A literal “dopamine detox” doesn’t work. Here’s what to do instead.

What is a dopamine detox?

A dopamine detox is a practice of fasting from pleasurable activities with the goal of decreasing reward dependency. 

The idea of a dopamine detox has been floating around social media and the internet for a couple of years now. With a simple search, Youtube yields a plethora of productivity Youtubers suggesting the life-changing benefits of a dopamine detox. 

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter in the brain. It affects learning, motivation, sleep, mood, and attention.  A common misconception about dopamine is that it is the “pleasure molecule”. This nickname is derived from experiments tracking dopamine circuit activity in the brain with addictive drugs. However, dopamine is more accurately the anticipation-molecule. Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman M.D explains in The Molecule of More that “Dopamine [responds] not to reward, but to reward prediction error.” Put simply, dopamine is released when we anticipate a pleasurable experience. 

Why we may need to “detox” 

Amidst rapid innovation, we consumers are constantly being bombarded with faster, flashier, more fashionable — and the key— more addictive products. The simple pleasures that once satisfied us no longer do so, and the modern consumer feels at a loss until the next, new product reaches the heightening threshold for stimulation. As James Clear claimed in his best-selling self-growth novel Atomic Habits, “Business is a never-ending quest to deliver the same result in an easier fashion.” Equipped with the iPhone 12, we look back on the iPod touch comically — yet the iPod touch was a marvel in 2007. Junk food manufacturers are constantly testing better combinations of salt, sugar, and fat to further satisfy our desire for energy-dense foods. Action movies are getting even more action-packed than the days of Jackie Chan (who nearly died several times while filming!) to levels where increasingly advanced CGI is needed to continue to entertain viewers. And don’t even get started on books. Who would still prefer a stationary spine of paper over films… right? 

Many of us are dependent on these stimuli. Perhaps this is where the notion of a “dopamine detox” is derived from: the idea of purposely disengaging with these sources of overstimulation and instantaneous pleasure. 

A dopamine detox sounds exactly like what I need! But wait. 

Youtuber Niklas Christl challenged himself to a dopamine detox by holding himself to one week of no social media, digital entertainment, junk food, no alcohol and drugs, and no music. He claimed that while he felt bored and tempted at times, he was able to fill his time with activities that made him feel more present and alive. 

However, there is a caveat. 

A dopamine detox is not possible. 

Wait… what? 

Niklas just did it? 

Yes and no. A literal “dopamine detox” of your body is not anatomically possible. As a vital neurotransmitter, stopping all dopamine activity in the brain is impossible. As stated by Gregory Caremans, founder of “Brain Academy” and the respective Youtube channel, “We have natural, normal, dopamine levels in our brain regardless of stimulation.” By resisting addictive, pleasurable activities, you can’t actually stop the release of dopamine in your brain. The term “dopamine detox” is not scientifically correct and should not be taken literally. So, while Christl did the practice of a dopamine detox (unplugging from stimuli), he did not actually have a detox of dopamine. 

Try this Instead

So while we can’t actually detox ourselves of dopamine, the practice of a “dopamine detox” essentially is is largely beneficial. What is problematic about a dopamine detox is not the practice, but the misleading term. By unplugging, you are not actually ridding your body of dopamine. 

But if your goal is not to deplete your stores of dopamine, but rather, be enlightened to the simple pleasures in life, use your time more productively, and feel more balanced, you sure are in luck. 

TLDR? A “dopamine detox” doesn’t work literally, but the practice it suggests does work to make us more productive and mindful and is worth a shot! 

Works Cited: 

Caremans, Gregory, director. Dopamine Detox Debunked. Should You Do It? YouTube,  Brain Academy , 1 Oct. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Vitp4WNNeI.

Gepp, Karin. “Dopamine Detox: How Does It Work?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 29 June 2021, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/dopamine-detox#dopamine. 

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