What Is a Dopamine Fast, Anyway?

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One of the most interesting concepts in economics is the law of diminishing marginal returns. It says, basically, the more we consume of something, the less we enjoy it. Put simply, the second cup of coffee we have in the morning has less “marginal utility” than the first cup. The taste may be exactly the same. But the amount of satisfaction the second cup gives us cannot compete with the first.

Why? In a nutshell, when we experience something pleasurable, the brain releases a micro dollop of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Our brains like dopamine. A lot. And when our brains experience the effects of that biochemical concoction, they want more.

The problem is, it takes more and more dopamine to produce the same kind of pleasurable feeling. Hence dopamine’s connection to substance abuse and addiction.

But we don’t have to have a substance abuse problem to potentially have a problem with our dopamine levels. We live in a world that’s chockful of more stimuli than ever before in our fast-moving, hard-working, pleasure-seeking, screen-engaging society. Our brains are so flooded with dopamine that it becomes increasingly more difficult to feel pleasure at all. So we seek out evermore immersive, engaging or exciting experiences in an attempt to feel anything.

What to do about this problem? Enter the dopamine fast. This expression of intentional deprivation has been popularized in recent months by trendy tech types in Silicon Valley looking for a way to disengage from their hyper-stimulated lives running trendy tech companies. (Oh the irony, right?)

In her Nov. 7 New York Times article “How to Feel Nothing Now, in Order to Feel More Later: A Day of Dopamine Fasting in San Francisco,” writer Nellie Brown interviewed three entrepreneurs behind the startup company SleepWell who increasingly see dopamine fasting as a means of resetting their brains in order to feel pleasure again.

“We’re addicted to dopamine,” SleepWell’s James Sinka told Brown. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher.” He also added, “Your brain and your biology have become adapted to high levels of stimulus so our project is to reset those receptors so you’re satiated again.”

Sinka’s solution: abstaining from stimulation of virtually every kind for a short period of time, such as 24 hours. Brown summarizes:

A dopamine fast is simple because it is basically a fast of everything. They would not be eating. They would not look at any screens. They would not listen to music. They would not exercise. They would not touch other bodies for any reason, especially not for sex. No work. No eye contact. No talking more than absolutely necessary. … The number of things to not do is potentially endless.

Ironically, Brown suggests that these tech gurus’ quiet, meditative rhythms of dopamine fasting have a much older analogue, and a religious one at that: the Amish way of life. Brown also talked to Steven Nolt, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and the author of A History of the Amish, who noted a similarity between dopamine fasting and the Amish emphasis on the importance of limits: “Compared with many of the rest of us, you would find Amish emotion to be more muted. The idea of limits on life, that there should be limits and yield signs, is a pretty central Amish assumption.”

The idea of a dopamine fast certainly sounds intriguing. And as someone who thrives on stimulus myself—I love ideas, information, news, knowing what’s going on in the world—I can anecdotally say “Amen” to what Sinka is so passionate about when it comes to the potential brain benefits of dopamine fasting.

Some researchers, however, aren’t so sure that established science really backs up the neurological benefits that Sinka (and others like him) are claiming. Jeff Parsons, writing for metro.co.uk, Parsons interviewed several scientists regarding the claims in Brown’s article. They were skeptical, in part because the way dopamine interacts with the brain is likely more complex than the dopamine fasters believe. Dr Emiliano Merlo from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said:

I do not know any piece of scientific literature that will give empirical support for the explanation that the participants are giving for dopamine fasting. Perhaps these fasting periods are positive for many aspects, which makes them valid, but the idea that removing yourself from some particular behavioural activity reduces dopamine levels in the brain is extremely speculative. The so-called reboot effect might be more closely associated with reducing sensory saturation than any effects on the dopamine system.

Our understanding of this important neurochemical’s influence on how we experience pleasure is obviously still evolving as scientists continue to learn more about it. That said, the philosophical and theological discussion of what will satisfy our hearts stretches back centuries.

In his 1963 book The Adventure of Living, Swiss physician and Christian author Paul Tournier wrote,

The thing one possesses always seems less attractive than the thing one has desired. The excitement of desire has lent magic coloring to the coveted object, but almost as soon as it has been obtained it loses its brilliance. The adventure lay in the desire and hope, not in possession.

Going back further, to approximately 400 AD or so, Augustine recognized our need to find rest in God alone: “Because You have made us for Yourself, our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.” (Confessions, 1.1.1.)

Finally, David understood this critical connection between God filling us and experiencing pleasure in him as well. “You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand,” he wrote in Psalm 16:11 (NIV, 1984).

Scientists will no doubt continue to unpack exactly what is going on in our brains when they’re stimulated, when they’re overstimulated. But our desire to experience satisfaction and pleasure—to be “content,” in biblical terms—is as old as creation. And the habits we cultivate when it comes to the things that stimulate our brains on a regular basis may very well have a profound impact on our ability to experience God and to live in contentment in an ever-accelerating world of ideas, images and information.