Dopamine Fasting: Could This Wellness Trend Boost Your Brainpower?

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Imagine all of the things you enjoy and find pleasure in doing – food, sex, video games, exercise, socializing, etc. Whatever it is, now eliminate these things entirely from your lifestyle. Many people in Silicon Valley are taking up this practice referred to as Dopamine Fasting.

The new wellness trend that has taken over in Northern California involves temporarily shutting yourself off from the things you enjoy in order to clear your mind and sharpen your focus.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brain that specializes in motivation, reward, and pleasure. Whenever we participate in something we like, our brain shoots out a nice jolt of the feel-good chemical. 

The idea that sparked this trend is that we live in a world where we have become accustomed to the instant feeling of gratification. With constant stimulation, our bodies have become used to a seemingly never-ending drip of dopamine. When we wean ourselves off from this constant pleasure supply, the brain can reset its reward system, reportedly causing people to feel more focused and experience more joy in the activities they abstained from.

The practice became popularized after Cameron Sepah, clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, published a guide on his LinkedIn. He argues that by taking a break from the behaviors that elicit a strong dopamine response, a person can effectively allow the brain to recover and restore itself. 

Dopamine fasting has been picked up by a handful of Silicon Valley professionals, including big tech executives. San Francisco startup founder and noted dopamine faster, James Sinka told the New York Times, “I avoid eye contact because I know it excites me. I avoid busy streets because they’re jarring. I have to fight the waves of delicious foods.” He later describes an encounter with an old friend, where he had to cut the conversation off as he worried it would ruin his dopamine fast. 

Going to extreme lengths like these have caused many experts to chime in, debasing the practice as pseudoscience. They say dopamine is stimulated when a biological cue is observed, and we have no control over its release in our brains. The idea of avoiding dopamine altogether may even lead to feelings of sadness and fogginess, the complete opposite of what the practice promises to accomplish.

However, Sepah defends the practice, claiming that dopamine fasting is not about actually reducing dopamine, but rather about reducing “impulsive behaviors and regaining behavioral flexibility.” Instead, he says that people who wish to participate in dopamine fasting should focus on specific behaviors that are having a negative impact on our lives. “To be clear, we ARE NOT fasting from dopamine itself, but from impulsive behaviors reinforced by it,” he writes.

Sepah bases the practice on cognitive behavioral therapy, a technique that is widely used to help people reduce destructive impulsive behaviors. Despite the practice seeming to be another wild wellness trend, the science behind it is solid if observed in the correct way, as stated by its founder. 

Sepah offers two schedules in his guide for those who want to give it a try. The “exclusive schedule” is for those who “want to still do the behavior during the day, but just want to cut back a bit and regain some behavioral flexibility.” The “inclusive schedule” is intended for those who would really like to minimize a behavior, but still want or need to do it rarely.”

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