By Belle Hann
Tech bros are giving up their devices, plus anything considered pleasurable, in order to reset their neurochemistry and reclaim their attention spans. Disgusted by my own compulsive phone-checking, I decided to undergo a dopamine fast of my own.
So what exactly is dopamine? It is the neurotransmitter activated when receiving pleasure. All the fun stuff in life, such as eating, shopping, and sexual activity, is fueled by a chemical hit of dopamine. It is also a potent factor in reinforcing addictive behaviours like gambling and taking drugs. And wanna know why you can’t resist that red bloop notification thingy on your iPhone? Blame dopamine.
Dr Cal Newport in his TED Talk on quitting social media points out that Silicon Valley firms hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from Las Vegas casino slot machines to get us hooked to social media. Yikes.
Proponents of dopamine fasting claim that abstaining from pleasurable activities – even including eye contact – will reset the brain’s natural levels of dopamine production.
Not so fast, says the experts. Like many wellness trends, there’s not much science to back this up. According to Harvard expert Dr. Peter Grinspoon, dopamine fasting doesn’t actually decrease your dopamine levels. He writes: “while dopamine does rise in response to rewards or pleasurable activities, it doesn’t actually decrease when you avoid overstimulating activities.”
Slightly less scientifically, I asked some people at reddit.com/r/Melbourne. Responses varied from “Total BS, “Complete BS,” and “sounds like a Pete Evans scam!”
Undeterred, I decided to give this dopamine fasting thing a whirl. I turned off my iPhone, hid my laptop, and prepared for the next day of zen-like bliss.
I started off well, waking without the dulcet tones of the “By the Seaside” alarm ringtone. I resisted the urge to check my phone for overnight news updates. Nor did I do my usual social media app check for messages, likes, and all that nonsense. I walked to Sunshine train station without the benefit of the disco tunes blasting through my earphones. Instead, I walked mindfully and attentively down Hampshire Road, greeting the morning with a Buddha-like smile.
On the Sunbury line train, I counted nine out of ten fellow commuters were glued to their phones. Slightly smug, I congratulated myself for abstaining from my usual compulsive phone checking. Then I became concerned that my smugness may itself be dopamine inducing. Oops.
By 11am, my brain absolutely itched with the desire to look things up. “How much does it cost to rent in Ascot Vale?” “What time does Footscray Savers close?” “Whatever happened to the guy who played Balki on Perfect Strangers?” Growing up in this era, I feel like I am now cognitively wired to google my way out of curiosity, evidence of which is that the term google is a verb, not just a website.
I also felt slightly panicked that someone may have tried to get in touch with me with something very urgent and important or at least a very good cat meme. Maybe my crush would even finally decide to text me first (spoiler alert: he didn’t).
My dopamine fast ended when I had to look up the PTV app for some semi-urgent train information and then I was off to the races. On autopilot, I checked my email, and then I figured I should check the news, did some instagram, and then my Gmail again. I’d failed at this dopamine fasting thing within a matter of hours. I even googled “dopamine fast failure” to drum home the point.
Even if dopamine fasting is too tricky and has not a lick of science behind it, I do think there’s merit to switching off the screens occasionally. There’s something to be said for allowing the mind some room to breathe, letting the brain just kick around in its own chemicals.