Dopamine Fasting: Silicon Valley’s New Obsession

“If one turns everything off and spends a day in a relaxing, non-stimulating environment, that’s a good de-stressor.”

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The hot new Silicon Valley trend is not a gadget or app but a “fast” and they call it “dopamine fasting.”

Dopamine is one of the brain chemicals or neurotransmitters, which is associated with pleasure and motivation. We often release this neurotransmitter when we see a delicious cupcake or something that brings pleasure.

Simply put, dopamine fasting is a period of time in which you stay away from things or pleasurable activities that trigger a dopamine release. The whole idea behind this practice is that fasting on dopamine allows your brain to rest and repair, rebooting your focus and motivation.

Although it sounds easy, it is unclear whether it works.

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UC San Francisco Cameron Sepah, who popularized dopamine fasting in August, published a guide to the practice it on LinkedIn. He wrote, “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.”

Sepah explained, “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 encountered a number of clients, many of whom were from Silicon Valley, to adopt dopamine fasting. He said it is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a scientific treatment.

Psychology professor John Kounios said, “What Silicon Valley calls a ‘dopamine fast’ isn’t really that so much as it is a ‘dopamine reset.’”

He explained that by doing dopamine fasting, you are not cutting off dopamine supply altogether, adding, “A common misunderstanding about dopamine is that it’s about pleasure — the idea that when you do something pleasurable, that pleasure is caused by a burst of dopamine. But that’s not what it does. Dopamine is all about expecting a reward.”

Kounios explained that you cannot just switch off your mobile and stay away from social media and deplete your dopamine levels. He added, “If one turns everything off and spends a day in a relaxing, non-stimulating environment, that’s a good de-stressor. However, it won’t have the full effect unless you aren’t thinking about future goals and rewards.” Instead, he recommended using your “fast” to take part in activities that are not centered in reward-thinking, such as meditation, creating art, journaling, a casual walk, or doing anything that helps you to bring the present-moment awareness.