We are saturated with stimulation and easy pleasure. Anything from food to homewares to porn to entertainment we can get immediately via our phones. But is the easy life messing with our brain chemicals? Are we releasing too much dopamine?
The latest Silicon Valley trend is dopamine fasting – having a break from anything pleasurable in order to “reset” your brain chemistry.
The New York Times profiled some tech bros who were dopamine fasting. James Sinka, 24 for example, “Avoid(s) eye contact because I know it excites me. I avoid busy streets because they are jarring. I have to fight the waves of delicious foods.”
But talk to an actual neuroscientist (as I did last week) and they’ll tell you dopamine does not work that way. My neuroscientist friend Micah tells me: “It’s not so simple. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, do have important roles in our emotions, but also in much more basic brain functions, such that if we were entirely without any of them, we wouldn’t just be sad, or fall out of love, we wouldn’t live very long.”
A dopamine fast might not kill you, but you might die of boredom.
For a whole day I avoided things that gave me pleasure or stimulated me. This included food, the internet, conversation, beauty, touch, work, artificial light and my phone. It was at the more extreme edge of this kind of fasting.
Here’s my day without dopamine.
5.30am: AWAKE! Set an out-of-office saying, “I am on a dopamine fast and will not be checking emails until Thursday.” Decide to do a final check of Twitter so I don’t carry any anxiety during the day about whether or not I was cancelled overnight after a dumb tweet or something.
6am: Have not been cancelled. But overnight Michael Barbaro, my favourite podcaster!!! has liked one of my tweets. Michael Barbaro!!!! Get rush of dopamine.
6.15am: Meditate for 20 minutes (Vedic).
6.35am – 10am: Accidentally fall asleep.
10am: Feel groggy. Coffee, which I enjoy very much, is forbidden on the dopamine fast. But what about instant coffee? I hate instant coffee, so I have a cup of Nescafé Blend 43 knowing that I will not enjoy it and will not produce any dopamine when I drink it.
10.30am: Thirty minutes of gentle stretching to a Yoga with Adriene video. Aware that using the internet for stretching tutorial breaches strict fast guidelines, but put laptop light on low setting and do not check the internet (except Twitter, to see if Michael Barbaro has made contact again).
11am: Hungry! What am I going to eat? Oh, that’s right. Nothing. Feel very gloomy.
11.10am: Read Kindle (allowed because low light level is not stimulating). Book is a collection of discourses by stoic philosopher Epictetus from around AD108 and is hard going. In addition to dopamine fasting, stoicism is also very hot right now in Silicon Valley. No dopamine released.
11.50am: Feel depressed. Have nothing to look forward to.
12.10pm: Drink water. Allowed. I am master of myself.
Put on a load of laundry. Usually I will listen to music or Michael Barbaro while I do housework. Today I clean in silence.
1.45pm: To run down any dopamine still in my brain I contemplate my bills. Spread out before me are three overdue bills, some with late payment fines. They are council rates ($2,153), phone ($600) and water ($650).
Looking at them is painful. What even are rates?
I pay my phone bill.
2pm: Do my taxes. Go through old bank statements. Feel depressed. How can I have spent almost $REDACTED$ last financial year on Ubers? Contemplate … contemplate … contemplate … What do I contemplate? I have forgotten. Feel very low, very neg. Also hungry.
3pm: The day is hot and windy. Washing dries quickly and I note as I’m taking it off the line, it has a satisfyingly crisp texture. I bury my face in the sheets; they smell like dry grass and clean air. Rapidly move on from task as the sheets are giving me pleasure.
3.10pm: Drink more water. Start to feel spaced out and wander from room to room, picking things up and putting them down, forgetting what I’m meant to be doing in the room, then remembering again. I am meant to be doing nothing in the room.
3.30pm: Elderly neighbour drops around for a cup of tea. Does it the old-fashioned way by walking through the back door and into the house, saying, “Hi ho!” and scaring me.
Confused about correct method of handling visitor during fast. Arthur is in his 90s. Would he understand my tech addiction? My need to fill every quiet minute with music or a podcast? My monkey-on-cocaine-like refresh of the browser?
In the New York Times piece, James Sinka ran into an old friend while fasting but had to tell her they could not continue speaking. “I hadn’t seen her in six months and it was extraordinarily exciting, super stimulating. And I had to cut if off … ”
Do I do this to my 91-year-old neighbour?
4pm: A highly venomous brown snake was spotted in my garden a couple of weeks ago so Arthur is going to help me cut back the grass and the weeds to make it less appealing for snakes.
4.10pm: The fairly strenuous physicality of pulling out hundreds of weeds, in long, snake-infested grass, while fasting, while having nothing to look forward to EVER, while getting flying burrs caught in my jumper, while Arthur pranks me by screaming every so often “Argh!! It’s Snakey! Right behind you!! Don’t move!” (when he is not doing this, he is whipper-snippering the long grass without goggles or earmuffs, sending the occasional stone flying very hard and fast through the air near my eyes). All this must surely reduce my dopamine stores?
5.30pm: We have finished in the garden and Arthur packs up and heads home (not before he pretends he has seen the snake hanging from the rafters in the shed).
6pm: I am weak but it is time for a walk. The Silicon Valley bros went on gentle walks but not into town to where there was “lots of delicious food”.
I walk along the shoulder of a highway wearing a hair shirt – my jumper is covered in burrs. Feel very weak. Small dopamine hit as I turn back into my street and see a mob of kangaroos in a nearby paddock.
7pm: More Epictetus.
8pm: Go to sleep because there is nothing else to do.