea of dopamine fasting can be traced back to both silent Vipassana meditation retreats, and a more-recent version of the same tactic popularised in 2016, Dr Sepah says the new-and-improved version of the technique, which focuses on abstaining from just one particular behaviour, whether it’s a bad habit or addictive, can be useful in resetting the brain.

“To decide what to fast from, simply regard whether it’s highly pleasurable or problematic for you, and thus you may need a break from,” he wrote.

However, because excess is a theme in today’s world, people have begun implementing dopamine fasts to the extreme - by temporarily cutting themselves off from anything that may produce the chemical for up to 24 hours at a time.

For three millennial founders of a sleep analysis start-up called SleepWell, who are based in Silicon Valley, California, a dopamine fast means a fast of “everything” because they believe they’ve become “addicted” to the chemical.

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“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,” co-founder James Sinka told The New York Times.

To break the addiction, the men refrain from eating, using technology, listening to music, exercising, having sex or touching another’s body for any other reason, working, making eye contact and talking.

Instead, they engage in mundane tasks such as light stretching, or flipping through a textbook of photos of chemical compounds to find patterns.

After the fast, everyday tasks are “more exciting and fun” and “work is pleasurable again,” according to Sinka.

They are not the only ones, as more and more people are describing their own experiences with dopamine fasting.

However, experts don’t necessarily agree that humans require fasting to break addiction to dopamine that is released through normal activities.

According to Jaime Castrellon, who has published research on dopamine’s impact on value computation and self-control in the Journal of Neuroscience, addiction is not the same as enjoying pleasurable activities.

“Engaging in everyday activities is typically normal and should not be compared to substance or behavioural addictions,” Castrellon told Vice. “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.”

He also said that “temporary abstinence may not affect dopamine levels,” especially if you are spending the fast at home.

“We would still expect to see dopamine release in response to cues in the environment,” he explained. “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.”

Overall, while it is unlikely to be harmful, dopamine fasting is also unlikely to benefit you in any substantial way.

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