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Monday 2 December 2019

Life hacks

No pills, no thrills, some bellyaches

Dopamine fasting is the latest craze among the tech bros. But what’s it really like to spend a day without modern stimulants?

By Richard Godwin

The Dopamine Fast is one of those Silicon Valley life-hacks that sounds like a joke – and perhaps still is a joke – but which doesn’t feel like a joke when you are eight hours into one yourself, batting away pleasures like so many mosquitoes.

The basic idea, as outlined on innumerable Medium posts and YouTube tutorials, is to spend 24 hours denying yourself all forms of enjoyment: nutritional, narcotic, carnal, technological, social and so on. It’s a day-off from nice things, a hedonic reset, a mental circuit-breaker. The hope, say the dopamine fasters, is that not only will your flat white taste that much better the following morning, but you will have undermined your dependence on these comforts and emerged fitter, happier and more productive.

“We’re addicted to dopamine,” as one advocate, start-up founder James Sinka, explained to the New York Times. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t.”

But the dopamine fast isn’t just another Bay Area fad – like kite-surfing, or bone broth, or billionaire CEOs taking blood transfusions from younger subordinates in the hope of forestalling death. Well, it is that too. But it also represents a dawning conscience among the tech community that the way they have programmed that tech – to “hack” our dopamine systems – has had fairly catastrophic effects. We live in an attention economy, amid a whole architecture of distraction and surveillance; as we try to get from A to B, we are assailed by pings and buzzes, carefully engineered to draw us away from our true goals.

In fact, the whole of capitalism does that, if you think about it that way – turns us into hedonic automatons, addicted not only to to our phones but to little spritzes of pleasure to get us through the day: snacks, porn, games, TV, bets, drugs.

The dopamine fast represents a clean break, a purge, a monkish day of contemplation. But it’s also a slightly silly thing that some un-self-aware Silicon Valley bros are doing – and, no, you don’t find too many women doing it.

The most popular guide for would-be dopaminers is a YouTube video, How to Get Your Life Back Together, posted in November 2018 on a channel called Improvement Pill. It has received 1.7 million views. The narrator – known only as “Richard” – claims to have invented the “ritual” some years before when he was at university, drinking, smoking and “partying way too hard.” He says it’s a great way to recover after a period of slacking off. Treat it like a holiday, he suggests, only a holiday where the “entire purpose is to have as little fun as possible.”

Once “Richard” has been through a lengthy advertorial for a watch brand (“if you’re going to be doing a dopamine fast, trust me, you’re going to end up wondering what the time is quite often”), he gets into specifics. His proscriptions seem harsh: no phones, no internet, no food, no alcohol, no weed, no computer games, no films, no TV, no books, no masturbating, no hanging out with your friends, no talking (except for “emergencies or something work-related”). But what you can do is walk, drink water, meditate and write down how you’re feeling with a pen and paper. “Richard” suggests a few writing prompts. Do I feel pain? Is it physical or mental? Why do I feel this way? Don’t blame your genes, parents or social status, he counsels. “Most of the time, the reason we feel bad is because of something we can control.”

He recommends doing this once or twice a year. On the subreddit, r/getdisciplined, one user describes doing the fast monthly: a long cycle ride, followed by a long recline on the couch with a pen and paper (and sometimes a book). “It does help clear out a lot of bad habits, and really is like a reset button. I find my bad habits start creeping back in after 2-3 weeks, which is why I try to do it once a month.” Over on r/selfimprovement, another user points out that if the goal is to reduce dopamine, a high dose of antipsychotic drugs will do the job. “There is the side effect of weight gain to look out for. Also the side effect of feeling flat, but if you are trying to fast from dopamine, feeling flat is pretty much your objective.”

Nevertheless, dopamine has become something of a Silicon Valley obsession in recent years. Just as “testosterone” has become synonymous with “masculinity” in the popular imagination (but in reality is way more complicated than that), so dopamine has become synonymous with “pleasure”. It’s the molecule that gets rats addicted to sugar water and humans addicted to Red Dead Redemption II and Instagram. But guess what? Dopamine is complex. It acts as both a hormone (it’s a close relative of adrenaline) and a neurotransmitter, which means it sends messages down pathways in our brain that govern different behaviours.

One of those pathways, the mesolimbic pathway, has strong associations with reward and anticipation, and thus also habit-formation, motivation, learning and addiction. Simply put, it helps to reinforce the association between particular events and actions, and what happens afterwards. Drugs like nicotine and cocaine do this in a pretty blunt way, by promoting increased dopamine levels. But smiling at someone and seeing them smile back also triggers a dopamine response; so does picking up your phone and seeing a notification. It’s useful to learn about dopamine if you want people to become addicted to your latest app – but the dopamine cult has prompted something of a backlash too.

