Illustration: Matija Medved

Optimize Me

Everyone is Wrong About Dopamine Fasting

Avoiding pleasurable activities to reset the brain’s ‘reward chemical’ sounds great. Too bad that’s not how dopamine works.

Elemental
Published in
4 min readDec 3, 2019

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Welcome to Optimize Me, a new Elemental column exploring (and fact-checking) the weirdest self-improvement trends.

“In an instance of the Bay Area being very Bay Area: today was my first day in SF since moving here, and I ran into someone from my YC batch who told me he was on a ‘dopamine fast’ and thus had to cut our convo short (lest he acquire too much dopamine)”

ItIt was the tweet that launched a dozen take-downs: Look at how ridiculous these Silicon Valley bros are being now! WTF is dopamine fasting?!

The practice is ostensibly the avoidance of any pleasurable or exciting stimuli in order to recalibrate the brain’s “reward” chemical. In other words, you temporarily swear off food, sex, drugs, music, exercise, conversation, email, internet — anything that could trigger the release of the neurotransmitter. (There is no agreed-upon dopamine fasting regimen, though most people tend to follow the restrictions for 24 hours.)

Dopamine fasting stems from the idea that a constant barrage of junk food, porn, social media, recreational drugs, online shopping, and even professional success have dulled people’s appreciation of the small pleasures in life. The hope is that intermittent bouts of asceticism will clear out the chemical receptors and reset dopamine levels in the brain, allowing people to experience and enjoy the small bursts in dopamine that come from everyday life instead of only responding to the large manufactured surges.

There’s only one problem: That’s not how dopamine works.

“This idea that dopamine is the buzz, the rush, the pleasure signal and all that... there’s no evidence that [those feelings are] linked to dopamine at all!” says Jeff Dalley, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge who’s studied the chemical for more than 20 years. Instead, he says, dopamine is “the stuff that happens beforehand, the appetitive motivation. The actual liking and all the hedonic effects we think is probably the opioid system.”

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental