When bioengineer and coder Janey Muñoz tweeted that a member of her cohort at the Y Combinator startup accelerator had cut short a conversation because he was in the midst of a “dopamine fast,” the derision came thick and fast. The elements were all there: San Francisco, startup culture, social awkwardness and a seemingly ridiculous new term for Twitter users to toss around.
But when the dopamine faster in question outed himself and started calmly explaining his practice, I wondered if there was something to this, or if it was simply a centuries-old meditation technique brought back with a bro-friendly name.
Now 24, James Sinka is the founder of Sleepwell, a startup focused on helping people get better sleep. He first encountered internet addiction as a teenager playing World of Warcraft, finding his way to fasting as a means of strengthening his will. He practices food fasting about once a month, but only undertakes dopamine fasts once or twice a year. “I let my body tell me when it’s time to do one. It’s when I get a feeling of mild burnout,” he says. “Once I’ve done a dopamine fast, my professional work becomes more enticing.”
I ask him about the aborted conversation with Muñoz that led to the tweet. “It was my goal to have zero conversation, but then I saw someone I hadn’t seen in six months and I was like a moth to a flame. Then it hit me that I was supposed to be dopamine fasting, and I had to respectfully shut it down.”
Sinka, who studied chemistry and is far more polite than the rude creature you could have pictured from the original tweet, saw an opportunity in responding to people under Muñoz’s tweet. “As a scientist, I love finding out how things work,” he says. “As a kid, my cousin and I would get the same toys; his were pristine, and mine were always disassembled.” He points out that Muñoz followed up her first tweet with another saying she’d probably end up trying out dopamine fasting too.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brain that has a role in motivation and reward. However, it’s actually a bit of a utility player, having a part in regulating movement, expanding blood vessels and controlling our attention, among other things. It’s also not possible to simply say we experience a surge of dopamine when we’re about to get something we want — it also happens when we nearly get something we want. Thus, dopamine fasters like Sinka are interested in controlling the relationship between dopamine and stimulating activities.
A typical dopamine fast involves abstaining from electronic devices, the internet, books and magazines, sex and masturbation, food, music, podcasts and all other stimulants. For seriously committed fasters like Sinka, it also includes drastically minimizing conversation and interaction with other people. During the period of a fast, you can write with a pen and paper, meditate, go for walks and drink water. The length of dopamine fasting varies, but for Sinka, it’s one wake cycle –– i.e., from the moment he gets up to the moment he goes to sleep.
To anyone who has been on a retreat, the process of a dopamine fast will sound very familiar. In fact, lots of replies to Muñoz’s original tweet pointed out how similar the whole exercise is to Vipassanā meditation. Sinka happily concedes that “a lot of the concepts have been used for a very long time, but in the modern era we understand the neurology. We can finally put a neurochemical lens on why these things are happening.”
While Vipassanā stems from 10th century thinking, “dopamine fasting” is a much more recent term. A Canadian entrepreneur and writer named Greg Kamphuis first posted about the idea on Reddit in December 2016 and went on to write an ebook called A 40-Day Dopamine Fast, which was published in 2017. Since then the concept has been picked up by the self-improvement community on YouTube. In the most popular dopamine fasting video, which has 1.7 million views, the channel The Improvement Pill claims to have invented the ritual “many years ago.”
Nathaniel Drew, a 21-year-old YouTuber who regularly posts about undertaking different self-improvement challenges, says he could “feel my mind thanking me for permission to rest and recover” after a 24-hour dopamine fast. In another video, fitness trainer Radoslav Detchev reflects on his own experience after a 40-hour fast, explaining, “I was letting all the dopamine break down in my brain, so I could focus and concentrate much easier, so that the right things would actually stimulate dopamine instead of the wrong things. The amount I craved reading a book was insane.”
More recently, Cameron Sepah, a San Francisco-based psychologist who works with tech executives and CEOs, has had some traction with the idea. He says it’s really nothing new: “Dopamine fasting is just a way of saying stimulus control. I’ve been recommending that in my practice for a long time.”
So does the name just appeal to a particular Silicon Valley mindset? “Yes, it helps get clicks and makes it seem cool. My LinkedIn article on the topic has got 125,000 views, so if it helps more people learn about it and practice it, I’m all for it,” Sepah responds. “The term is technically incorrect, but ‘stimulus control 101 for dealing with addictive behavior’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
All of which is to say, he understands why Muñoz’s tweet was met with so much dismissiveness: “It was a caricature of how silly techies can be when they take things to an extreme and don’t talk to people. It’s the bumbling nerd stereotype.”
Neuroscientist and writer Dean Burnett says he can see the logic behind dopamine fasting but he too is skeptical of the name. “If I were being cynical,” he says, “I’d say it’s just a way of taking conventional and accepted wisdom and rebranding it so it looks like a new idea that’s more palatable to Silicon Valley types. It’s true that dopamine is the neurotransmitter that allows the reward and motivation systems in the brain to function; we couldn’t feel pleasure without it. But ‘dopamine fasting’ seriously oversimplifies the complex and nuanced roles of dopamine and other neurotransmitters when it comes to our experiences and drives.”
Conflating dopamine spikes that come from drug use and those provoked by other activities like gambling, internet use or masturbation (or even the last two combined), isn’t correct in Burnett’s view. “Drugs of abuse literally introduce new chemicals into your brain and body, working on your brain’s dopamine system artificially, making it do things it’s not meant to do,” he explains. “With activities like gaming, the dopamine increase is governed entirely by the brain’s own systems, which has a lot more failsafes and balances.”
Dopamine fasting is definitely a name designed to appeal to Huel humans, or young men who find the idea of hacking their mental and physical responses more appealing than anything expressed so simply as health and wellbeing. Sinka says he recognizes that — “Calling it dopamine fasting is definitely a way of engineering it to make it appeal to men” — and concedes that his youth and relative lack of personal commitments is a kind of privilege that lets him take the practice to extremes. In other words, a single mother or factory worker is a lot less able to consciously disconnect.
And while in the flat black and white of tweets, Sinka can seem like a very straight-faced evangelist, his enthusiasm for fasting and improving himself is infectious. “I want to help people out,” he tells me. “The things I do to keep my biology in check could help others. Maybe I can nudge people into being more mindful.”
He might be onto something. From the dopamine hit of scrolling through the Twitter thread that sparked all of this, I’m now wondering if I should try a fast myself.