Dopamine detox? Wait, isn’t dopamine good for you?
Well, yes and no. In the words of the illustrious poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Like so many things that are good for us, the use of everything must be considered in its proper context. Water is essential for life. However, while rare, a person can literally drown himself by drinking too much water at one time. This phenomenon is called water toxemia.
Sunlight is essential for our good health, especially the formation of Vitamin D, but we all know what happens when we experience too much sun exposure at one time. Like Goldilocks, we need to pursue not too little, and not too much. Ditto with dopamine.
Today, as in times past, people are hooked on dopamine. Actually, they’re hooked on the activities that cause our brains to secrete dopamine. To be more specific, human beings are hooked on pleasure, and activities that produce pleasurable experiences. This dependency on activities that cause dopamine levels to spike has given rise to a new type of fast: fasting from activities that cause dopamine release. This is a brain/mind fast, rather than a metabolic fast. Proponents of the dopamine fast have ascribed the term; ‘Dopamine Detox’.
The principle behind dopamine detox involves abstaining from activities that are likely to create pleasure for a specified period, perhaps one day, or perhaps for a week. This may include cutting back or eliminating:
- Anything you would normally associate with instant gratification, which is just about everything we pursue in our lives these days (no, you shouldn’t hibernate)
- Cut down on the amount of information flowing into your consciousness
- Put the stimulants and psychoactive substances away for now
- Images involving members of the opposite sex (or same sex) who are not fully clothed and engaging in potentially population-increasing activities
- Stick with healthy, but bland-tasting food (just for the detox)
Proponents of the dopamine detox put much of the blame for, what they term ‘today’s dopamine addiction’, on screens; computer, television, phone, tablet, kindle, games - oh my, we have so many varieties of screens. Since our lives are literally dependent on screens, we can only ‘cold-turkey’ screens for a day or two per week, perhaps on the weekends. However, there are ways to cut back, such as:
- Cut back or eliminate visits to social media sites
- Cut down on the electronic notifications coming from your devices (they create a ‘Pavlov’s dog’ physiological reaction when we hear them)
- Unsubscribe from invasive media, like newsletters, updates, and alerts
- Keep phone on ‘do not disturb’ setting
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a hormone secreted in two areas of the brain which acts as a neurotransmitter, facilitating communication between brain cells. It is involved in a variety of physical and psychological activities, including our movement through space, our appetite, and various cognitive functions, including speech.
Dopamine is also involved in the pursuit of reward. When we do something we enjoy, dopamine release tells the brain that the action associated with the enjoyment is something we should experience more of. So, the release of dopamine in this context alters human behavior by spurring us to repeat activities that produce pleasure and desirable rewards.
Dopamine alters mood. Actions that are associated with rewards make us feel good. Low levels of dopamine can actually cause us to lose interest in vital activities, like eating and drinking, since low dopamine reduces or removes the pleasure factor.
Dopamine helps the mind focus attention, since anything which is rewarding is worth paying attention to.
Dopamine causes the brain to seek reinforcement through repeated behaviors. It’s the magic substance that prompts lab animals to press the lever that releases pellets of food, over and over. This type of reinforcement was a necessary feature of survival for early humans, helping people learn where and when to find essential elements, like food and water, so that they could return for more.
The Two Faces of Dopamine
Dopamine also has a dark side, with respect to its role in helping to perpetuate addictive behaviors. Street drugs, like cocaine, nicotine, and heroin cause big spikes in dopamine. In fact, part of the ‘high’ that people experience with these types of intoxicants, derives directly from the release of dopamine itself.
This dopamine spike causes drug users to seek out these drugs, again and again, even though they know they’re harmful. The associated reward can lead to drug abuse and drug addiction.
One feature of addiction is what is termed ‘tolerance’, the phenomenon of lowered pleasure-reward, associated with repeated use or action. In other words, the first time you use a street drug, for example, you get a strong ‘high’. But if one consumes the same drug a short time later, a user will not experience nearly as much effect as the first use. Researchers have been able to tie this phenomenon with a lower release of dopamine on the second and subsequent uses of the substance.
The term, ‘dopamine rush’, has been coined to describe the feelings that people derive from a sudden, pleasurable experience. This could result from finding money on the ground or consummating the acquisition of a highly desired item. Some have concluded that it is the dopamine itself that we become addicted to. But researchers have concluded that it is not the dopamine, per se, that people become attached to, but the underlying activity itself.
When dopamine is released, the brain retains clues associated with the underlying experience, to help find it again. Was it a substance, a behavior, or an activity? Was it experienced at night, in the morning? Was there a particular place or person associated with the experience? When we encounter these cues later on, dopamine causes a trigger or desire or urge for that experience that is difficult to ignore.
