I tried dopamine fasting, Silicon Valley’s latest obsession – British GQ
When it comes to wellness, we really are quite awful snobs. If the Goop lab gets all excited about, say, energy healing or vaginal maintenance, we feel free to cynically smirk at all that new-age pseudoscience. And if some person of influence waxes lyrical on Instagram about the health benefits of bubblegum-flavoured vaping juice or drinking your own urine, we are quick to raise a wry eyebrow. But here’s the funny thing about what’s hot and what’s not in the wellness racket: the moment the Silicon Valley tech bros decide on their latest science-defying craze, we all start taking notes.
“Last year it was microdosing,” says Dan Lyons, tech journalist and writer of the HBO series Silicon Valley, referring to the practice of taking tiny amounts of drugs to boost creativity, increase productivity and usher in a better world. “It’s like, ‘I’ve heard of that: you took one hit of weed and got high, but not so high you couldn’t work!’ Somehow, we all buy into this notion that these people in Silicon Valley are smarter than the rest of us, that they live in the future. We buy into it and they sell it. If this fad were taking place in the auto industry in Detroit right now, would any of us be paying attention?”
This year the Valley is evangelical about dopamine fasting. Fasting has been around for so long that it has a place in all the major religions, from Ramadan to Lent to Yom Kippur. In our own time, the “hunger cure” is increasingly considered the answer to lifestyle diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Dopamine fasting takes it much further, giving up food but also social media, sex, drugs, alcohol, music and screens of every description. Some hardcore true believers even abstain from eye contact during their periods of strict observance.
When James Sinka, a Silicon Valley-based tech entrepreneur, puts a dopamine fast in the diary, he warns his loved ones in advance that on the designated day he will be ignoring his phone and all screens. James doesn’t just give up food and social media for the day, he gives up friends and family.
“I’m lucky to have extremely supportive friends, family and partners,” Sinka, 24, told the BBC. “I tell them ahead of time, ‘I’m booking 17 November for a dopamine fast. I’m sorry, you won’t hear from me. It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that I have to do this thing for myself.’ Originally that was a little ridiculous but now they’re used to it. They’ll laugh it off and get it.”
Dr Cameron Sepah, a San Francisco-based psychologist who has patients in Silicon Valley, is credited with giving a name to dopamine fasting, saying that it is based on a behavioural therapy technique called “stimulus control” that removes the triggers that fuel addiction. Of the Silicon Valley fasters, Dr Sepah says, “Given the always-on, high-stress nature of their jobs, they are prone to addictive behaviours to suppress stress and negative emotions.”
A little science. Dopamine is the brain’s pleasure chemical. It is a neurotransmitter that is triggered when you experience something that you dig. But dopamine is not simply the brain’s party animal, a response to feeling good. It also controls motor skills and an imbalance or dysfunction in your dopamine levels can lead to Parkinson’s disease, depression, dementia and multiple sclerosis. But there is no denying that dopamine is your brain and body’s reward system. When you love something – or even when you are simply anticipating something you love – that warm rosy glow of pleasure is the dopamine kicking in. Dopamine feels good; nothing feels better. It is the nervous system’s response to all the things that bring joy to your life. And dopamine fasting puts all that joy and stimulation on hold for a day or two.
The theory behind dopamine fasting is that short-term abstention resets the brain, rebalances your life and helps you to understand, and appreciate, what truly matters.
Dopamine fasting is the pleasure diet. The theory – the faith – is that by cutting back on things that give you fleeting joy, you will be able to focus on the real reasons you are glad to be alive. And no doubt we children of plenty need to learn some lessons about control. We eat because we are bored; we drink out of habit; we spend too long on the empty diversions of social media. But can short-term denial ever have long-term benefits?
Dopamine fasters maintain we are so addicted to the quick hits we get from food, sex, drink and social media that, in the end, we feel nothing much at all. We, as Sinka has it, “become numb to it in the same way that someone who consumes cocaine develops a tolerance. You’re trying to undo that tolerance. That allows you to reflect and look at the bigger picture. When you start to re-engage with all those different stimuli, they’re more engaging than they originally were.”
Sinka remembers being sick as a child and unable to face food for days. Then he ate a peach and it tasted like the best thing in the world. That is what the dopamine fasters are seeking – the taste of that heavenly peach. And so, for one lost weekend I tried dopamine fasting, to discover if it is a ground-breaking wellness initiative or just another pretentiously bonkers tech-hub fad.
