Dopamine Fasting: My Happy Ever After?
If depriving yourself from pleasurable chemical reactions in the brain sounds like fun, then you may have been indoctrinated by the “hustle culture” community – a predominantly male and American internet subculture idolising overworking and constant ‘busyness’. At least that was the case for me when I participated in one of their more extreme challenges: dopamine fasting. In an attempt to increase my long-term productivity, for one week I abstained from anything that causes a sudden release of dopamine in the brain.
For those who don’t know, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for motivation and mindset, but it also works with other pleasure molecules to reward you when something good happens. By refusing to use your brain’s limited dopamine supply on modern distractions such as social media, caffeine and unhealthy foods, you’ll supposedly have more dopamine left to motivate yourself towards the grind.
When the LSD wears off…
Dopamine fasting was pioneered by the tech bros of Silicon Valley as, amongst other things, an antidote to social media addiction. They claimed that it could “reset your brain”, but this classic case of techmorphism wasn’t convincing to most onlookers and dopamine fasting soon became mocked as just another Silicon Valley fad (think microdosing). However it didn’t take long for dopamine fasting to get picked up by hustle culture influencers, who used its provocative name to rack up lucrative social media clicks. They attempted to validate the concept using ‘scientific’ measures, like taking at-home EEG brain scans to show how their neural networks had improved after dopamine fasting. But without the guidance of proper medical professionals, the community struggled to establish official rules for dopamine fasting. So I decided to do my own research before embarking on this masochistic affair.
We all have a baseline level of dopamine that spikes when anticipating and accomplishing important tasks, providing us with the drive to endure hardship for delayed gratification. Without dopamine, our ancestors wouldn’t have had the motivation to pursue the food, shelter and sexual endeavours that got us here today. However with every spike of dopamine comes a subsequent dopamine trough – a lethargic period of low motivation. Dopamine can almost be described as a currency, so if you’re frequently increasing your baseline level through cheap indulgences (like doom scrolling Twitter), your capacity to release dopamine for more important tasks (like reading self-help books), will be depleted.
I planned to increase my long term productivity by lowering my baseline level of dopamine: abstaining from sudden or unnatural dopamine-releasing stimuli such as social media, phone usage, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, music, TV and messaging friends. Reading and exercise were allowed according to most internet gurus, as they provide a “good release of dopamine”, whatever that means.
Let the fast commence
I began my adventure in bed, staring at the ceiling, entirely incapacitated without access to my usual morning ritual. I finally took a cold shower, had plain porridge for breakfast and anxiously waited for the caffeine withdrawal to kick in. At work, I briefed my colleagues that I would be running low on dopamine for the week, who were sympathetic albeit slightly bewildered by the motive. My productivity held up surprisingly well for most of the workday, although the post-lunch slump felt particularly weighty without a coffee to wake me up. Thankfully I was provided with a small respite from the lethargic lull of the day when I was hit by a car cycling home from work. The adrenaline added a much needed edge to my evening, but alas, I couldn’t rely on BMW drivers to keep me entertained for the rest of the week.
The next day I went down to the river for a spot of mudlarking. If you’re not already familiar with #luckinthemuck, the activity involves foraging through Thames river beaches at low tide in search of washed up porcelain toothpaste lids and 17th century clay pipes. Mudlarking is certainly not part of my normal dopamine-addicted lifestyle, but it wasn’t long before I was hooked. It would go something like this: I’d spy the stem of a clay pipe sticking seductively out from the river floor, my dopamine levels would begin to rise in anticipation of a reward, pupils dilated like a hunter, only to dredge my prize from the mud and reveal that the stem had broken off from the heart of the pipe. A frequent but sorrowful sign that more experienced, stronger mudlarkers had got there before me. My big spike of dopamine had been denied, and yet I would repeatedly return to the muddy river floor for another attempt.
As I learned later on, this intermittent schedule of dopamine release is actually the sine qua non for addiction – it’s used by casinos to encourage gambling and by coquettish, teasing partners to elevate desire. Stanford University professor, Dr Andrew Huberman, recommends taking advantage of this innate behaviour to help you stay motivated to complete a task: flip a coin to decide whether or not you’ll have a pre-workout shake before the gym, and the unpredictability of your output will keep it interesting. Not every mudlark or prehistoric forage is successful, but our bodies have remarkably evolved a system that enables us to remain motivated regardless.
Unfortunately, our archaic dopamine system is arguably less effective at navigating the modern world. In today’s society, our environment challenges our subconscious; we are surrounded by unhealthy foods, stimulants and social media – a situation to which the dopamine system hasn’t had time to adapt. Dopamine fasting is presented as a modern solution to the assault of short-term gratification, but it needs to have a long lasting impact if it’s going to make its way into mainstream culture. I got halfway through my week and was yet to have any profound revelation about my post-fast behaviour. Admittedly my productivity had increased, but it was only due to a nagging and persistent ennui rather than my own free will. I had no desire to convert my new behaviour into habit, although I appreciate that results may be different for people suffering from genuine dopamine-related addiction.
Ultimately the dopamine fasting obsession with maximising productivity felt incongruous with my utilitarian love for pleasure. Other communities and religions had come up with similar ideas first, like religious fasts and silent retreats, but they found their success in promoting inner mindfulness and peace. These traditions also have valid reasons to banish outside distractions (interrupting deep meditation will decrease its effectiveness), however this isn’t the case for maximising productivity. The popular Pomodoro studying technique generously gives you a five minute break every half hour, and yet dopamine fasting shamelessly demands strict obedience for an entire week. I believe a more measured process of dopamine reduction would be a much more effective way to identify and isolate unhelpful distractions. As I braced myself for another tube journey without headphones, I came to the premature conclusion that I had been conned, by none other than smooth-talking Americans whose own commute consisted of listening to podcasts from their Tesla.
