‘Dopamine fasting’ is a new Silicon Valley trend, but some people are already taking it too far

  • Americans spend more time than ever consuming media.
  • Some Silicon Valley VCs and executives are responded by 'dopamine fasting,' as the answer to over-stimulation.
  • Dopamine fasting is a trend along the lines of intermittent fasting from food that Silicon Valley execs have been popularizing for years.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

We live in an addictive attention economy, according to San Francisco psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah. 

Americans spend over 11 hours per day consuming media, on average, and for some, it's much more. Sepah works primarily with tech executives, especially CEOs and VCs, and he sees some of the same addictive and problematic behavior come up again and again, usually related to technology and food.

Especially if you work an office job, technology is as unavoidable as food, which makes dealing with potential addictions tricky.

"You can't abstain from technology altogether, but this provides a structure to limit or compartmentalize in a way that allows your brain to reset a bit," Sepah told Business Insider.

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Dr. Cameron Sepah
Dr. Cameron Sepah.

Cameron Sepah

That's why Sepah coined the term dopamine hacking. He first posted using the term on LinkedIn in August, and the post received over 100,000 views and thousands of comments. Dopamine hacking is a new term for an idea that Sepah has been implementing his entire career: helping patients manage problematic behavior with stimulus control, whether the stimulus is food, sex, or social media.

Hours scrolling on Instagram or reading through Reddit actually rewire our brains, interfering with our attention spans, ability to regulate our emotions, and how we enjoy simple tasks, Sepah said. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for reward and motivation in our brains. Constant overstimulation makes us less sensitive to dopamine over time, so it takes more of a behavior to get the same good feeling, which could eventually culminate in an addiction.

Another corner of the internet was introduced to dopamine hacking through a viral tweet on Tuesday.

 

Sepah says that this is a misuse of his idea, which he says he expected: "There was a chance that people would take it to an extreme. Silicon Valley likes to do that."

Some people are becoming too fastidious about cutting dopamine, which he says was never his intention. He doesn't see dopamine fasting a "cheat code to be better than normal."

"It's not a biohack, it's what healthy people do: turning your computer off at night, taking time off on weekends, taking vacations," he said.

Sepah used Silicon Valley's obsession with diets and fasts to name his idea. Stress eating is one of the most common issues he sees and counsels patients on, and that extremity some people are applying to dopamine hacking is reminiscent of certain Silicon Valley diets. In January, Amanda Mull reported for The Atlantic that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sometimes fasted for 22 hours a day, or sometimes subsisted only on water for days on end. Critics compared Dorsey's and other intense diets to eating disorders, questioning where the line is between "stimulus control" and a genuine health concern.

According to Sepah, dopamine hacking isn't about creating fear of dopamine or technology, it's all about intention. Reading a book on your Kindle, for example, can be a healthy way to unwind using technology, while spending the same amount of time browsing Twitter could be harmful. Like intermittent fasting, dopamine fasting could be a good way to manage uncontrolled stimuli, but it could also be used to mask a larger problem.

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