In 2017, the former Facebook vice president, Chamath Palihapitiya, expressed guilt at how cynically his company had worked on users’ dopamine responses to get them addicted to social media. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Still, so much for the science. The most striking feature of the Improvement Pill Dopamine Fast is how all-encompassing it is. It’s the ultimate life hack, in that it contains elements of almost every self-improvement practice to have emerged from tech culture in the last few years. It is a bit like a digital detox (Silicon Valley Craze of the Year 2015) but also a bit like a regular fast (Silicon Valley Craze of the Year 2016). It throws a little “anti-fap” into the mix too – i.e. abstention from masturbation, and, more acutely, the dopamine three-step PMO, which stands for porn, masturbation, orgasm. The self-improvement site, AntiDopamine.com, recommends getting your online pornography habit under control not out of any ethical concern, but because those who master their dopamine will be able to unleash their “Alpha male” energy. “The way the brain works is simple – the less satisfied you are with the circumstances of your life, the more motivated you are going to be.”

“Richard” also recommends a written element, reminiscent of the Self-Authoring Program, a suite of exercises designed by the Canadian self-help psychologist Jordan Peterson before he achieved YouTube mega-fame. Peterson prescribes “writing carefully” as a way of understanding your past, present and future motivations; he claims that people who do so become less anxious and depressed, and more productive and engaged. As with the dopamine fast, his audience is overwhelmingly male.

In its scattergun approach, it’s not hard to feel like the dopamine fast might be doing something. But, by the same token, if you were to consume a whisky highball, two lines of cocaine, a triple espresso and a massive bong, you would certainly feel different, even if you then found it hard to say which drug or drugs made you dance on the table. If the digital detox doesn’t bring about a feeling of mastery and control, the self-authoring might, right? And perhaps simply taking a day out to reflect and repent has something to recommend it. A secular (techular?) version of the Jewish Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”)? Or, more modestly, Sunday? Religion is as much about ritual as it is about doctrine. Does it matter, ultimately, what your precise beliefs around dopamine and temptation are, so long as you put in the hours?

Besides, many advocates of the fast admit that “dopamine” is a bit of a misnomer. Dr Cameron Sepah, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, has coached numerous Silicon Valley CEOs through bespoke dopamine fasts at his private practice, only he sees it more in line with well-established cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques. “It helps people unlearn bad habits through a process called habituation, which dopamine is involved in, but the goal is not to reduce dopamine,” he says.

As I consult Dr Sepah, however, it becomes clear that his version of the dopamine fast – Dopamine Fast 2.0, he calls it – is rather different from the 1.0 version. “There have been some random folks who have used the term before without any agreement about what it means, which the media has selectively picked up on that to make up fake news stories to ridicule ‘Silicon Valley tech bros’,” he laments. His aim was to create “a definitive, standardised protocol that’s informed by scientific research and clinical practice.” “I don’t agree with approaches that prescribe a whole list of things not to do,” he says. “It’s hard for most people to comply with that, and no healthcare professional would discourage healthy behaviours like socialising and exercising.” He notes that the Chinese government has recently introduced a version of a dopamine fast: children are banned from playing video games from 10pm to 8am. Perhaps this is where the future lies.

Instead of forbidding all pleasures, Dr Sepah wants us to notice our impulsive behaviours and re-habituate ourselves towards better ones. He suggests beginning with a 1-4 hour fast and building up to a whole week – and he focuses on six core areas: emotional eating; internet/gaming; gambling/shopping; porn/masturbation; thrill/novelty seeking; recreational drugs. He advises me to measure how much time I spend doing these activities the day before, and then how much time I spend doing them the day after: an ABA model. “It’s not designed for statistical significance, but you may at least learn something over three days.”

Still, when I sat down to make those calculations, I hit a problem. I hope you won’t think any less of my Alpha maleness if I tell you that I don’t find it all that hard to go an hour, or three hours, or even a whole day without a “PMO” event. Does the average Silicon Valley bro really spend that much time PMOing? That’s… troubling. Also: I have never placed an online bet. I hate shopping. I have a French attitude to eating between meals, i.e. I don’t. So my totals for the pre-day are: emotional eating, zero; gambling/shopping, zero; porn/masturbation, zero; recreational drugs, zero, thrill/novelty seeking, zero.

Lest you imagine I am some sort of dopamine master, I did spend 54 minutes social networking according to my phone’s “screen time” monitor, and picked up the phone 40 times. But if I were my own physician, I might be tempted to prescribe me a dopamine binge. Live a little!

So I opt instead for a Dopamine Fast 1.1, which is basically the first option – the hardcore one – but with one minor indulgence: black coffee (I have tried a coffee fast before; it was horrible; I am at peace with my caffeine addiction). The overarching rule would be: no consumption.

