From microdosing psychedelics to days-long fasts to morning ice water plunges, Silicon Valley is known for going to whacky extremes to pursuit of higher performance and better health. And it appears there's a new fad along these lines in startup central. 

The conversation around the practice kicked off with a funny/ bizarre story tweeted by engineer Janey Munoz

What the heck is a 'dopamine fast'?  

What exactly is dopamine fasting? The founder who Munoz ran into took to the internet to explain. In essence, the idea seems to be just voluntarily avoiding mental stimulation. 

"When I dopamine fast, I cut out internet, food, drugs, exercise, and any work for 24 hours. Instead I'll allow myself to sit quietly, meditate, reflect, journal, think, walk, shower, nap, take in the sun and gaze at the sky. I minimize stimuli. Reconnect. And take in the real world," writes SleepWell founder James Sinke

There is some scientific logic behind the idea, and Sinke, who trained as a chemist, should know what he's talking about (his post offers a deep dive for those who want more technical detail). All of these activities release dopamine, the same chemical that gets released in our brains in response to cocaine or any other pleasant activity. It's our brain's way of encoding the idea that something is rewarding and we should do more of it.  

That's fine if you're talking about running 5Ks or seeing old friends, but the process can also be hijacked by clever engineers to hook you on social media or unhealthy snacks, Sinke contends. By briefly eliminating activities that produce dopamine, the hope is to reset your brain's baseline level, making everyday life enough to satisfy you and reducing your need for stronger fixes like Facebook and cheesecake.  

Sinke, who does a day-long fast twice a year, claims it has near miraculous benefits. 

"After a dopamine fast I feel reset -  emotionally, physically, and mentally. I can catch myself as I reach for my phone first thing in the morning. The notifications are resistible...  food tastes better, exercising is more satisfying, and I find myself enjoying mundane tasks that I used to dread, like washing dishes. Added bonuses include an increase in overall energy, and a deeper connection with others," he writes. 

An old idea rebranded 

Sinke's fasts sound hermetic and possibly restful (though it would be a lot more peaceful in my mind if your stomach weren't rumbling). But as others have pointed out, that's why people have been taking breaks from the rat race for ages. They just called them something else: meditation, vision quest, digital detox, or just a weekend in the country. 

"To anyone who has been on a retreat, the process of a dopamine fast will sound very familiar. In fact, lots of replies to Muñoz's original tweet pointed out how similar the whole exercise is to Vipassanā meditation," notes Mic Wright in a long article digging into the origins of dopamine fasting trend for Mel Magazine. Sinke gamely admits this is true. 

In other words, the idea of a 'dopamine fast' mostly just adds a pseudoscientific veneer to a time-tested practice. "If I were being cynical, I'd say it's just a way of taking conventional and accepted wisdom and rebranding it so it looks like a new idea that's more palatable to Silicon Valley types [read: young dudes skeptical of anything mystical or touchy feely]," neuroscientist Dean Burnett tells Wright. 

So while you might be skeptical of the trendy packaging of the idea, the basic concept behind dopamine fasting isn't actually laughable. It used to be called a meditation retreat. If you're feeling overstimulated by the world and on the edge of burnout, there's no reason you shouldn't give it a try. 

Published on: Oct 23, 2019
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