Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.
Over the past few months, dopamine fasts have cycled through the wellness media hype cycle. First introduced on Reddit in 2016, then refined and popularized by psychologist and venture capitalist Dr. Cameron Sepah this past summer, the dopamine fast — a practice in which you abstain from certain actions associated with hits of dopamine, the “feel-good neurotransmitter”— was trend-pieced, explained, and seemingly debunked as yet another ill-conceived fad amongst the Silicon Valley elite before the year was out.
Though we can’t control the release of chemicals in our brains, we can “fast” on the actions that cause dopamine hits: looking at social media, eating junk food, playing video games, and so on. Take a break, it recommends.
And so, the dopamine fast persists. People mock it on Twitter just as much as YouTubers celebrate it. There’s a Reddit community for dopamine fasters to discuss the nuances of their dopamine fasts between their dopamine fasts. There are also a handful of writers who have recounted their experience of doing nothing.
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I do not subscribe to Silicon Valley’s idea of wellness, which arguably makes me a kind of ideal subject for dopamine fasting. If dopamine fasting truly is hacking your brain chemistry, as the name suggests, then it should work on me regardless of my own biases, right? I decided to give it a shot for 24 hours. At best, I would experience levels of joy I had never known possible. At worst, I’d be bored for a day.
Sepah’s guidelines make no specific recommendations for what you should fast from, so to make things as uncomplicated as possible I would fast from just about everything save for simple foods and water. No phone. No computer. No music. No television. No junk food. No human interaction. For 24 hours I would have nothing more than a glass of water, a bowl of oatmeal, a kale salad, and my thoughts. Unlike my previous quest to reach screen time zero, my goal wasn’t to do more with less, but rather to just do less. Just how much stimulation could I avoid, and how would that make me feel?
I woke up on the morning of my dopamine fast with a powerful urge to look at my phone. Instead, I just lay there, letting myself feel nothing else but the tension of resisting that urge. Like holding a pose in yoga, I could feel the ways that habits led to imbalances in my mind. I felt both empowered — “Wow, I’ve never really felt this way about my phone before!” — and also suspicious, “Am I really altering my brain chemistry here, or am I just trying to convince myself that I feel different?” Either way, I could tell the dopamine fast was “working” and forcing me to reconsider behaviors I otherwise considered “normal.”
Fifteen minutes into my fast, things were genuinely off to a good start.
The fundamentals of dopamine fasting, as devised by Sepah, are based on an accepted cognitive behavioral therapy technique known as “stimulus control.” If you feel like you’re trapped within cycles of checking your phone, stress eating, or other kinds of compulsive behavior, dopamine fasting asks that you stop doing those things over a set period of time — as little as one to four hours a day, or as long as a week. By making an intentional choice to not indulge the actions, there’s an opportunity to become more mindful of those compulsory behaviors, and, hopefully, break the cycle of doing something we hate in search of dopamine.
Dopamine fasting, however, has a branding problem. Or more accurately, dopamine fasting is branded perfectly for a capitalism-driven wellness industry that demands a procession of new and exciting ways to hack our bodies into health and happiness. “Attach a ‘neuro-’ prefix or a brain chemical to your field of interest, and the world beats a path to your door,” psychiatrist Steven Reidbord wrote in his debunking of dopamine fasting in Psychology Today. “I recently joked that if we recast psychotherapy as ‘verbal neuromodulation,’ the field would enjoy newfound popularity and research funding. This is essentially what the advocates of dopamine fasting did.”
For 24 hours I would have nothing more than a glass of water, a bowl of oatmeal, a kale salad and my thoughts.
Sepah acknowledges this. “Yes, [the name] helps get clicks and makes it seem cool. My LinkedIn article on the topic has got 125,000 views, so if it helps more people learn about it and practice it, I’m all for it,” he told MEL magazine. “The term is technically incorrect, but ‘stimulus control 101 for dealing with addictive behavior’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
It did not help that the subjects of the New York Times profile of the trend, a trio of twentysomething startup founders, hewed closer to the original Reddit-devised dopamine fast — a more ascetic, unscientific version in which you attempt to deprive yourself of feeling any sort of emotion — rather than Sepah’s more informed and controlled approach.
Having only seen dopamine fasting within the context of misguided, albeit relatively harmless, tech bros, I was surprised to find that within minutes my own fast seemed to be working. I wasn’t convinced I was hacking my brain into a higher plane of consciousness, but I couldn’t deny that it felt good to spend an entire day devoted to understanding myself a little better.
