Dopamine: The Self-Improvement Mythos Of Our Age
influencers have turned the neurotransmitter into a gospel of productivity and vice
“I wish I had learned about the importance of a low dopamine morning routine years ago,” begins a TikTok creator named Meredith, in a video that made its way into Cosmopolitan and Refinery 29 last year. “It really is the most important act of self-care that I do for myself every single day.”
The “low dopamine morning” is a version of dopamine fasting filtered through a slow living aesthetic. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly just not looking at your phone when you wake up, having quiet me-time, maybe doing some journaling, and, as Meredith says, eating scrambled eggs instead of a donut so your dopamine receptors don’t “freak out.”
It’s your basic wellness advice, but I am fascinated by it, because it’s like, asceticism, but make it neurological? All the pious ritual of restraint with none of the God. Keeping the demons at bay, except the demons are brain receptors that get high on your sugar intake! Atoning for your sin, but the sin is scrolling Instagram too much, and the judgemental god is Productivity!
“Everybody has a different vice,” says a spiritual influencer giving a lecture in his car on resetting your dopamine baseline. “You have to abstain from whatever it is you’re doing too much, and you have to outlast that pain.”
Every major world religion has a fasting tradition, so it makes a lot of sense that these ideas have carried over into our spiritual-but-not-religious times. We’ve stopped looking for the soul, because now we can see pretty pictures of our brains lighting up, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped understanding our lives through our oldest rituals. We just rebranded them!
Take the words of this self-improvement influencer:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
It’s the Christian apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians in 53 CE. Fast forward 2000 years, and we’re no longer disciplining ourselves to get eternal salvation, but career success. The American work ethic finds many of its roots in Puritanism, a sect of Christianity that hooked up with capitalism and gave birth to the horror of hustle culture.
Describing the Puritan tendency toward abstinence in service of a higher purpose, German sociologist Max Weber wrote:
"Along with a moderate vegetable diet and cold baths, the same prescription is given for all sexual temptations as is used against religious doubts and a sense of moral unworthiness: ‘Work hard in your calling.’”
We don’t say “work hard in your calling” anymore, we say “reach your full potential.” While the low dopamine morning of TikTok claims to be more about self-care than self-optimization, dopamine fasting can’t really be separated from the ethos of productivity that has taken over a certain corner of the internet.
In 2017, Greg Kamphuis, a Canadian living in Cambodia and “struggling with enjoying alcohol and cigarettes a little too much”, wrote an e-book called The 40 Day Dopamine Fast. The trend’s popularization, however, has been credited to a 2018 viral video called How to GET Your Life Back Together - Dopamine Fast by the YouTube channel ImprovementPill, who told VICE that he’d first seen the term on self-improvement forums.
In 2019, a viral LinkedIn post called Dopamine Fasting 2.0 - The Hot Silicon Valley Trend by Dr. Cameron Sepah breathed new life into the idea, and the news cycle followed. Sepah, a psychiatry professor and CEO of a company that helps men “optimize” their testosterone,1 told MEL:
“The term is technically incorrect, but ‘stimulus control 101 for dealing with addictive behavior’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
If productivity is the soul of dopamine fasting, drug addiction is the conceptual skeleton that holds the whole thing up.
As Emma Betuel points out in INVERSE, the idea is based on the theory of “dopamine homeostasis” that came out of drug addiction research, which says that the brain’s dopamine receptors downregulate in response to drugs that increase dopamine.2 The theory goes: when you get more dopamine from a drug, the brain compensates by getting rid of dopamine receptors, which makes you less sensitive to dopamine.3
Not all drugs affect dopamine levels,4 but dopamine receptor downregulation has been found in studies on stimulants, which act directly on the dopamine system. The neurological effect of abstaining from activities you find pleasurable in an effort to “reset” your dopamine baseline, however, has not been studied with any kind of rigor.5 This folk wisdom hinges on equating embodied experiences to illicit drugs, and it doesn’t help that neuroscientists with podcasts6 say shit like this:
“The increase in dopamine from cold water exposure of this kind was comparable to what one sees from cocaine..”7
Cold showers are a popular piece of advice for getting “healthy” dopamine increases, as opposed to quick “dopamine hits” like looking at your phone, fusing the puritan's advice for moral piety with the drug war's disdain for substance use.
But this metaphor misunderstands the complexity of dopamine, which isn't a “pleasure chemical” at all — you can still feel pleasure without it. Behaviorally, the neurotransmitter has more to do with motivation and avoidance, and has even been shown to increase in situations that really don’t feel good, like losing a fight (in animals) or hearing gunshots (in veterans with PTSD).
Scientific understanding of the dopaminergic system is still developing, but the concept of dopamine doesn’t really belong to science anymore. The internet has created a dopamine mythology of its own.
