A new trend is taking over Silicon Valley: “dopamine fasting.” It’s the practice of abstaining from smartphones, computers and other devices to help curb addiction to technology and other pleasurable distractions.
Naturally, this fad has captured the attention of people far beyond the tech world and has put dopamine — a neurotransmitter — in the spotlight.
“Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in body movements, but also the brain’s reward system,” says Dr. Jeremy Hogan, chief of neurology with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “It’s believed to be released when an individual does an enjoyable activity. That can include benign activities such as listening to music, but also using electronics and even using alcohol or certain illegal drugs.”
Dopamine fasting has been discussed in online forums for a few years, but it recently resurfaced when Cameron Sepah, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, published a guide about it on LinkedIn.
He writes that taking a break from behaviors that trigger strong amounts of dopamine release — especially in a repeated fashion — allows the brain to recover and restore itself. Dr. Sepah also argues that without those breaks, we could eventually feel the need to seek out constantly higher doses of stimulation to receive the same pleasurable effect. Note: Dopamine is only one of many brain chemicals involved in responding to stimuli.
Dr. Hogan says that taking an occasional break from technology overload can improve one’s overall health.
“It’s hypothesized that the overuse of technology likely results in an overstimulation of the brain through the release of dopamine,” says Dr. Hogan. “This could lead to disruptions in sleep patterns and mood. Therefore, a reduction in the use of technology should theoretically result in improved sleep, mood and wellness.”
Mindfulness practices can also help to teach our brain that a certain activity is not actually tied to long-term rewards.
Whatever approach or technique you adopt, Dr. Hogan stresses that moderation and a healthy balance is critical.
“While there is no definitive scientific evidence that abstinence from electronics use is beneficial to brain health, it certainly makes sense for patients to have a balance between electronics use and healthy habits, such as aerobic exercise and social activities,” he says.