There’s no doubt that we live in very stimulating times where it can feel nearly impossible to “turn off.” As a result, there has been a new trend circulating around Silicon Valley called dopamine fasting. The idea is that by taking a break from the things that give us pleasure ranging from smartphones to, in some extreme cases, talking to other people, we can “reset” a cluttered brain and gain more focus. We were curious to learn more about the concept and if there’s any science-based evidence to back it up, so read on below to learn more.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter — a chemical messenger produced in the brain – and is often referred to as the “pleasure chemical.” It is sent around the brain conveying signals related to functions such as memory, motor control, arousal and reward processing. So, for example, when we bite into a delicious piece of cake, or see an adorable kitten video on YouTube, dopamine is released in the brain.
The concept of dopamine fasting became popularized after San Francisco psychologist Dr. Cameron Sepah published a guide to the concept on LinkedIn back in August 2019. It’s essentially meant to help the body and mind restore itself by taking a break from activities that trigger a large amount of dopamine release. However, some have taken the practice to extremes, going so far as to avoid eye contact or everyday conversations with people. As a result, Dr. Sepah has since updated the post to clarify a few misconceptions, now referring to the concept as “Dopamine Fasting 2.0.”
“Dopamine Fasting 2.0 is an evidence-based technique to manage addictive behaviors, by restricting them to specific periods of time, and practicing fasting from impulsively engaging in them, in order to regain behavioral flexibility,” he wrote. He adds that dopamine fasting does notmean avoiding allstimulation – instead, the focus is meant to be on specific behaviors that might be problematic to you.
He also includes a dopamine fasting schedule, “which recommends fasting for gradually longer periods of time periodically to extend the benefits.” For example, you might not engage in a particular activity, like checking social media, for 1-4 hours at the end of the day; 1 weekend day; 1 weekend per quarter; and an entire week (i.e. go dark on vacation).
We asked Kent Berridge, PhD, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan, whether the science was there to back up the idea that exerting stimulus control over activities that one normally enjoys can help "reset" our neurochemical system and in turn gain a decluttered brain and sharper focus. “Yes and no — it's true that our modern world bombards us with reward cues of many types, activating dopamine systems again and again, and putting us often in an excited wanting state,” he says. “Reducing encounters with tempting cues can reduce all that and so potentially ‘declutter' our mind, so in that sense, yes.”
He goes on to explain, however, that this doesn’t necessarily reset our neurochemical system, as “the system still remains mostly ready as always.”
“And can some attempts to reduce cues go too far, such as excluding interactions with other individuals? I think so — dopamine fasting can be taken to extremes that become controlling and unhelpful.” Kim Hellemans, PhD, Department Chair of Neuroscience at Carleton University, adds that to date there are no actual scientific studies out there that have demonstrated the alleged benefits of dopamine fasting.
We also turned to the experts about whether there’s any kind of impact dopamine fasting could have on addictive behavior. “Turning off your smartphone, setting limits on social media, email, or web browsing, staying away from gambling sites, etc. — all of those are useful strategies for anyone who has been having problems with those activities,” explains Dr. Berridge. “So, in that sense it can help, but it does not make those addictions go away.”
After learning more about dopamine fasting, we were curious: Is it basically just mindfulness rebranded as something a little more trendy? “Yes, in my view it's fair to call dopamine fasting another name for mindfulness,” says Dr. Berridge. “It’s also another name for taking retreats, restful vacations, turning off the phone or just going fishing — things that people have done for decades to ‘reset’ from the distractions of modern life.”
Dr. Hellemans goes on to add that everyone can attest to the feeling of being over-stimulated after a long day of human and digital interaction. “Ultimately, when we are not taking regular breaks or unplugging, we are falling prey to the potential ill effects of stress on the body and brain. Regular exercise, spending time outdoors, meditation, mindfulness and enjoying quiet — these are all activities that have scientific studies which back up their health and wellness benefits.”