Past President’s Column: Dopamine Fasting: The Latest Trend From Silicon Valley

June Wilson

June Wilson

June Wilson, PhD
junewilsonphd@gmail.com

As my tenure as past president comes to an end, I can’t help but think about how technology has changed on a global and personal level over the past three years.

I began writing this article in the dark, after receiving a text message, which stated power will be lost for several days, and mandatory evacuation orders are in effect five miles south of my home. It was at the completion of this text that I was plunged into darkness. Suddenly, I am alone in the dark, in a remote part of the Sonoma coast with no phone or Internet service, wondering if the fire is really headed to the coast.

This experience led me to realize how much we take technology, especially the ability to communicate with others online, for granted. It is only when all communication is down that one realizes how much we rely on it. It is an uneasy feeling to be alone, in the dark contemplating evacuation.

Fortunately, our local community has access to generators which allowed us to quickly set up access to WiFi. The number of people who used this service was astounding. While we all congregated for the common purpose of finding ways to communicate online, there was a sense of community. Some children watched movies on their iPads, while parents and grandparents sought to find their loved ones through social media.

This ability to contact loved ones and keep updated on the local news created a sense of community in the midst of chaos. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone. But, was it the ability to communicate with the outside world, or be with others who were also plunged into darkness that kept me anxiety-free? Likely a combination of both. I did realize, however, the extent to which I rely on technology to gather information and communicate.

In 2019, a PEW research center survey found that 28% of US adults report they are online “almost constantly” while 45% report Internet use several times per day, and 9% report daily use. These numbers increase with mobile connectivity (Perrin & Kumar, 2019). This begs the question should we be decreasing or controlling our Internet use? Should we live a more contemplative life free of technology, at least for a designed time during the week?

Dopamine Fasting

I was recently contacted by a journalist for an interview on dopamine fasting. Having not yet heard of the term, I soon found out it is one of the latest trends in Silicon Valley.

The call for an interview came as a result of a recent article posted on LinkedIn by an “executive psychologist” and assistant clinical psychiatry professor at UCSF, Cameron Seph, who called dopamine fasting the “hot trend” in Silicon Valley. Seph (2019) noted that individuals should limit behavior that “triggers strong amounts of dopamine release” which then allows our brain to “recover and restore itself.”

How “dopamine fasting” is interpreted by individuals varies considerably. However, in general, it calls for a limited to nonexistent use of technology for a designated number of hours. The definition of dopamine fasting can include no pleasure eating, no social media use, and no TV watching. The “dopamine fast” is individual and based on voluntarily avoiding mental stimulation.

Individuals who claimed to be addicted to dopamine readily shared their experiences of this “dopamine-free” diet. A recent New York Times article documented the lives of three men in their mid-twenties who engaged in “dopamine fasting” for the day. They abstained from all such pleasurable activities as eating, exercising, listening to music, looking at screens, working, making eye contact, and they only spoke when necessary. At the completion of the fast, the men stated that everyday tasks are more “exciting” and “fun,” while work was more “pleasurable” (Prato, 2019).

The neurotransmitter dopamine is oversimplified in dopamine fasting. It is essentially presented as a pleasure chemical that can be easily re-calibrated. Does temporary abstinence from pleasurable activities for a day or two really affect our dopamine level? While dopamine fasting does appear to be a trend in Silicon Valley, will it have a larger impact across the country? If so, how can we study the effects of the fast? Dopamine can not be easily tested through a simple blood test.

The different ways dopamine fasting is operationalized makes research difficult; however, it will be interesting to examine the impact this lack of technology has on individuals from a psychological perspective. There are many methodological considerations to be considered if this concept is to be scientifically studied. Is the claim of feeling renewed after the “dopamine fast” a result of the placebo effect?

Voluntary Dopamine Fast Versus the Loss of Connectivity

In California, we have been informed that sudden losses of electricity might be the new norm during the fire season. Global warming has caused significant droughts and months without rain. Winds appear to be stronger, and at one point, during the fire the winds were labeled as hurricane-force. Downed power lines have been identified as the cause of fires in past years, so the immediate choices for the State are limited.

This new normal is partly due to poor planning, thus the immediate significant change will take years to complete. We, therefore, have no choice about when we lose our power or for how long.

Dopamine fasting, on the other hand, is based on choice. It can be planned to not interfere with significant events in ones’ life. Is the “dopamine fast” just a rebranding of other meditative, digital-free practices?

One side effect that may result from an abrupt detachment from technology, whether voluntarily or not, is it does allow one to appreciate how dependent (or not) one has become on technology. It does give us time and perspective to learn and evaluate the role technology plays in our lives. Taking a break from technology and spending time with meaningful activities and loved ones is a good way to feel replenished. It is, however, unlikely to be related to “dopamine fasting.”

References

Perrin, A., & Kumar, M. (July 25, 2019). About three-in-ten US adults say they are almost constantly online. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/25/americans-going-online-almost-constantly/

Prato, P. (November 7, 2019). How to feel nothing now in order to feel more later. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/style/dopamine-fasting.html

Seph, C. (August 7, 2019). The definitive guide to dopamine fasting. The hot new Silicon Valley trend. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dopamine-fasting-new-silicon-valley-trend-dr-cameron-sepah/

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