When James Sinka starts his dopamine fast, he cuts himself off from as many external stimuli as possible. He’ll stop eating, instead only drinking water to stay hydrated. He’ll ignore his phone, laptop screen and other tech devices. And he’ll try and avoid interacting with people as much as possible – including making eye contact.
“I’m lucky to have extremely supportive friends, family and partners,” says the Silicon Valley-based technology entrepreneur. “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 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.”
Sinka, 24, is one of a growing number of people in the tech hub adopting dopamine fasting. It’s the latest fad to emerge in the future-facing region known for embracing new wellness initiatives. But is a dopamine fast just a rebranded form of ancient meditation? And is there any science to back the theory up?
'Restrictive but worth it’
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – or chemical brain messenger – linked to how we feel motivation to do things. It has often incorrectly been called the “pleasure chemical”.
“Dopamine release can be triggered by a range of external stimuli, especially unexpected salient events,” says Joshua Berke, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “These could range from sudden unpleasant loud noises to stimuli that, through prior experience, have become associated with reward.”
Proponents of dopamine fasting believe that we have become overstimulated by quick ‘hits’ of dopamine from things like social media, technology and food. They say that by deliberately avoiding these common stimulants – which we see as pleasurable activities – we can decrease the amount of dopamine in our brain. Then, after the fast, when we re-engage with these stimulants, we enjoy them more and our lives feel better.
Sinka believes that regular quick ‘hits’ of dopamine make us “become numb to it in the same way someone who consumes cocaine develops a tolerance”. “You’re trying to undo that built tolerance. That allows you to reflect and to look at the bigger picture, to reassess. When you start to re-engage all those different stimuli, they’re more engaging than they originally were.”
Dopamine fasting is based on a behavioural therapy technique called ‘stimulus control’ that can help addicts by removing triggers to use
Dr Cameron Sepah, a psychologist who treats many people in the Silicon Valley area, says dopamine fasting is based on a behavioural therapy technique called ‘stimulus control’ that can help addicts by removing triggers to use. He refined it as a way of optimising the health and performance of the CEOs and venture capitalists he works with.
“Given the always-on, high-stress nature of their jobs, they are prone to addictive behaviours to suppress stress and negative emotions,” he explains. But abstaining entirely from things like social media and technology would be career suicide, so instead he suggests short-term abstention to rebalance their lives. He says his patients report improvements in mood, ability to focus and productivity – giving them more free time for other healthy behaviours.
Sinka remembers his first – accidental – food fast as a child; being sick for three days and then finally feeling well enough to bite into a peach. “It felt absolutely incredible and the reward feeling of food was phenomenal – it stuck in my mind.” He dabbled in intermittent food fasting at university and now builds the practice into his monthly routine. He steps away from technology regularly, and in the last year has done a dopamine fast every quarter.
“A dopamine fast for me is just a synthesis of other types of fasting I’ve done in my life, aggregated together for a multiplicative benefit,” he says.
When he fasts, he focuses on reducing stimuli from three different areas: the environment, his behaviour and chemical highs. He doesn’t listen to music, use electronics or speak to anyone. He’ll avoid artificial light where possible, stop eating and avoid drugs or supplements.
The hardest part is finding time to do it given his work-related demands. “That means, don’t take any phone calls, no meetings with investors, reschedule client support meetings with other people in the company,” he explains. But he believes fasting is an investment worth making. “It’s difficult and restrictive, but the benefits are worth it,” he says.
Fad or rebranded meditation?
But not everyone is as convinced of the value of dopamine fasting, or its perceived benefits. “Note that dopamine does not have a straightforward relationship to ‘pleasure’ or ‘happiness’,” explains Berke. He says he is “not aware of any evidence at all” for the claim made by fasters that avoiding technology and food can reduce dopamine levels in the brain.
Dopamine does not have a straightforward relationship to ‘pleasure’ or ‘happiness’ – Joshua Berke
“This is a fad, not a controlled study,” he says. “It certainly sounds plausible that taking a break from obsessively checking your social media account and partying every night is good for you. [It’s] just unlikely to have much to do with dopamine per se.”
“By definition it can be relaxing to take a break from exciting or stressful activities, and quite sensible too,” he adds. “But that’s not the same as declining to have a conversation with a friend because you’re on a ‘dopamine fast’.”
Dr Amy Milton, a senior lecturer in psychology and Ferreras-Willetts fellow in neuroscience at Downing College, Cambridge, echoes this view. “I’m not sure it’s doing anything to the dopamine system, or resetting it as people doing it say it is,” she says, “which is not to say it’s a bad idea to occasionally look at the habits you’ve got and do it.”
It also sounds uncannily like another method of maintaining wellbeing that has been around for many years: Vipassana meditation, one of the two core tenets of Buddhist meditation, which dates back more than 2,500 years. Vipassana meditators are asked “to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely and intoxicants” before meditating. The latter requirement – to avoid intoxication, which many take as not just alcohol or drugs, but artificial additives contained in food – plus the drive for asceticism makes people draw parallels between the two. Some commentators suggest dopamine fasting is simply Vipassana meditation rebranded as a “tech bro” lifehack.
“There is this idea of rebranding things,” says Dan Lyons, technology journalist, author and screenwriter for HBO TV series Silicon Valley. “Last year it was microdosing: this whole idea that it’s really productive. 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’. People in the 1960s were talking about doing this to improve their minds.”
Public infatuation with Silicon Valley trends – and our perception that entrepreneurs there are on the cutting edge of development – can also mean we’re more interested in, and perhaps credulous of, wellness initiatives that emerge there, even if experts say the science is unproven. But Lyons is a sceptic.
“Somehow we all buy into this notion that these people are smarter than the rest of us,” he says. “That they live in the future, that they see around corners – all these clichés. 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?”
If this fad were taking place in the auto industry in Detroit right now, would any of us be paying attention? – Dan Lyons
Sexism may also play a role. “Look at the ridicule Gwyneth Paltrow gets – and rightly so – for Goop and all these crazy things,” says Lyons. “Some of it is because these are rich, white men.”
Sinka believes that what he’s doing is a modern take on Vipassana meditation, adapted for the 21st Century tech-dominated world. He says critics mock what they don’t understand, but for him dopamine fasting makes everyday things more engaging again.
“Every day we’re overcrowded, overstimulated, drowning in the noise of these things, and we’re now able to take a step back, reflect and re-engage in a way we want to, not in a way we’ve been trained.”
Just maybe don’t call it dopamine fasting, argue some of the experts. Milton, who describes it as “interesting idea”, suggests that the real benefits may come from feeling that you are in control.
“We like being in control of our environment and what we do. If you feel like you’ve gained control over your behaviours and are taking positive steps to deal with things that are problematic, that will make you feel better,” she says.