Dopamine starvation is a technological fad that sounds silly, but might work

The problem with ridiculous Silicon Valley lifestyle trends used to be the risk that people might take them seriously: that it might seem sensible to eat an all-carrot diet, while bathing in liquid nitrogen and administering electric shocks to your brain, just because some tech billionaire was doing so. Now that we’re adjusting our views of tech titans, the risk is the opposite: that if they actually came up with something good, we’d be too busy jeering to realise. So it goes, I think, with “dopamine fasting”, which got its moment in the mockery spotlight a few weeks back. The idea is to deprive yourself of dopamine hits, to break your addiction to our hyperstimulating world, thereby finding pleasure once again in life’s more meaningful but less buzz-inducing delights, such as natural beauty, good literature, or time with old friends.

To be fair, it’s still nonsense in many ways. Stimulation is more complex than dopamine hits; it’s misleading to talk of addiction; and there’s no evidence that a fast will “reset” your levels. (“Reset”, here, seems like a classic case of importing a computer metaphor into human biology.) But I like the concept anyway, because it shifts the focus from individual sources of stimulation to the brain being stimulated. If your goal is to end your dependence on excitement, and the treadmill effect whereby you require ever more of it, then it’s definitely helpful to spend a day without, say, social media. But it’ll be of limited use if you fill that time with different forms of stimulation – watching thrilling movies, taking drugs, eating junk food, shopping. The most radical proponents of dopamine fasting swear off any conversation at all.

I was going to try it – until it dawned on me that I already have, several times, under the (slightly) less fashionable label of “going on a meditation retreat”. The rules are similar – no screens, reading, talking, sex, alcohol, meat-eating – and while meditation isn’t “doing nothing”, it certainly involves surrendering your dependence on external excitement. And the results are everything a dopamine-faster might want: renewed sensitivity to nature, and to the flavours of food; less impatience with others; better sleep; and a greater ability to read books without the urge to reach for your phone.

It takes a few days to get there, though. Until then, it can be fairly awful. The inevitable flipside of living in a world of unprecedented stimulation is that when it’s absent, experience can feel maddeningly boring. The problem with “persuasive design”, the armory of psychological techniques used by tech platforms to ensure your attention never wavers, is that the rest of reality wasn’t designed that way. And the problem with depriving yourself of thrilling distractions from the present moment is that you’re left, in the words of the psychotherapist Bruce Tift, feeling “claustrophobic, imprisoned, powerless, and constrained by reality”.

It’s worth pushing through the pain, though – and if calling it “dopamine fasting” helps, who really cares? My issue with tech bros isn’t the language they use. It’s that after a Sunday spent dopamine fasting, they go straight back to their work of keeping the rest of us hooked.