You Know Dopamine Detox Isn’t a Real Thing, Right?

Neon sign saying "use your brain" in relation to dopamine detox.
It's a fad

Videogames, pizza, porn, social media notifications, youtube videos, cigarettes, potato chips — all sources of pleasure that many of us become addicted to.

People online have come up with a way to kick these behaviors, and they base their method on what they believe to be neuroscience. To them, it’s all about dopamine, aka the pleasure neurotransmitter.

They believe their problematic habits and loss of enjoyment in life come from being “addicted to dopamine” and that the only way to break free is to do a dopamine detox. During detox, you refrain from doing anything that could raise your dopamine levels.

This has become quite popular, notably in Silicon Valley.

When you bite into a delicious chocolate glazed doughnut, are you enjoying a brain chemical, or are you enjoying a doughnut? The answer to that question will reveal why dopamine detox is...not quite accurate. Let’s investigate.

How People Wildly Misinterpret Dopamine

Dopamine helps regulate the brain’s systems for reward, motivation, learning, and pleasure. Your average person would claim that dopamine = pleasure, but that’s not the case.

According to neuroscientist Micheal Treadway:

Although often described as a “feel-good” chemical, dopamine doesn’t work by triggering feelings of pleasure and happiness in the brain’s reward center…Instead, dopamine may be more about motivation, the willingness to expend effort to reach goals and gain rewards.

When it comes to neuroscience, nothing is ever simple. Dopamine is a neurological communicator for processes involving motivation and reward. It plays a part in addiction, but it’s not the source.

You can’t snort a line of dopamine. But because of catchy phrases like “dopamine fasting,” people have gotten weird with it.

In Silicon Valley, many have reported avoiding conversations, eye contact, food, sex, or anything else that could spike their dopamine levels.

According to Harvard Health:

People are viewing dopamine as if it was heroin or cocaine, and are fasting in the sense of giving themselves a “tolerance break” so that the pleasures of whatever they are depriving themselves of — food, sex, human contact — will be more intense or vivid when consumed again, believing that depleted dopamine stores will have replenished themselves. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way at all.

The most obvious problem with this is that you can’t fast from a chemical that’s already in your brain. If you choose to go for a run instead of playing video games, dopamine will be involved with that too.

Dopamine is part of what makes you human. It’s wrapped up in the infinitely complex human brain, along with about 99 other neurotransmitters. It’s not something you can get rid of.

But here’s the funny thing about all this:

Dopamine Detox Is Based on Helpful Practices

Dr. Cameron Sepah, the psychologist who coined the phrase “dopamine detox,” was not intending for people to take it so literally.

Dr. Sepah wanted to help people with their addictions by assigning them treatment plans based on cognitive behavioral therapy. He wanted his clients to fast from their addictive behaviors so that they could gain more clarity, improve their relationships, and appreciate authentic experiences.

Harvard Health reports:

The idea is that by allowing ourselves to feel lonely or bored, or to find pleasures in doing simpler and more natural activities, we will regain control over our lives and be better able to address compulsive behaviors that may be interfering with our happiness.

Here are some things Dr. Sepah cites as being useful to cut back on:

  • Emotional eating
  • Gaming and internet use
  • Gambling/shopping
  • Porn
  • Risky behaviors
  • Recreational drugs

Any modern person is familiar with these temptations. Every bad habit makes life a little more cloudy and puts you less in control.

Dr. Cameron’s methods are not unfounded, and wanting to break people free from addictive technology is an admirable goal. His biggest mistake was believing that people wouldn’t take a complex thing like dopamine and boil it down into a dumb fad.

Even Smart People Can Be Dumb

Why do fads like this catch on? Why do intelligent Silicon Valley tech workers fall into such odd ways of thinking? Here’s what I think:

Anything having to do with the brain is considered intelligent. If you want to sound intelligent, you need to talk about neurotransmitters, evolutionary psychology, how you’re “wired,” and what substances you’re microdosing.

In Silicon Valley, everyone is trying to seem transhumanistic and like they’re on the cutting edge. It is also a place with a lot of status attached to it. When you end up there, you’re going to want to follow the crowd.

Some cocky guy at a party talking about dopamine fasting will make others feel insecure about what they know about the brain, so the crowd will go along with it. After all, the cocky guy mentioned neurotransmitters, and that must mean he’s smart.

You multiply this scenario a thousand times, and then a million more times on the internet, and you end up with people cutting conversations short to conserve their dopamine levels.

Plus, calling dopamine the “thing that makes you feel good” flattens out any nuance and makes it sound marketable. Even the New York Times made a story about dopamine detox.

What you should take from all this is that refraining from mind-numbing, addictive behaviors will make you a more grounded, peaceful, and happy person.

And if you want to detox from something, detox from being around people with bad ideas.