How dopamine fasting works — and doesn’t.
In the far reaches of the country, tucked away near the ocean, some people are going out of their way to avoid the many pleasant things life has to offer. Online movies. Rich foods. Friendly conversations. Eye contact.
No, these people are not monks. They’re adherents of a different gospel: a hot new Silicon Valley lifestyle trend called dopamine fasting.
The practice has caught on — or at least caught on in enough of a high-profile community that the media, including the New York Times, has begun to publish article after article about it. So, what is it exactly?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in our brain’s system for motivation, reward, and pleasure. When we encounter something like a delicious cupcake or a cute puppy photo on Facebook, dopamine gets released in the brain.
The idea behind dopamine fasting is that we may be getting too much of a good thing in today’s attention economy, and we need to carve out time without stimulation from things that can become addictive — smartphones, TV, internet, gaming, shopping, gambling — so that we can regain control over how we spend our time.
Cameron Sepah, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, popularized dopamine fasting in August when he published a guide to the practice on LinkedIn. “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,” he wrote.
Sepah suggested that without such breaks, we become habituated to high levels of the chemical, so we feel the need to seek out ever-higher doses of stimulation to achieve the same pleasurable effect.
He’s gotten a number of his clients — many of them Silicon Valley executives — to adopt dopamine fasting, which he says is based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment approach that helps people change unhelpful ways of thinking that influence their behavior. CBT is often used to treat addictions.
But dopamine fasting has since been adopted by folks (mainly in the Bay Area) who are taking it to extremes.
In October, a woman tweeted about her perplexity upon encountering one such faster: “In an instance of the Bay Area being very Bay Area: today was my first day in SF since moving here, and I ran into someone from my [Y Combinator] batch who told me he was on a ‘dopamine fast’ and thus had to cut our convo short (lest he acquire too much dopamine).”
James Sinka, a young, San Francisco-based startup founder and dopamine faster, 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.”
The rise of dopamine fasting is unsurprising amid what we might call the ascetic turn of Silicon Valley. In recent years, tech bros and those they influence have been embracing monkish practices. The prime example is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who rhapsodizes about the benefits of intermittent fasting, where you abstain from food for hours or days at a time.
And now that dopamine fasting has taken off, at least in the Bay Area, it’s being interpreted by some adherents in the most ascetic way possible.
But is there actually something to dopamine fasting? Or is this just another fad, one based on shoddy science? For that matter, is it just reinventing the wheel — taking a practice we already know is good for us and giving it the sheen of cool by couching it in neuroscientific terms, then marketing it back to us?
Where did the term “dopamine fasting” come from?
Sepah didn’t invent the name “dopamine fasting.” The term has been used on internet discussion forums since at least 2016. A man named Greg Kamphuis launched “The Dopamine Challenge” and took to Reddit to invite people to join him in a 40-day fast from “TV, refined sugar, alcohol, processed fats, nicotine, recreational drugs, caffeine, and porn” while also “making deliberate choices about meal times, social media, and shopping.”
Kamphuis described the fast as his “desperate attempt to get healthy and motivated” and to “sacrifice a few weeks of pleasure to search for a lifetime of joy.”
Right there we see a common misconception about dopamine: People often think of it as “the pleasure molecule,” that thing in our brains that makes us feel good. But neuroscientists will tell you that’s oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy.
Dopamine is involved in the complex process of reward-based learning, memory, and motivation. When you find a sugary snack, eat it, and discover it tastes delicious, your brain releases dopamine, which helps lay down a context-dependent memory. It’s a signal that says, “Remember what you’re eating and where you found it!” Dopamine also motivates you to repeat the process — to get up and go looking for that sugary snack again in the future.
