From the region that brought us keto and body-hacking, comes the latest new trend: dopamine fasting. One curious writer gives it a go.
Most of us know dopamine as the ‘pleasure chemical’ but it’s so much more than that. This neurotransmitter is involved in motivation, memory and even motor function, explains Eugenia Poh, a PhD student researching dopamine at The University of Western Australia (UWA). Its most popular trick, though, is giving out gold stars in the form of a chemical hit, when we perform any action our lizard brains think will keep us alive. Back in the day, that was eating, drinking water and making babies. These days, there are more gold stars available than we have books to stick them in. Dopamine hits come from everywhere: food, cat videos, every Lizzo song ever written. On the downside, it has a hand in addictions to things such as drugs, alcohol and gambling. And some psychologists say that other dopamine-producing habits, such as phone time, internet use and pornography, can be problematic.
Enter ‘dopamine fasting’, the new body hack celebrated by Californian entrepreneurs and startup CEOs, who reckon that cutting back on all dopamine-fuelled activities may ‘reset’ the brain’s dopamine addiction and boost creativity. Their fasts can involve certain foods (we see you, delicious doughnut), your phone (a German study found that rewarding social stimuli, like the kind provided by your device, can trigger a dopamine surge), video games (now listed as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), seeing friends (thanks for making it possible, Houseparty), sex (yes, please!) and music, all in the name of resetting dopamine levels to ‘low’.
The problem? Not all activities that increase dopamine are also ‘addictive’, says clinical psychologist Dr Chris Mackey. “For addictive behaviours, yes, it’s helpful to learn that you don’t have to have that dopamine hit to function,” he adds. But he admits you don’t have to go on a total fast: “Things like exercise and music [are] more in balance.” Either way, I’m going to discover it for myself. I’ll go 48 hours without using my phone (for everything), listening to music (my mood pill), seeing friends (I have one), bingeing TV series (my real friends) or having sex (post break-up, it’s just my hand, but she’s developing a cramp).
I’m working at my tradie business on site today, so it’s not hard to leave my phone alone. I can keep my hands busy, but I miss music and podcasts.
I have to send a text to my brother at work, and I get my colleague to type it out for me (I make him put in a heart emoji, and he rolls his eyes). I let all my calls go straight through to voicemail. You know, I could get used to this.
My brain has found a workaround to the no music rule: earworms. Feel by Robbie Williams plays, on a continuous loop, in my brain. All day.
Dopamine fasting has a similar effect to sensory deprivation (think: floating in a darkened tank of warm water for an hour), which can make the brain more active. When this happens, “[people’s] brains often make up for what they’re missing like sounds, or hallucinations,” according to associate professor Jennifer Rodger from the Experimental and Regenerative Neurosciences Department at UWA and the Perron Institute. Earworm: explained.
I’d usually catch up with my friend Alisha over wine tonight, but no dopamine for me, so I go home and turn on the TV without thinking. I’m halfway through an episode of Seinfeld before I realise. I switch it off and go straight to bed. I feel lonely and tired, so I … er … hook up with myself. Then I fall asleep.
Most activities, no matter how exciting at first, tend to “move from the reward side of the brain to the habitual side,” says Poh. There are other neurochemicals involved in the feeling of pleasure, too, such as “serotonin, oxytocin, and importantly glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitter,” says Poh, which might explain my self-love habit. There’s a lot less oxytocin (the social connection chemical) and serotonin (the wellbeing chemical) in my life after my break-up, so I’m making do with the next best thing (my hand). That considered, reducing time with friends might be the opposite of what I need right now. Poh adds, “Thinking about it, dopamine fasting is more about breaking habits, and being conscious of them, as opposed to reducing dopamine levels in our brain.”
Today I’m working from home. I decide to read a book on climate change (no major dopamine hit there). For the next few hours, I’m extremely restless. I look around like a meerkat for my phone. Every five seconds.
The meerkat thing is finally gone after five hours of reading.
I feel different. Calm. I’ve finished the book. I’ve written 10 pages in my notebook (that’s one thing dopamine-fasting fans proclaim more original thought). I make myself dinner and go to sleep sans sex.
Rather than dopamine fasting, Mackey prefers a different way of looking at lesser addictive behaviour. “It’s [about noticing] the difference between harmonious passion and obsessive passion. [The latter] is spending a day on an activity that might detract from work and relationships. Harmonious passion is doing something you enjoy, and still having time for other things,” Mackey explains. “If there’s anything useful behind dopamine fasting, it’s looking at where we look for pleasure in our lives.”
Now that I’ve met my inner meerkat, I’ll keep her on a leash to maintain that feeling of calm. To do that, my phone is staying in a drawer on Sundays. And to avoid a digital addiction, I’ll read a book in bed. I’ll also catch up with my wine-friend more than once a week. That deserves a gold, dopamineinfused star, don’t you think?