There is a new fad, called ‘dopamine fasting’. Like most urban legends, the premise of dopamine fasting differs depending on who tells the story. The core idea is that ‘dopamine hits’ govern human behaviour. If you avoid ‘dopamine hits’ for long enough, you’ll break this supposed addiction, and gain increased control over your life. While this idea has (a lot of) flaws, there are some merits to this idea. If you’re the type of person that obsessively checks social media or Discord, it might be wise for you to take a break.
I think it’s extremely wise to take a break from technology from time to time. Technology can become heavily interwoven with our lives, to the point where taking a break from it can seem almost impossible. By taking a break, we get a fresh perspective on our relationship with technology, and we get a stronger sense of what is adding value to our life and what isn’t. I’ve taken breaks from social media in the past, and determined that I really don’t need to be checking Facebook throughout the day. Now I check it once every week or so (I can’t delete it, because I use it to stay in touch with family in Australia). If you want to gain control over how you use technology, I do strongly recommend taking a scheduled break from it every once in a while.
With that said, the goal of taking a break should be to get a fresh perspective, not to influence your brain chemistry. The goal of modifying your brain chemistry is deeply misguided for many reasons. Frankly, the concept of dopamine fasting is more or less bullshit. I don’t claim to be a neuroscientist, but my Ph.D. focused on the impact of video game rewards. I’ve certainly spent a lot of time reading and researching about dopamine and its effects. In my professional life, I’m a researcher involved in a study related to measuring dopamine during play. Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I am far from an expert on dopamine. But, my subject matter knowledge is greater than that of the average Redditor and YouTuber peddling these appeals to dopamine.
Appeals to dopamine
There is no credible science that validates the concept of a dopamine fast. People point to articles that show that dopamine plays an important role in human motivation, but they extrapolate too far from that. There are plenty of other factors that also play an important role in motivation. Trying to alter your brain chemistry to change your day to day motivation levels is the wrong way to go about things.
Scientists use the term ‘neurotrash’ to describe baseless conjecture about how the brain works. Since there is no scientific evidence that dopamine fasting works, could work, or is even possible, it fits that definition. Adding ‘neuroscience’ jargon to the otherwise simple idea of taking a break from technology doesn’t benefit anyone. Well, almost anyone. It benefits people who profit from clickbait, at the cost of undermining the credibility of science.
When you undermine the credibility of science, you give rise to maladaptive thinking. Take a look at anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and 5G conspiracy theorists. If people just make stuff up and say that its science, the end result is that science will not be trusted. These appeals to dopamine, while harmless enough on the surface, are a form of baseless conjecture about how the brain works. Like most jargon, appeals to dopamine only exist to stroke the ego of the person discussing it, and because it sounds cool.
Beyond that, if you do try to reduce all the things that cause dopamine, there’s a good chance that you’re going to give rise to maladaptive behaviour. Many healthy behaviours can trigger dopaminergic activation. Unfortunately, people are prone to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Communities that believe in the efficacy of ‘dopamine fasts’ continue to raise the bar for what dopamine triggers should be cut out. I recently saw a Reddit thread where someone was discouraged from learning guitar since it would trigger dopamine. To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is absurd and relies on a very poor understanding of dopamine.
Misunderstandings about dopamine
Early literature classified dopamine’s role as that of a ‘reward prediction error system’. That’s a lot of words for a single system and is just too long for most people. As such, people started shortening that to ‘reward system’. That name sounds much cooler, but that simple change had lots of implications. ‘Reward’ is the least useful part of the term ‘reward prediction error system’. Dopamine is better envisioned as a ‘prediction error system’. If something happens that you don’t predict, you get dopamine. Sometimes that’s positive stimuli like a reward. Sometimes that’s negative stimuli like a punishment. The idea that dopamine is the ‘reward system’ has mischaracterized dopamine as a pleasure chemical. It’s not.
As a result of this mischaracterization, ‘dopamine hits’ from social media and videogames are often compared to cocaine, heroin and amphetamines. While it’s true that those things increase dopamine, this comparison isn’t reasonable. Substances trigger dopaminergic activation far more than videogames, sex, or whatever else you might want to compare it to. Comparing a ‘dopamine hit’ from media to a cocaine hit is like comparing a paper cut to losing a leg—the magnitude and effect are extremely different.
Even then, you might think: well, one’s smaller, but they’re still acting on the same pathways, right? Well, kinda. Yes, it’s true that dopamine triggers in the presence of natural rewards. However, that’s not the only time that dopaminergic activation occurs. Dopamine is also released when you get something unexpected. The highest (or at least, one of the highest) known natural rewards is an ice bath. Ice baths are not pleasant. They are not something that a reasonable person would ever become addicted to.
Dopamine decreasing over time is also a feature, not a bug. When you go to eat a candy bar, dopaminergic activation spikes—you’ve got something unexpected. Do you expect to see the same amount of dopamine for the second bite? What about the third? What about a second candy bar? What if you eat the whole box? It’s pretty obvious that you’ll get better at predicting the sweetness of candy, and the amount of dopamine that you get from a candy bar will decrease. Does that mean you’ll never get enjoyment from another candy bar? Certainly not. Humans are really good at maintaining homeostasis. Every day, you spend 6-8 hours sleeping, giving your body plenty of time to return to baseline.
The idea that video games are breaking your brain is a popular one, but it doesn’t have much merit. I’m sure that some people will consider this argument pedantic. After all, I agree that people should take breaks from technology if they think they need to. All the same, the concept of ‘dopamine hits’ have been driving the discourse around video games, and is drowning out the practical discourse. Dispelling misinformation around dopamine lets us get back to finding solutions that work.