When Kamphuis circulated his idea for a dopamine fast, it didn’t seem to attract broad appeal. But this August, when Sepah published his guide and taught it to Silicon Valley execs, it took off. He used the term “dopamine fasting 2.0” to differentiate the modified protocol he created, which is a lot easier than Kamphuis’s. It recommends that you abstain for a short period (as short as one hour per day) from whichever specific behavior has become problematic for you — whether it’s gaming, gambling, scrolling through social media, or something else.
Now, however, he says his protocol has been misinterpreted. People like Sinka, the eye-contact-avoider, are engaged in “their own extremist practice,” Sepah told me, “which is completely incompatible with my protocol.”
Sepah thinks the media — which he says likes to mock “Silicon Valley male excess” — is partly to blame for the misunderstanding. In a blog post, he wrote that the Times was wrong to claim that “dopamine fasting is basically a fast of everything,” and that his original guide makes clear what dopamine fasting is not: an avoidance of dopamine or of anything stimulating.
It’s true that the guide does not advocate fasting from social contact — in fact, it actually recommends that people talk and bond with others while they’re dopamine fasting. Yet it’s not surprising that some in Silicon Valley have interpreted the gospel of dopamine fasting in this way. If you don’t want people to interpret a practice as an avoidance of dopamine, it’s probably best not to call it dopamine fasting.
“Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced, and makes for a catchy title,” Sepah told the Times. “The title’s not to be taken literally.”
But of course, once a practice makes the rounds — which it will, precisely because it’s been given a catchy title — people will make of it what they will. (It’s also worth noting the irony here: The title refers to a practice designed to undercut the attention economy, yet the very name was used because it grabs your attention.)
What’s the scientific evidence in support of dopamine fasting?
Some people have interpreted dopamine fasting as being about, well, reducing dopamine. But if that’s your goal, you’ve got a problem, because generally speaking dopamine is not under our control.
Dopamine floods your system when you experience unanticipated things — finding chocolate where you didn’t expect to find any, for example. But if something becomes expected (there’s always chocolate in your office snack room at noon), then dopamine starts firing in anticipation of getting that reward. So, can somebody really fast from dopamine?
“Well, if they’re anticipating anything — like eating chocolate or having a conversation — that’s not something you typically have conscious control over,” Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University who specializes in addiction, told me. “You can’t stop anticipating something. If you see chocolate, your brain thinks, ‘Oh that looks good!’ You can’t tell your brain, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’”
Brewer laughed when he heard about the Silicon Valley start-up founders who are avoiding everything from eye contact to social interactions in an attempt to avoid dopamine. “That’s hilarious!” he said. “Leave it to people to take everything to an extreme and not understand how their own brains work.”
But to be fair, we should distinguish this extreme interpretation from the goal Sepah actually proposed — which is not, despite the unnecessarily confusing name, to reduce dopamine.
“The point of dopamine fasting is to increase behavioral flexibility, by reducing impulsive behavior for extended periods of time,” Sepah told me in an email. “By both avoiding conditioned stimuli (e.g. notifications) that trigger impulsive behavior, and also naturally exposing ourselves to unconditioned stimuli (e.g. negative feelings of anxiety, boredom, or loneliness) but not giving into a conditioned response (e.g. grabbing for our phones, or eating a sugary snack), this helps weaken that conditioning over time.”
Basically, by avoiding stimuli like smartphone notifications and also exposing ourselves to uncomfortable feelings without giving in to the temptation to distract ourselves, we can break our habit of grabbing our devices anytime they ding or we feel bad.
This is classic behaviorism, and it’s perfectly fine, as far as it goes. The idea that we should practice exposing ourselves to anxious, bored, or lonely feelings without resorting to our usual escape methods, like checking our phones, is one you’ll find in countless CBT-based guides to distress tolerance nowadays.
Brewer said he doesn’t question whether Sepah’s proposal is accurately classified as CBT (it is) or whether Sepah is right to say that if we don’t take breaks from overstimulating technologies, we’ll seek out ever-higher doses of stimulation (that’s basic habituation). However, he does question dopamine fasting as a strategy for the long haul.
