I have an issue with pseudoscience masquerading as science. Whether these ideas have any associated value or not isn’t my concern. My problem is when science-like concepts are used to trick people into believing that an idea is something that it isn’t.
My current rant is about dopamine fasting. I recently heard about this from another blogger. To be clear, my aim is not at all to criticize that particular blogger or any other blogger who shares things like this. Fads like this are presented in a way that seems, at least at face value, to be valid. The problem doesn’t lie with people that accept these concepts because they pass the face value test; rather, it lies with the people who deliberately draw on pseudoscience to trick others into essentially buying what they’re selling.
What dopamine fasting involves
So what is dopamine fasting? It appears to have been first proposed by a psychiatrist in California, Dr. Cameron Sepah, and it gained a following in Silicon Valley. You may have heard that addiction relates to rushes of dopamine in the brain’s reward centre. The process of dopamine fasting involves abstaining from pleasurable activities that might trigger this kind of dopamine surge.
Dr. Sepah’s recommendations (as described in The Telegraph) are to fast between 1-4 hours a day, plus a day each weekend along with some extra time throughout the year. During that time, you need to avoid the following:
- Browsing the internet or playing video games
- Online shopping or gambling
- Pleasure eating
- Thrill-seeking behaviour (anything that triggers strong emotions)
- Viewing pornography
- Recreational drugs
The site Alive and Well Balanced suggests a 24-hour dopamine fast with several additional requirements:
- No reading books or magazines
- No music or podcasts
- No coffee, caffeinated tea, or other stimulants
- No talking to others (unless absolutely necessary)
- No food
On the surface, all of this may sound quite plausible. Avoiding pleasure to avoid dopamine might seem like a great idea on the face of it.
Bring on the pseudoscience
The problem is, once you get down to the nitty gritty of how things work in the brain, it starts to fall apart.
Let’s quickly talk about what fasting is. Fasting in the traditional sense involves depriving oneself of food and/or liquids. It may be done for health, religious/spiritual, or other reasons, but the basic premise is non-consumption.
How would that translate to dopamine? It would seem to suggest going dopamine-free, i.e. during the fasting period you would have no (or almost no) dopamine, or that you stop putting dopamine into your body.
Except that’s completely absurd.
Several articles I looked at claimed that pleasurable activities cause the production of dopamine, implying it was sort of like the sun shining on the skin causes the production of vitamin D. The problem is, it doesn’t work that way.
Dopamine in the brain
The dopamine is already there. The brain makes it from an amino acid (phenylalanine), and it’s hanging out at the end of neurons locked and loaded and ready to go, just like its chemical cousins serotonin and norepinephrine.
The graphic on the left below represents a synaptic connection between two neurons. The neuron on top represents the message sender, and the pink areas within it represent dopamine (or other neurotransmitter) that it’s got stored and ready to go to pass on to adjacent neurons.
Dopamine is not a one-trick pony. Sure, it’s the main neurotransmitter acting in the brain’s pleasure and reward centre (the nucleus accumbens), but it’s doing a heck of a lot of other things in a heck of a lot of other places. The graphic on the right hints at the many different pathways in the brain. Any given neurotransmitter works in multiple different pathways.
Because it plays such an important role in the brain, if it was actually possible to go on a dopamine fast (i.e. having zero dopamine in your brain), you would be seriously up shit creek. Movement-wise, you’d be looking at something along the lines of severe Parkinson’s Disease. Mentally, the part of your brain that handles executive functioning (essentially your cognitive air traffic control) would be out to lunch, along with a variety of other mental functions.
Why this is a problem
So, does the process of “dopamine fasting” lead to benefits from a psychological/behavioural perspective? Quite possibly – I have no way of knowing (and a research study would be a useful way to find out), and that’s not what I’m challenging.
My point is that by calling it a “dopamine fast” it gets people talking the language of pseudoscience because the average person is highly unlikely to know the real science—and that’s just plain misleading. I certainly don’t expect everyone to be up on their neurophysiology, and that’s why it bugs me if the original proponent of an idea like this is leaving the door wide open and rolling out the welcome mat for people to make inaccurate assumptions. If a name is chosen because it’s gimmicky rather than inaccurate, that’s a problem.
Ok, rant over.
The Science Corner in the Blog Index has info on media & research literacy, fake news, public health, and debunking pseudoscience.