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Silicon Valley Is All About the “Dopamine Fast” — but Does It Really Work?

An expert weighs in.

By Danijela Maksimovic/Shutterstock
By Danijela Maksimovic/Shutterstock

The hot new Silicon Valley fad isn’t an app or gadget — it’s actually a “fast”… from tech, of all things. They call it “dopamine fasting,” an allotted period of time in which you abstain from certain pleasurable activities that trigger a strong dopamine release. And for many people, scrolling through social media looking for “likes” or staring at their phone waiting for texts to come in definitely counts as a trigger. The idea is that “fasting” (instead of bingeing) on dopamine gives your brain a chance to rest and rewire — so that everything from your focus to your productivity gets a reboot. Sounds easy enough, but does it actually work? Thrive asked an expert to weigh in.

“What Silicon Valley calls a ‘dopamine fast’ isn’t really that so much as it is a ‘dopamine reset,’” says John Kounios, Ph.D., professor of psychology who specializes in cognitive neuroscience, and author of The Eureka Factor. In other words, you’re not cutting off the supply of dopamine altogether. “A common misunderstanding about dopamine is that it’s about pleasure — the idea that when you do something pleasurable, that pleasure is caused by a burst of dopamine. But that’s not what it does. Dopamine is all about expecting a reward.”

This means that you can’t just turn off your phone or avoid social media for a weekend (or longer) and “deplete” your dopamine levels. “If one turns everything off and spends a day in a relaxing, non-stimulating environment, that’s a good de-stressor. However, it won’t have the full effect unless you aren’t thinking about future goals and rewards,” Kounios continues. That’s why he recommends using your “fast” to deliberately partake in activities that aren’t centered in reward-thinking. This could be meditation, creating art or journaling, taking a casual walk in the park — anything that brings you into present-moment awareness instead of focusing your attention on what’s to come or what you can potentially get out of the task. Essentially, “a dopamine reset helps a person to stop and smell the roses,” Kounios concludes.

So is it really a dopamine “fast”? Not really. But we’re on board with anything that gets people to unplug and focus on being grateful in the present.

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