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“We’re not scientists here,” says one motivational influencer using sludge content to promote dopamine detoxing.8 “I don’t give a fuck what the dopamine molecule is. This is how it works in the real world.”
In an Amazon review of The 40 Day Dopamine Fast, one person called it “a profound manifesto of awakening” that was “on par with some of the greatest spiritual literature I have ever read.” ImprovementPill’s video, too, is far more spiritual than scientific. He refers to his version of dopamine fasting as a “ritual” he invented that removes the distraction of pleasure so you can address underlying pain.
Sepah also admits in his LinkedIn post that dopamine fasting is basically just a rehash of a silent meditation practice from India called Vipassana. He calls this spiritual tradition “impractical” and lays out his own guidelines adapted from clinical practice, in yet another example of businessmen stripping spiritual traditions of their cultural significance in the service of productivity.
In Virtues and Their Vices, Robert B. Kruschwitz explains that traditional religious fasting practices are about much more than just self-discipline. They are often seasonal holidays that lead up to feasts which strengthen collective bonds:
“These annual days and seasons of fasting are teaching devices that guide members of these communities to greater understanding and appreciation of the shared narratives that orient them toward the full good..”
But dopamine fasting is not about connecting to others — it’s a mythos of the self, a narrative that attempts to map the inexplicable late-stage capitalism feeling of “being overwhelmed and yet alienated,” as Kyle Chayka writes.
That’s the feeling I get from scrolling too much, not pleasure, and as someone who has spent the last year disentangling myself from a social media addiction, I do agree that it’s a terrible feeling to start your day with. I just don’t think we need a dopaminergic mythos to explain it, and in fact, I think it can actually get in the way of understanding what’s really going on.
Research on monkeys has found that it’s not really pleasure that stimulates dopamine release, but the uncertainty of reward. The more uncertain the reward, the more dopamine gets released in anticipation. This is supposed to explain gambling addictions, and it’s common knowledge now that social media feeds were designed based on this concept.
But dopamine isn’t the only thing that determines why people get stuck scrolling or playing slots, because these behaviors also serve as ways to dissociate from unpleasant realities. Poverty is an overlooked risk factor for developing a gambling problem, and there are more electronic gambling machines in low income neighborhoods.
A 2016 paper examining the structural causes of problem gambling notes:
“..participation in gambling is also a response to the experience of being marginalized. For these groups, gambling represents one of the few actions they can take to address the lack of opportunities and freedoms that they experience.”
Likewise, an entire digital industry has been built around capturing the minutes people spend on their phones trying to escape the work day. In The Procrastination Economy, Ethan Tussey argues that the practice of “media snacking” throughout the day acts as a coping mechanism for workers, and offers a way to subtly rebel against conditions they can’t control:
“Workers in monotonous jobs with repetitive tasks and low stakes in the success of the company are most likely to crave media snacks.”
Maybe this craving has something to do with dopamine levels, but isn’t that sort of irrelevant to understanding why it’s happening? Unless, of course, your goal is to find a way to change the worker, instead of their monotonous, repetitive conditions.
What I find really interesting about dopamine fasting is how popular the practice has become with aspiring entrepreneurs. In this case, what was once a cope for dealing with the powerlessness of being a worker who has to sell your time is now an obstacle to becoming your own boss. No wonder it’s so popular with social media influencers who turn to content creating as a path to self-employment.
As Jenny O’Dell writes in Saving Time:
“The idea is that by constructing passive income streams, you free yourself from the constraints of capitalism by recapitulating it within your very person.”
→ If you liked this, see also: Can The DSM Give Our Lives Meaning?
aka gender-affirming care for cis men lol
weird that the “treatment” for “dopamine deficiency” is stimulants that increase dopamine, because they end up downregulating receptors over time. addiction research and ADHD research do not appear to talk to each other though, so these conflicting ideas both exist in their respective research siloes.
this is how tolerance works with all drugs, and also why diets don’t work for weight loss long-term! the body loves homeostasis.
According to Nutt et al, there’s little evidence that opiates, nicotine, and cannabis change dopamine levels, throwing a bit of a wrench in the whole dopamine theory of drug addiction.
this psychiatrist influencer said it himself: “When I play a video game for 10 hours a day, I'm getting a constant stream of dopamine, that constant stream of dopamine is going to downregulate my dopamine receptors. This also..hasn't been studied, so this is a clinical observation based on principles of neuroscience.”
Andrew Huberman has also promoted the idea that watching porn “damages” your dopamine system, which has been challenged by more sex-positive researchers
Maybe it looks the same in an fMRI, but try telling someone with a coke habit that taking a cold shower is just as good as doing blow. They will laugh at you! This is the problem when neuroscientists reduce full, embodied human experiences to brain pictures.