“You can force yourself to fast, but that’s not actually going to be useful in the long term,” Brewer said. His reasoning: If you fast one day a week for the rest of your life, that’s just going to deprive you of whatever you like. But because you still like it, you’re going to keep coming back to it.
It’s much better, Brewer says, to teach your brain that a given activity — like scrolling through social media for hours on end — is not actually very rewarding. When you realize that a behavior leaves you feeling bad, it becomes much easier to moderate it. You no longer need to force yourself to abstain; instead, abstaining is a natural byproduct of your distaste.
Sounds nice, but how do you achieve that? The answer, Brewer said, is mindfulness. Through paying close attention to an experience in real time, you can teach your brain that the experience is not truly rewarding.
Brewer’s lab has shown that app-based mindfulness training — which combines awareness of the present moment with an attitude of nonjudgmental curiosity — can help smokers and overeaters reduce their unhealthy habits by as much as 40 percent.
According to Brewer, if you want to short-circuit your drive to go after more and more dopamine, “You’ve got to give your brain a bigger, better offer.” That offer is curiosity, which feels better than a craving and is not dopamine-driven, so long as it’s rooted in interest rather than deprivation (the I-need-to-find-out-right-now-or-I’m-going-to-die feeling). The best part, Brewer said, is that “intrinsically rewarding behaviors such as curiosity don’t become habituated — you don’t deplete curiosity.”
Is dopamine fasting just repackaging old ideas?
A perennial frustration with Silicon Valley is that it tends to come up with “trends” that it markets as innovative new discoveries when really they’re centuries-old practices. Case in point: In January, Dorsey tweeted about how he feels like time slows down when he’s engaged in intermittent fasting and asked, “Anyone else have this experience?” It prompted a collective eyeroll from Muslims and others who’ve long fasted as part of their religious observance.
Now, some people are asking what differentiates dopamine fasting from preexisting practices — Buddhist meditation retreats, say, or the Jewish Sabbath, which involves abstaining from electronic devices for a day but also involves engaging in prosocial activity. For that matter, how different is dopamine fasting from commonsense ideas like simply taking a break, enjoying a weekend, or going on vacation?
Very different, according to Sepah.
“Meditation/silent retreats involve practicing mindfulness and sometimes not speaking. Dopamine fasting involves neither,” he told me. “Sabbath is focused on not working in favor of religious worship. You can absolutely work during a dopamine fast if it’s values-aligned and is not a religious practice. Vacations are often treated as opportunities for unbridled hedonism and actually doing more bad habits, so it’s almost the opposite of dopamine fasting.”
Sepah argues that his recommended schedule for abstaining from gaming, gambling, or whichever behavior is problematic for you also makes dopamine fasting unique. Here’s what he prescribes:
1-4 hours at the end of the day (depending on work & family demands)
1 weekend day (spend it outside on a Saturday or Sunday)
1 weekend per quarter (go on a local trip)
1 week per year (go on vacation!)
This sounds a lot like common sense; some of us do this already. But Sepah’s point is not just that we should take a vacation but that what we do while we’re on vacation matters. The vacation is just the vessel; dopamine fasting is what you fill it with. “I recommended dopamine fasting be done during nights, weekends, and vacation periods because that’s realistically when people have time to practice,” he told me.
Fair enough. It probably would be good for our health if we were more intentional about how we spend our limited free time, using it as a chance to practice things that modern life has made us extra uncomfortable with — like being alone or being bored — by offering us ubiquitous, immediate escapes in the form of digital devices.
There’s nothing objectionable about this recommendation per se. The problem has more to do with the name of the practice, which practically begs to be misconstrued, and with the claim that the practice represents an ideal long-term strategy. Although Sepah says he’s created “the antidote to our overstimulated age,” in reality he seems to have created something more like a stopgap measure, one prone to being misinterpreted in harshly ascetic ways.
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Author: Sigal Samuel