My mood worsened the longer my fast went on, and in the final few days, I had fallen deep into the dopamine trenches. However, it was in the dark of my fragile mental abyss that a group of unlikely rebels held out their saving hand. They were bohemian renegades of the hustle culture community, outcast from the main brotherhood due to their radical devotion to productivity at any cost. They didn’t look to antiquated rituals of sobriety for inspiration, they used the apex of modern science and technology – a secret trade reserved exclusively for those who were brave enough. They called themselves, “neurohackers”.
Jason Silva from the Neurohacker Collective describes neurohacking as the “emerging field of pharmacological interventions in the evanescent flux of sensation and perception”, as well as, “popping the right pill to become the person you want to be”. They offered a convenient, chemical solution to my low dopamine levels, and so I called upon their dogma to stage a coup against dopamine fasting, with the aim to release as much dopamine as possible when breaking my week-long fast. I wasn’t deprived, or perhaps depraved, enough to buy a bottle of $139 Neurohacker Collective pills, so instead I looked for inspiration from scientific research done on neurotransmitters. In a common clinical study, lab rats were fed the dopamine precursor L-DOPA, which synthesises into dopamine in the brain. L-DOPA can be safely consumed by humans in the right circumstances, but it’s not possible to buy it in the UK without a prescription. After receiving sage advice from enlightened neurohacker forums, I managed to source a natural alternative for my fix: the Brazilian velvet bean of mucuna pruriens (which contain 83% L-DOPA).
If buying magic beans from someone on the internet makes you feel uneasy, neurohackers would invite you to think about the coffee you had this morning. There are a lot of similarities between coffee beans and mucuna pruriens: both can be made into a drink, have stimulating properties and form the centre of ritualistic ceremonies in indigenous cultures. It may simply be down to a combination of geography, culture and chance that mucuna prurien beans never made it onto the global stage. And anyway, my magic bean merchant was “A Real British Business Built On Old British Values…like Trustworthyness (sic)”, so I clearly had nothing to worry about.
The plan was simple enough. The first morning after my week-long fast, I would conduct a grand symphony of dopamine releasing stimuli, involving a run, hot shower, double espresso, chocolate, music, whisky and mucuna beans, all within as small a time frame as possible. I realise that this entirely defeats the point of a dopamine fast, as I wasn’t allowing myself to experience the promised post-fast productivity gains, so I apologise to any readers who were seeking an insightful and intelligent conclusion to this saga, but my agenda had changed. I was about to summit a Mount Everest of dopamine peaks that would cast a vast shadow over my depleted dopamine baseline.
As I followed through with my hedonistic acts, I felt a level of warmth and comfort that blew mudlarking out the shallow water. Listening to loud music through headphones was genuinely euphoric, with the feeling rising in intensity as the caffeine and mucuna bean combo kicked in. At this point, I had no ambition to get back into bed and start scrolling social media. In fact, my body felt an overwhelming desire to work and to create. I wanted to challenge my brain and make hard, positive changes to my life. The complexity of dopamine suddenly became obvious to me. Dopamine hadn’t just provided me with baseless euphoria, nor had it given me straightforward energy and alertness. Rather, the harder I worked, the more pleasure I experienced during my dopamine wave. In this moment (and for my entire life?), I was totally at mercy to the levels of dopamine in my brain. Like my fellow L-DOPA lab rats, I began working as hard as I could in an attempt to derive as much pleasure as possible from the dopamine.
With motivation being so strongly tied to pleasure, it’s no wonder that people with depression struggle with the mundane. People today recognise that most mental health issues are governed by low dopamine levels and an element of genetic disposition – therefore not assigning personal blame onto the victim. However on the other side of the dopamine spectrum, the hustle culture community continues to idolise tech CEOs and billionaires for their supreme workrate. Surely a large part of their success can also be attributed to abnormal dopamine levels – a lucky roll on the genetic roulette? My brief experience working with elevated dopamine levels wasn’t difficult, in fact working was easier than ever before, and certainly not worthy of any praise.
Despite the slightly Machiavellian marketing, the neurohackers weren’t far from the truth. I did genuinely feel like a different person after taking mucuna beans. However, they failed to warn me about the wave of nausea that shortly followed their consumption. Maybe I had the wrong type of magic bean, but it’s hard to be productive when you feel like you’re about to throw up. The sensation eventually passed, but not without leaving me with a sour taste for mucuna beans. I think my time exploring the “evanescent flux of sensation and perception” was over.
At first glance, it’s tempting to think that there are good intentions behind the propagation of dopamine fasting, but so far all of its endorsements have had an underlying level of hypocrisy. The tech bros invented dopamine fasting to protect their mental health against social media, yet they continue to develop more and more addictive apps that exacerbate the source of the problem. The hustle culture influencers preach about the importance of rejecting short-term gratification, all the while they continue to create click-bait and emotionally charged content – they even have the audacity to use the dopamine fasting trend to lure in their dopamine-addicted victims! I suppose with this article, we’re now onto the final chapter of the dopamine fasting story, as I admittedly undertook this challenge just to experience the rush of a silly fad. However, this time I’m going to try and break the cycle; don’t bother with dopamine fasting, it’s a load of rubbish. If you want to experience a dopamine rush, go knock yourself out with an afternoon of mudlarking, or on the front bumper of an 08’ BMW 3 Series while cycling home from work.