“I have lived a long life…but I wish I had gotten more Instagram followers.”
Nobody has ever uttered these words on their deathbed. And yet most people are living their life as if that’s the only thing that matters.
Are you feeling anxious? Are you lacking purpose? Are you addicted? There’s a reason.
- Work emails
- Video games
- Social media “likes”
Modern society is frying your brain like a battered sausage.
Silicon Valley’s newest fad is dopamine fasting, or temporarily abstaining from “addictive” activities such as social media, music, internet gaming – even food.
Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, for example, is known for his intermittent fasting diet. Other celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian and Chris Pratt have also lauded the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Dubbed “dopamine fasting” by San Francisco psychologist Cameron Sepah, the trend is getting increasing international attention as a potential “cure” for technology addiction.
This idea did not entirely originate in Silicon Valley. I’d argue that the motivations and benefits of dopamine fasting resemble what many religions have been teaching since ancient times.
Dopamine - the brain's reward chemical
Dopamine is a brain neurotransmitter that helps control basic functions such as motor control, memory and excitement. It is also involved in anticipating the reward of a stimulating activity. Denying the brain the dopamine-derived pleasure of many modern day temptations, the theory goes, may help people regain control, improving focus and productivity.
Fasting as a method of rebalancing
Abstaining from food has been part of religious practices for millennia. Whilst often seen as a method of spiritual purification, it also has the added benefit of providing physical benefits, from improved blood sugar and blood pressure control, to reduction in pain and nervous system disease.
In recent times, fasting has become a popular practice, ranging from the “one meal a day” approach to extended fasts lasting many days as a method of relieving digestive stress or enabling “autophagy” – a state of self-maintenance that occurs after 18-20 hours of abstenance from food.
Many individuals engage in dopamine fasting for much the same reasons as religious fasters. Some, for example, use it as a way to develop greater discipline. In a November 2019 interview, psychologist at Stanford University Russell Poldrack noted that the practice at self-control in doing one of these fasts can be useful. It can give one a “feeling of mastery” over their own behaviors, he said.
Others such as Nellie Bowles, a journalist who covers the Silicon Valley, finds that dopamine fasting makes everyday tasks “more exciting and fun.”
Benefits of dopamine fasting
Research shows that fasting, whether religious or not, can have several health benefits.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Science had 14 individuals undergo a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. The participants reported significant improvements in physical and psychological well-being after the fast.
According to a research review by nutrition scientists John Trepanowski and Richard Bloomer, religious and nonreligious fasting can have similar health benefits.
Fasting - fact or fad?
Dopamine fasting is supposed to make ordinary tasks such as eating and listening to music more pleasurable. After temporarily abstaining from an activity, fasters have found it more rewarding to reengage in the activity.
There are those who disagree. Neuroscientists have argued that dopamine is essential to healthy brain functioning and have raised questions about the trend’s apparent goal of reducing dopamine.
While it is true that certain behaviors lead to the increase of dopamine, experts caution on the claims regarding dopamine fasting. Joshua Berke, a neuroscientist, said that dopamine is not a “pleasure juice” with a certain level that gets depleted. Rather, the dynamic of dopamine changes from moment to moment.
Nonetheless, advocates of dopamine fasting believe that it can curb addictive behaviors and make daily life more pleasurable, something that religious traditions have for millennia encouraged people to develop – patterns of fasting and feasting.
How to dopamine fast
- It’s pretty easy to dopamine fast. Just go do something that doesn’t involve TV, phones, stimulants and the like.
- Take a walk in the woods
- Go see some friends and leave your phone behind
- Leave your phone downstairs when you go to bed
- Try an actual food fast for 24 hours
Or do all of these at the same time and see how you get on!