The label “Silicon Valley trend” is a pretty good indicator that something is going to be goofy as hell, weirdly extreme, kind of dangerous, or a heady combination of the three. Dopamine fasting is an SV-home-brewed “biohack” where people do and consume nothing for anywhere from 24 hours to a week, with the misguided aim of “resetting” some kind of neurochemical imbalance (per VICE’s coverage, this is not really how any of this works). . But because the “fast” mostly focuses on things like technology, media consumption, substance use, and social behaviors like spending time with friends, talking to other people, or having sex, it isn’t quite as ill-advised and unhealthy as other, more restrictive tech-bro fasting practices can be. (Think: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s infamous “3 day water fast.”) That doesn’t mean it’s without flaws of its own. As VICE previously reported, “making you feel good” isn’t the sole function of dopamine, and dopamine isn’t the only neurotransmitter that produces, dare I say, posi vibes. And it turns out dopamine fasting is based on a fundamental misconception about the value of social interaction that could stop fast participants from gleaning any real benefits.
According to scientists who spoke with Psych Central, a mental health website run by mental health professionals, the kind of social isolation that dopamine fasting entails could actually be detrimental to mental health. Kim Hellmans, a neuroscience researcher and professor at Carleton University, told Psych Central that interacting with other people, especially people you actually like, is actually good for you. “Humans have evolved as a highly social species, and as such, loneliness and very little social stimulation can be coded in the nervous system as a threat — since loneliness is one of the most potent stressors,” Hellmans said to Psych Central.
Yes, another earth-shattering dispatch from Big Science: Spending time with people you like is literally good for you. Studies have shown that social support from family, friends, and romantic partners has a wide range of benefits, like decreased stress levels, increased happiness, improvements in cardiovascular health, and boosts in the effectiveness of other healthy activities, like exercising regularly. Meanwhile, loneliness is on the rise, so much so that experts are working on creative solutions like meal-sharing to coax people away from their solitary habits. That’s because social isolation is absolutely a trend worth combatting: One study that found loneliness rivals smoking cigarettes when it comes to increasing mortality risk, and being lonely is way less fun than smoking cigarettes.
The element of dopamine fasting that researchers believe does have merit is the part where fasters disengage with technology. “We could all serve to ‘unplug’ every once in a while,” Hellemans said, but with a caveat: “To attribute any perceived benefits to reduced dopamine levels is an over-simplification and misrepresentation of the complexity of the nervous system.” Of course, the benefits of unplugging aren’t breaking news, either.
So: Meeting up with a friend, ditching your phones, and going for a walk outside while you have a meaningful conversation about life, love, and the ugly wedding dresses of mutual acquaintances? Awesome for your mental and physical well-being. Declining hangout invitations because you need to stay indoors, write a list of goals, and focus on not masturbating in pursuit of some questionable mental health benefits? Not so much. I think you know what to do with that information.
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