As I got up to make breakfast, I felt a sort of astonished peace — relishing the ability to get lost in my thoughts while simultaneously wondering if I was just deluding myself. I felt equally stupid and enlightened as I marveled at the simplicity of sitting down at my kitchen table and doing nothing else but eating a bowl of oatmeal.
I spent the next few hours enjoying the pleasures of just sitting and thinking in silence. I would get up to brush my teeth, or put the dishes away, then sit down and let myself linger — staring off into space, sometimes thinking, and sometimes not thinking. I would feel urges to snack, to open my computer, to kill time making a cup of coffee, and I would sit there and let them pass. Instead of doing things, I would just listen to the ambient noise of my apartment, appreciating the amount of sound that existence produces.
By the afternoon it felt like I had flipped my brain into a low-energy mode — processing and registering stimuli but without any real emotional response. It’s not that I was numb to the world, but that I was making a conscious choice to avoid investing too much emotional energy into things. At one point I dropped my keys, but it didn’t elicit the standard flash of mild frustration.
Eventually, I stopped feeling urges to do anything. I was riding an emotionless high, looking for new ways to not feel too strongly. I ate my kale salad not out of hunger, but as a defensive mechanism: getting hungry would derail my current state of mind. For one day, I stopped swearing, I stopped judging, I tried to limit my internal monologue to the simplest of observations. “My water bottle is empty, it’s time to refill it.” “I have to put my shoes on if I’m going to go outside.”
It was a Panglossian detachment that I had never considered. I wasn’t focused on avoiding things: I was focused on doing nothing.
I can’t realistically spend every day avoiding activity. But as much as I hate to admit it, the dopamine fast was the right sort of shake-up I needed. I’m still using my phone, but it’s no longer the first thing I look at when I wake up. I sit with my thoughts a little more instead of drowning them out with more tweets. When I’m feeling stressed or stuck, I afford myself a little break and try to recapture the peace I felt during my fast.
I’m aware of how stupid this all sounds. I know how embarrassing it looks to admit that you’re on a dopamine fast. Still, the appeal is clear. We spend most of our days yearning for control over our lives while simultaneously feeling stuck within systems larger than ourselves. It can feel liberating to just tap out.
Like choosing to not pick up my phone earlier this morning, I could choose to let this little break untangle the knots of my brain, without making it a part of my identity. I didn’t need to become a Dopamine Faster in order to enjoy its benefits. A silly little Silicon Valley wellness trend was actually leading to my own self-actualization. I was happy but also in disbelief.
I think this is what is so baffling to me about dopamine fasting: It works despite the purposefully misleading branding, despite its most visible advocates not doing it right, despite the fact that it’s ultimately in the service of increased productivity. It is nothing more than just taking a break, and yet somehow it still feels like a revelatory experience. “This idea is noble, healthy, and worthwhile, but it’s certainly not a new concept,” writes Harvard physician Peter Grinspoon.
Dopamine fasting offers nothing new and something revelatory. Before our devices monetized and quantified every single moment of our working hours, people had plenty of time to sit and be alone with their thoughts. Today, it’s difficult to escape the feedback loops specifically designed to keep us “engaged.” So, I understand the need to call taking a break something else, give it more purpose than just idle time, brand it in a way that fits into the cult of productivity we’ve all been drafted into.
It’s not ideal. The worst part of dopamine fasting isn’t the fasting, but rather how performative it can feel. Fasters post about their experience and shape it into a competition. They look at themselves as an RPG character that can be min-maxed into some sort of god-tier build. “Bro, you dopamine fasted for 24 hours? Well, I fasted for a WEEK, and my dopamine receptors are PURGED.”
Yet most of us justify taking time off in terms of work. We come back from vacation with so many ideas. We take sick days so we can rest up and get back to work quicker than if we try to suffer through it. The dopamine fast is just a fun-house mirror version of this, a maximal version of rest.
Our tech era is trapped in a habit of reinventing things that already exist — and dopamine fasting fits neatly into that narrative. The name sounds like a number of other body-hacking wellness fads like intermittent fasting and digital detoxing. It’s not rest, it’s a period in which we actively avoid compulsive behaviors we don’t like. But in practice, dopamine fasting is refreshingly practical and painfully obvious. All you have to do is convince yourself that you need a break.