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Dopamine is a vital chemical for survival, but our obsession with phones and social media is overusing it. The closer the monkey gets to the fruit, the more dopamine it receives. Photo: Shutterstock

Addiction and fake pleasure: how dopamine fasting became Silicon Valley’s latest wellness trend – plus a four-step guide to doing it

  • People receive a hit of dopamine each time they check their social media posts or mobile phones
  • Overproduction of this pleasure/reward chemical can lead to problems, and ‘dopamine fasting’, or ignoring your phone, is meant to reset your brain

Feel like your brain is in need of a reboot? If you say that in front of someone who is hip to the latest wellness trends, they might suggest you go on a “dopamine fast”. It’s a thing.

“Dopamine fasting” has taken off in the past few weeks, about a year after YouTuber Improvement Pill published a video in which he, perhaps, coined the term while describing his routine meant to “Get Your Life Back Together”, as the video title says.

That video has been viewed nearly 1.8 million times since it was published in November 2018. Since then, “dopamine fasting” has turned into a buzzy phrase that Silicon Valley tech professionals have used to label rules about semi-regularly avoiding social situations.

It’s the practice for which University of California, San Francisco Medical School professor and start-up investor Dr Cameron Sepah made a “definitive guide ” that went viral this summer. And it’s a phrase that people including American Authors musician Dave Rublin use to describe self-care routines they’ve long been employing.

Checking your phone can give you a dopamine hit. Doing this too often can lead to problems including addiction. Photo: Shutterstock

Let’s start with the basics:

What is dopamine ?

The chemical dopamine in the brain “is the pleasure of meeting an unmet need”, says Dr Loretta Breuning, founder of Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain. Dopamine is important, Breuning explains, “because it creates a good feeling that turns on the reserve tank of energy,” that, for example, “motivates a monkey to take a step toward a piece of fruit.”

The closer the monkey gets to the fruit – testing to see if a branch can hold his weight, and stepping in the direction of the banana – the more dopamine he gets.

In essence, the happy chemicals drive animals to get things like food, and then “once you get the piece of fruit, the dopamine stops”.

Dave Rublin of the band American Authors is a proponent of dopamine fasting. Photo: Shutterstock

Why do people want to change their dopamine levels?

In our highly digital and distraction-filled world, humans wind up stimulating dopamine “while you’re actually doing nothing” to benefit your health, says Breuning.

Problems arise when the brain starts associating good feelings with things that aren’t needed for survival, like the checking of one’s social media accounts, she says.

Rublin says he’s become a “dopamine addict” who has found himself caught up in his phone and digital persona, especially when he’s on tour. It’s a bad habit that leaves him feeling mentally drained.

University of California professor Cameron Sepah made a “definitive guide” to dopamine fasting that went viral last summer.

What is a dopamine fast?

The term has a different definition for everyone, but for Rublin it means making a concerted effort, in a set amount of time, to avoid social media and TV.

“I don’t want that (outside) energy, because I’m focused on the atmosphere I’m in, personally,” says Rublin, who’s otherwise a regular poster on Instagram and Twitter.

It’s a practice that the bassist and producer employed a year ago when working on the third American Authors album. And it’s something he announced he’d embark on last month, while working on new music.

During a fast, “when a crush texts, me, I’m just going to ignore that text”, says Rublin, 32. “It’s not because I’m an evil person, it’s because I’m really trying to centre my heart in a world filled with all this (stimulation). I shut off everything except for music … but I might post one Instagram story to show my parents that I’m alive.”

Other people’s fasting practices vary: Some don’t eat, others dodge eye contact, many avoid sexual pleasure and drugs, and others eschew internet and music for hours to days.
Be honest with yourself and say, ‘The reason I’m reaching for my phone is because my inner mammal wants reassurance of social acceptance and social power. Give yourself positive reinforcement
Dr Loretta Breuning, founder of Inner Mammal Institute

Do dopamine fasts help?

Rublin sees his breaks from technology as important steps toward making personal and authentic music. But in general, Breuning recommends people better understand their impulses instead of eliminating them completely.

Dopamine fasting “would be like if a person was overeating and their only solution was to fast and go back to junking out”, says Breuning. A better solution would be “to learn new eating habits”.

She advises: “Be honest with yourself and say, ‘The reason I’m reaching for my phone is because my inner mammal wants reassurance of social acceptance and social power’. Give yourself positive reinforcement: ‘I’ve already done enough. I’m already on good terms with my boss. I’m already on good terms with my significant other. I don’t need that constant reinforcement from them.’”

And then, Breuning suggests, maybe go for a walk in the park instead of checking your social feeds. Doing the alternative activity, which could be considered a moderate version of a dopamine fast, might not feel good at first. But “it takes time and repetition to build a new neural pathway”, she says.