The first thing you notice about dopamine fasting is that suddenly you have all this time on your hands. All those hours wasted on social media… All that time spent stuffing your cake hole… That time is suddenly all your own, although after the second missed meal of the first day I did not much feel like working or going to the gym or, indeed, doing much of anything. The dopamine fast took all my time. I went for a drive – probably not allowed – and I was foggy-brained, distracted, a danger to myself and others. Mind you, I did lose two kilos. So even if dopamine fasting is simply the latest wacky Silicon Valley trend, there is no denying that self-imposed hunger is unquestionably good for you, as long as you don’t starve yourself to death.
A little more science: doctors will tell you it is not remotely desirable, or even possible, to reduce the levels of dopamine in the brain. Just because you are not eating cream doughnuts or necking pinot noir or looking at surfing labradors on Instagram or having meaningless sex with a succession of anonymous strangers does not mean you are reducing the dopamine levels in your noggin (something that would be very dangerous indeed). It means you are reducing your dopamine activity.
How many currently avoiding eye contact will still be doing it two years from now?
“This is a fad, not a controlled study,” insists Dr Joshua Berke, a professor at the University Of California, San Francisco. “It certainly sounds plausible that taking a break from obsessively checking your social media account every night is good for you. It’s just unlikely to have much to do with dopamine.”
For academic news site The Conversation, Dr Ciara McCabe, associate professor of neuroscience at the University Of Reading, writes, “Cutting out rewards doesn’t necessarily stop the brain from making us crave them – activating dopamine… That [dopamine fasting] would ‘reset the brain’ is not really correct… So, from a neuroscience perspective, this is nonsense.”
And yet, if the science behind dopamine fasting is flawed, the aspiration is surely sound. Isn’t it good to turn off that phone? Isn’t it good to stop wasting this one short life on your Twitter timeline? Isn’t it healthy to want to look at fewer screens before you die and more sunsets? We eat for the wrong reasons, we drink out of habit, we stare at a screen when we could be looking into the face of someone we love. Out of all the fads to come from Silicon Valley – from pre-bottled protein shake diets to microdosing psychedelics – dopamine fasting is the one that has the best intentions, the most noble heart, the angels on its side. Behind dopamine fasting is a longing to remember the things that really matter.
“We like being in control of our environment and what we do,” says Dr Amy Milton, a senior lecturer in psychology and Ferreras-Willetts fellow in neuroscience at Downing College, Cambridge. “If you feel like you’ve gained control over your behaviour and are taking positive steps to deal with things that are problematic, that will make you feel better.”
If there is something in dopamine fasting, then it is this: we all need to develop better survival techniques if we are to be happy and healthy in our overstimulated, overexcited, overly connected age. Dopamine fasting is a response to our infantile craving for sweeties, the diminishing returns of digital hedonism, a revolt against the useless empty calories we stuff into our bodies and minds.
Yet, my feeling is that dopamine fasting is ultimately baloney, because you will never stick at it. How many dopamine fasters currently avoiding eye contact with their family will still be doing it two years from now? Not many, I would wager. And if you do not stick at something for years then it will do you no good at all. That is true of going to the gym and flossing your teeth and being in love. Nothing good comes quick and easy. What you do over a weekend doesn’t matter, what counts is what you do over the next five or ten years.
The good news is that my lost weekend did awaken an interest in fasting. I have a friend – possibly my fittest friend – who has been an advocate of the hunger cure for years. He doesn’t fast to be slim and gorgeous or to reboot his brain or rebalance his life, he fasts so that he doesn’t get cancer. Doctors may argue over the merits of the 5:2 diet – in which you eat normally for five days and have two days of caloric restriction – but many scientists insist that fasting reduces the levels of the enzyme PKA in the body, which increases the risk of malignant tumour growth. The tech bros got this right: the biggest favour we could do our wellness is to make a place in our life for fasting. The starving body reboots the immune system, kick-starting stem cell-based regeneration of the white blood cells that fight infection. Fasting is no passing Californian fad. Even Jesus did it.
But dopamine fasting is too much denial in too concentrated a timeframe. Just because you are giving up Instagram for a weekend, why should you avoid making eye contact with your parents and children? That is just crazy, dude! I don’t know how long it will last in Silicon Valley, but once in a lifetime was plenty for me. Dopamine fasting is ultimately an unhealthy, unsustainable response to our unhealthy, unsustainable lifestyles.
Yes, it has its heart in the right place – that longing for the wisdom to lift your eyes from a screen to see the stars or the eyes of the one you love – but it is too fanatical, too ascetic, too extreme. And extremes will never be the road to mental health and physical fitness – that way unwellness waits. Extremes will never make you happy. Extremes will never hold you for long. The wellness fads don’t work.
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