Dopamine Fasting: Silicon Valley’s Not-So-New Trend

Does the new practice of dopamine fasting have religious roots?

By A. Trevor Sutton|December 11, 2019

Lemuel Gulliver was addicted to technology, but binge watching shows on Netflix wasn’t his drug of choice. No, Lemuel was addicted to his pocket watch.  
This tale of technology addiction is of course told in Gulliver’s Travels. When he landed upon the strange shores of Lilliput, the miniature inhabitants of the island studied Lemuel with great fascination. Observing his incessant interactions with his pocket watch, the Lilliputians described Lemuel’s technology addiction as bordering on religious devotion: “…we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us… that he seldom did anything without consulting it.” (Gulliver’s Travels, Part One, Chapter Two).
Across the Pacific Ocean, the inhabitants of another strange land—Silicon Valley—are doing more than just observing technology addiction; some Bay Area technophiles have recently begun experimenting with ways to reduce devotion (or addiction) to technology, giving rise to a new Silicon Valley trend known as “dopamine fasting.” A recent New York Times article about the movement stated, “There is a growing dopamine-avoidance community in town and the concept has quickly captivated the media.”
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in neural responses to pleasure and anticipation, is said to be over-stimulated in today’s tech-saturated milieu. Facebook notifications, Netflix streaming, Instagram photos, Pinterest ideas, Snapchat messages, Reddit replies, TikTok videos, and Twitter feeds, to name a few, all provide a dopamine deluge within the brain. Devotees to dopamine fasting believe that by intermittently avoiding exciting or pleasurable activities the brain can regain a sensitivity to dopamine. 
A typical dopamine fast lasts somewhere between twelve to twenty-four hours. During the fast, individuals abstain from digital technology, music, exercise, food, physical contact, and even conversations. Basically, any activity which causes a large amount of dopamine to be released in the brain is avoided during a dopamine fast. 
There are, as with just about any faddish self-improvement trend, mixed thoughts on the scientific evidence behind dopamine fasting. While the effectiveness of dopamine fasting is still being sorted out, one thing is already clear: this practice is rich in religious undertones. This is an obvious sighting of religion emerging from within an otherwise secular segment of society. 
Fasting is one of the more ubiquitous spiritual practices around the globe. It is difficult to find a religion that does not engage the practice of fasting in some fashion. Whether it is Ramadan or Lent, partial or total, fasting is a spiritual discipline that transcends many different religious traditions. As opposed to other forms of fasting—such as medical or political fasts—religious fasting is often aimed at disciplining the flesh and developing mental and spiritual awareness. Taming the flesh through fasting—exerting ourselves against ourselves—is a thoroughly religious practice. 
Marshall McLuhan, philosopher and media theorist, often connected technology and religion. McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, wrote, “By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions.” It should come as no surprise that Lemuel Gulliver mechanically checked his pocket watch. Likewise, it should not be surprising when we mechanically check our smartphone or email for the billionth time. Catherine Pickstock, in her book Repetition and Identity, describes this phenomenon as “mass identical repetition” or “mechanical reproduction.” According to McLuhan, this is simply what happens when humans embrace technology.  
Long before dopamine fasting was a thing, McLuhan warned about the mechanical numbness that occurs as part of a tech-saturated existence: “As an extension and expediter of the sense life, any medium at once affects the entire field of the senses… Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology.” Numbness or narcosis is one of the ways that technology modifies its users. Bay Area dopamine-avoiders are confirmation of McLuhan’s arguments that technology has the power to leave us fragmented, dismembered, and numb.  
McLuhan draws on Psalm 115 to depict how technology remakes us in its own image. The Psalmist declares, “Those who make them become like them” (v.8). McLuhan suggests that technology, although shaped by human minds and bodies, has the power to re-shape the minds and bodies of its human users. Silicon Valley technologists have formed dopamine-inducing technologies and now these makers—and even the neurotransmitters in their brains—are being formed in relation to these technologies.
Dopamine fasting is a new fad, for sure, and it may not last very long. The spiritual discipline of fasting, however, is far from new. It has persisted for thousands of years. This ancient practice has provided a way for generations of people to gain control over the flesh and awaken from the narcosis of daily life. For millennia, individuals have used the spiritual practice of fasting to push back against the cravings of heart and brain, eyes and hands. And it appears that this old practice might have something new to teach those concerned about the increasing numbness produced in our tech-saturated world. 


Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


A. Trevor Sutton

Author, A. Trevor Sutton (@atrevorsutton), is a PhD student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. His research focuses on digital media, rhetoric, and the theology of technology. You can find out more about his work here