Dopamine fasting: why Silicon Valley is trying to avoid all forms of stimulation

They have done biohacking, clean sleeping and the keto diet, but now Silicon Valley types have coined a new health trend – dopamine fasting. It is thought that depriving yourself of the neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger that motivates us to do things, can help to reboot or rebalance the brain. Fasting might entail abstinence from technology, artificial light, food, drink, conversation, eye contact – essentially anything that an individual finds stimulating. But is there any sense to the fad?

“Retreating from life probably makes life more interesting when you come back to it,” says David Nutt, director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London. “Monks have been doing it for thousands of years. Whether that has anything to do with dopamine is unclear.”

It is possible to manipulate the production of dopamine through diet, Nutt says. He mentions the velvet bean, which contains high concentrations of a precursor to dopamine. “There is no question that you can have a dietary influence on the production of dopamine,” he says. “Starvation would probably reduce dopamine to some extent.”

Dopamine is often thought of as a reward, but Joydeep Bhattacharya, who leads the research group of cognitive and neuroscience at Goldsmiths, University of London, points out that dopamine is really “about learning the anticipation of the reward, and not the pleasure itself. It is primarily released in this anticipation phase.”

This could counteract dopamine fasting because abstinence might trigger a greater number of thoughts about the things from which a person is abstaining. “The moment we try to abstain, naturally our brain will crave that – so there will be more of a dopamine release.” Similarly, anyone who abstains and has a sense of occasion about the abstinence would be in danger of triggering the production of dopamine, as would a person who periodically congratulates themselves on their abstinence during the abstinence.

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Rather than casting this sort of intense, time-limited disengagement as a dopamine fast, it may be better seen as meditation. But dopamine-related dangers lurk there, too. As Nutt, who has studied the production of dopamine in monks, says: “If you transcend in meditation, you might get euphoria, a release of dopamine.” It would seem nowhere is safe.



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