My first insight was that dopamine fasts are easier if you live alone, or at least don’t have a duty of care to those around you. While I forwent breakfast, I still had to prepare breakfast for my five-year-old son (though I allowed him to flip his pancake, just in case this constituted “thrill-seeking behaviour”). Still, fasting wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. (Quite possibly because not-eating has its own complicated relationship with dopamine?)

One of the downsides was that I couldn’t go on Twitter to say: “Hey everyone I’m on a dopamine fast, send moral support!” But the amount of time saved on food prep and tech was considerable. “Busy doing nothing, working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do,” as the old Bing Crosby song had it.

I tried to meditate, gave up, and performed a writing exercise instead. Once I had finished marvelling at how scrawly my handwriting is these days, I homed in fairly quickly on the question. What was causing me pain? The fact that I could be doing something useful right now. What was stopping me? The arbitrary set of rules I had imposed on myself. How would I feel in five years time if I continued down this pathway? Annoyed.

After “lunch” (a thin cup of miso soup) I had a brief nap, then went for a walk. I headed north from my home in Bristol and up over the common by the M32. It was a lovely autumn afternoon – magpies, oak leaves, apples, dopamine. I reached for my phone to take a picture of the autumnal hillside before realising I had left it at home. I congratulated myself for not doing so and then marvelled at how strange it is that simply walking over a hill, thinking, is now cause for self-congratulation.

But, as I walked, I became mindful that technology isn’t so easily left behind. In my slightly hangry state, not only was I parsing the landscape for Instagrammable scenes, I was also constructing imaginary arguments in my head. When I’m tired or hungry or cross, I occasionally mentally debate Jordan Peterson or Boris Johnson or Mark Zuckerberg or some random person who said something irritating on Twitter. Isn’t that strange? Even when I am not on social media, I am often trapped in a social media dynamic.

Still, as I walked back home, I began to feel calmer. Perhaps there was something to this after all. Okay, not the pseudo-scientific tech-bro nonsense, but at least something around reconsidering our habits. In her recent book Good Habits, Bad Habits, the social psychologist Wendy Wood calculates that 43 per cent of our actions are habits: things we do without thinking about them, because they have worked for us in the past. Some habits are useful, like checking your wing mirror while driving. Some habits are not useful, like wandering over to the fridge in the middle of the afternoon. “The world of habit is so self-contained, it makes sense to think of it as a kind of second self – a side of you that lives in the shadow cast by your thinking mind,” she writes. It seems to me that a better way to frame a dopamine fast would be a habit break; a day spent consciously examining the things you do unconsciously. Your thoughts, as well as your actions.

The following day was a disaster, dopamine-wise. I dopamine-binged. I spent 1 hour 20 minutes on social networking and picked up my phone 92 times, more than twice the total for the day before. Meanwhile, I snacked throughout the day, including a splurge on leftover Halloween sweets that I hadn’t been remotely tempted by until that moment. I think that probably had more to do with calories than dopamine. I felt queasy and jittery and unable to concentrate for a few days afterwards.

Over the next week, however, I did become more conscious of my phone usage in particular. Screen Time informs me that last week’s average of 1 hour 32 minutes per day was 32 per cent down from the week before, with social networking down to about 47 minutes a day. But that also means I’ve spent less time, say, interacting with friends and colleagues, or replying to my family’s WhatsApp messages.

Still, let’s imagine it was a success. Let’s imagine I upgraded my habits and optimised my dopamine receptors and repaved my mesolimbic pathways with the purest gold: what then? “Most of the time, the reason we feel bad is because of something we can control,” as Improvement Pill had it. Well, I’m just not sure about that. There’s still a whole lot of stuff that is beyond our individual control. The rain. The economy. Other people’s dopamine responses. The fact that there are apparently millions of people who find it a real strain not to look at internet porn for 24 hours – and, apparently, a good number of them are in charge of the most powerful technology on the planet.

Perhaps the ultimate life-hack would be to realise that there’s only so much hacking of ourselves that we can do – to accept that many of the reasons we “feel bad” lie beyond our individual control. But, hey, that’s probably the dopamine talking.

Illustration by Nathalie Lees

Further reading

To understand how Silicon Valley exploited our craving for dopamine hits to make the tech we use so addictive, see Simon Parkin’s fascinating piece for The Observer

In the New York Times, Nellie Bowles writes about the tech-worker parents banning screen-time for their kids. Those in the know are worried about what tech is doing to their children’s developing brains.

You might associate psychedelics with long-haired hippies rather than tech bros. But, in 2017, microdosing LSD made headlines as another waymarker in Silicon Valley’s quest for productivity and self-improvement. Hannah Kuchler spoke to microdosers for the FT magazine.