This process, of course, doesn’t necessarily involve harmful substances or activities. It may involve the work we are engaged in, eating healthy, nutritious food, creating art, or engaging in sports and healthy activities.
Dopamine and the Flow State
A popular 1990 book entitled, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, by Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is gaining a resurgence of interest amongst active people who are looking to enhance their levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
The state of flow takes place when a person’s attention is so immersed in a given activity, that his sense of self-awareness is lost for some time, replaced by a union of consciousness between the subject and the activity itself.
This absorption into the activity is so complete, that everything else which is going on around the person, is completely blocked out. The person’s attention has withdrawn, or ‘disengaged’ from the outside world and all thoughts which are unrelated to the activity. The entire person, both body and mind, are fully invested in the activity. Achieving this state of flow enhances the performance of the activity, while creating a sense of genuine satisfaction and happiness.
The experience of flow is actually fairly common and is something which every person has experienced, although some people seem to achieve it easier. After experiencing flow, some have used the popular expression, “I was in the zone”.
Modern neuroscientists have now tracked a distinct pattern of neurochemical responses that are associated with inducement of the Flow State. Five neurotransmitters interact to help induce ‘Flow’. Topping the list, of course, is dopamine.
But researchers don’t believe that dopamine creates pleasure, but rather helps to reinforce enjoyable sensations by associating things or activities that are pleasurable with a desire to repeat them.
There are, in fact, neurotransmitters that do cause feelings of pleasure directly.
Dopamine Detox in the Twenty-First Century
The dopamine detox has been adopted and heralded by certain people, especially Silicon Valley intellectuals, as a means to refocus the brain on certain activities which need our attention, but are often ignored or put off because they do not produce much of a dopamine rush.
They recommend a type of ‘intermittent dopamine detox’, where certain periods of time are designated for abstention from pleasurable activities. They believe that the process helps to reprogram the brain, making everyday, mundane activities fun and more enjoyable.
This abstention can be mild or fairly severe, including activities such as sex, tasty foods, exercise, social media, video games, and even chatting and gossiping with friends. They may even go so far as avoiding eye contact and fast physical movements, all in an effort to avoid stimulation. The catchwords for allowed activities might be, ‘bland, vanilla, beige, mundane, commonplace, boring, everyday, humdrum, uninteresting, ordinary, mild, lackluster’, (my thesaurus just crashed).
The purpose behind this escape from sin and pleasure into the realm of blandness is an attempt to reset the brain’s reward system, wired in large part by dopamine. The dopamine detox has, of course, stirred controversy.
Critics claim that adherents have pushed the practice to impractical and unnecessary extremes. Some medical people argue that the trend oversimplifies the role that dopamine plays in brain physiology, to the point of being inaccurate and misleading.
The One-Week Dopamine Detox Protocol
In order to pursue this weeklong detox protocol, which admittedly is a bit severe, plan for a weekend of contemplative, old-school, low technology activities. Make up a list of low-dopamine activities that you can engage in, in advance. Schedule the weekend with these low-dopamine activities, to make sure you are not tempted to engage in screen-watching.
Your low-dopamine activities could include such things as:
- Face-to-face conversations with close friends (post-covid)
- Play with your pet, if you have a pet, and if not, borrow a pet
- Enjoy a low-excitement hobby, like needle-point, or wood-working
- Pull weeds and/or plant flowers
- Switch off all push notification on electronic devices
- Unsubscribe from all redundant email lists
- Set all email apps to manually refresh
- Isolate and silence all devices during meal times
- Switch off all electronic devices 120 minutes before retiring for bed
- Cold-turkey all alcohol, stimulants, and similar substances until Monday AM
- Begin alternative low-dopamine activities to replace normal activities after work
- Cut television time in half
- No sex (of any kind) until Monday
- Cold-turkey all television from 5:00 PM onward until Monday morning
- Cold-turkey all email from 5:00 PM onward until Monday morning
- No posting on social media from 5:00 PM onward until Monday morning
- Screen-free all day
- Engage in low-dopamine, low stress, low excitement activities all day
- Screen-free all day
- Engage in low-dopamine, low stress, low excitement activities all day
THE FOLLOWING WEEK –
Take some time to assess how you feel, and in particular, your cognitive function, especially clarity, memory, focus, and energy levels. Then, plan for your next dopamine detox.
So, what’s behind our relentless pursuit of pleasure? Eastern mystics claim that the essential, innate quality of the human soul is bliss. People pursue pleasure and happiness in an attempt to discover and experience their innate ‘selves’. Dopamine-inducing experiences become a kind of proxy in our quest to know and experience our higher selves.
These same mystics would urge us to seek happiness and pleasure (bliss) directly, within our own consciousness. They claim that various forms of meditation and contemplation can quiet both body and mind, allowing for direct contact with our blissful, inner selves within a state of undisturbed quiescence.