November 25, 2019

'Dopamine fasting' is the latest trend in Silicon Valley—but is it backed by science?

Daily Briefing

    The latest fad in Silicon Valley is "dopamine fasting": abstaining from smartphones, computers, and even eye contact in order to supposedly curb "addiction" to technology and other pleasurable distractions. But does it really work?

    Cheat sheets: Evidence-based medicine 101

    What is dopamine fasting?

    Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter involved in the brain's systems for motivation, reward, and pleasure, Samuel reports.

    The theory behind "dopamine fasting" is that—in an age where puppy videos, new food recipes, and more are just a click away—we're all getting too much stimulation each day. The solution, then, is to disconnect from technology and other sources of stimulation in order to, essentially, reset the brain.

    Dopamine fasting been discussed on internet discussion forums since at least 2016, and it recently crept back into the limelight when Cameron Sepah, a clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, published a guide to the practice on LinkedIn.

    "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 wrote. Sepah argued that without those breaks, we could eventually feel the need to seek out constantly higher doses of stimulation to receive the same pleasurable effect.

    Is dopamine fasting backed by science?

    According to Sepah, his approach is rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

    The point of the practice, Sepah said, "is to increase behavioral flexibility." By avoiding stimuli such as notifications on a smartphone, we can stop habitually reaching for a device anytime we feel bad or bored, or hear them go off. We can also more fully try to feel our negative emotions, and not need to distract ourselves from them, according to Sepah.

    Sepah acknowledged that the term "dopamine fasting" is an oversimplification, as dopamine is only one of many brain chemicals involved in responding to stimuli. "Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced, and makes for a catchy title," Sepah said. "The title's not to be taken literally."

    It's clear, however, that some people who practice dopamine fasting have taken it far beyond Sepah's original vision.

    For example, a San Francisco startup founder named James Sinka told the New York Times, "I avoid eye contact [during dopamine fasts] because I know it excites me. I avoid busy streets because they're jarring. I have to fight the waves of delicious foods."

    According to Sepah, people who take dopamine fasting this far are engaged in "their own extremist practice" that he says "is completely incompatible with [his] protocol."

    Is dopamine fasting really the best way to break technology 'addiction'?

    However, some neuroscientists say that even Sepah's more limited form of "fasting" isn't the best method for training your brain that technology isn't rewarding.

    For instance, Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University, said, "You can force yourself to fast, but that's not actually going to be useful in the long term," he said. For example, if you fast from technology just one day a week indefinitely, you're depriving yourself of something you like—and since you still like it, you'll still come back to it, he explained.

    Brewer said, "You can't stop anticipating something. If you see chocolate, your brain thinks, 'Oh that looks good!' You can't tell your brain, 'Hey, don't do that.'"

    Instead, Brewer recommends using mindfulness practices to teach your brain that a certain activity isn't actually tied with long-term rewards.

    For instance, Brewer has published research that's found that app-based mindfulness training can help smokers and overeaters reduce their habits by as much as 40% (Samuel, "Future Perfect," Vox, 11/13; Brueck, Business Insider, 11/8).

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