It’s the latest craze among the burned out and overwhelmed, with numerous headlines praising its benefits. The idea behind it seems sound: unplug and take some quiet time to counterbalance all that stimulation and instant gratification we’ve been programmed to seek out. But does a “dopamine fast” really reset your brain?
The “dopamine fast” started in San Francisco and then took the Silicon Valley by storm. Dr. Cameron Sepah, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of San Francisco’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences, coined the term. Sepah suggests that our modern lifestyle oversaturates our brains with dopamine and that we need to unplug and understimulate our minds to “reset” our levels. He cautions that the term “dopamine fast” should not be taken literally, however.
On the surface, the idea seems sound. Most of us seek gratification daily on a nearly constant basis. So strict proponents of the fast refrain from eating, alcohol, electronics, talking to others unless absolutely necessary, exercising vigorously, or even touching others — anything that could stimulate pleasure or over-stimulate their brains. However, while there is some basis that the amount of time we spend scrolling and clicking each day could be affecting the way our brains are wired, there’s little evidence that we can affect our dopamine levels by abstaining from the internet or any other other pleasurable activities. The brain is much more complicated than that.
The fact of the matter is that technology is affecting our brains, and everyone needs a break from time to time. If you can unplug and check out for a week or two, you’re giving yourself a much-needed break. But while everyone needs to do nothing sometimes, so-called dopamine fasts can’t really qualify as vacations or mental health breaks — they’re far too strict for that and may even cause some distress as a result.
Go ahead and unplug, but do it to relax and recharge. Head to the beach and drink something with a paper umbrella. Go camping with the family. Spend a weekend with your closest friends. You don’t need to deprive yourself first to be able to relish joy. You probably do need a break, and the internet will always be there when you’re ready to plug back in — but it's probably not going to reset your dopamine receptors.
The dopamine fast might not be all it’s cracked up to be, but there is some merit to the concept of unplugging from technology — if only to get out in nature and breathe fresh air. Your brain will likely benefit from a week or two offline regardless of what else you choose to do with that time. Use it in a way that will make you happy, though, not one that deprives you of pleasure, because that’s really what it should be about.