Why I’d be slow to join a dopamine fast
The Silicon Valley trend seeks to control the effects of the powerful neurotransmitter
Dopamine fasting means cutting out anything that gets you motivated or excited.
A recent trip by bus and tram on a cold, grey, dull dog of a day with a dead mobile phone, nothing to read and nothing to write on convinced me that boredom is not for me. I will never qualify to join the latest Silicon Valley trend of dopamine fasting.
You know, I’m sure, that dopamine fasting means cutting out anything that gets you motivated or excited. The idea behind it is that a period of deprivation will boost your enjoyment when you return to what you fancy. It’s being written up as the latest new thing but it sounds like something that we all already knew.
Where does the dopamine come in? When you’re motivated to do things, that motivation is kept going by the dopamine in your system. People sometimes call dopamine a pleasure drug but in fact it drives you to move towards the target and doesn’t actually guarantee pleasure at the end.
That is probably why it is often said that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Dopamine is your friend so long as you are travelling but as soon as you get to the destination, it fades away and it’s up to you to deal with the consequences. These could include satisfaction, pleasure, disappointment or regret, or even all four in quick succession – I’m sure you’ve been there.
When we get too much of what we want the level of pleasure falls. But intermittent rewards increase pleasure. Some animals get bored if they get a reward every time they press a lever in a behavioural experiment. But if you give them the reward for only some attempts, it keeps them interested. The same applies to humans. If you scored every time you kicked a ball in a football match you would get fed up and go home. But when you score only now and then, you get a high.
So the dopamine fasters are right in thinking that when they go back to their pleasures they will get an even bigger hit.
This is all a cool thing in ultra-cool circles but as I said above, it isn’t really new. Muslims who fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan get extra pleasure out of their food after the sunset, according to accounts I have read, though they are fasting for religious reasons. I remember visiting an Orthodox Jewish home where mobile phones and other technologies were outlawed on the Sabbath, again for religious reasons – but it wouldn’t surprise me if the younger family members, and maybe the older ones too, got an extra kick out of eventually getting back on the phone.
Because of the periods of deprivation, dopamine fasters are sometimes said to be living a monk-like lifestyle. Actually, monks I have met very often have things in which they are intensely interested. One monk could turn a conversation on any topic around to the subject of horses which is where he got his high.
What the dopamine fasters are doing is gaming the system – using deprivation of enjoyment to ultimately increase enjoyment but not (at least in many cases), for spiritual reasons. Dopamine fasting also involves cutting out distractions which can leave people more time for activities that had been getting crowded out of their lives
The thing is, according as these activities become more desirable, the dopamine begins to flow again. So if you take this too far you end up in an endless cycle of dopamine fasting. And some do take it too far, even avoiding long conversations with friends who stimulate them because they fear it will ruin their dopamine fast.
All of this is not, I have to say, for me. I meditate and sometimes I quite like not doing anything at all whatsoever – but for a limited time only.
When I’m sitting on a bus trundling along under a grey sky on a wet day with no phone and nothing to read – paradise to the Silicon Valley fasters – I want my dopamine and I want my kicks.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com)