Model this dopamine fast

“We’re addicted to dopamine,” said James Sinka, who of the three fellows is the most exuberant about their new practice. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher.”

There is a growing dopamine-avoidance community in town and the concept has quickly captivated the media.

Dr. Cameron Sepah is a start-up investor, professor at UCSF Medical School and dopamine faster. He uses the fasting as a technique in clinical practice with his clients, especially, he said, tech workers and venture capitalists.

The name — dopamine fasting — is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more of a stimulation fast. But the name works well enough, Dr. Sepah said.

The purpose is so that subsequent pleasures are all the more potent and meaningful.

“Any kind of fasting exists on a spectrum,” Mr. Sinka said as he slowly moved through sun salutations, careful not to get his heart racing too much, already worried he was talking too much that morning.

Here is more from Nellie Bowles at the NYT.


They prefer feast and famine. I prefer steady moderation. But then again I'm a boring old guy.

I've long felt that it's good to be bored a little bit, and not too long, every day. It gives perspective, and at least reduces speed on the hedonic treadmill.

That page doesn't mention the "treadmill" but it seems very related concept. And yeah those guys seem a bit silly.

Are these people confusing MU and TU?

It's a good thought, and could be combined with the comment that raj makes about the variance of utility over time, and could be further combined with the working paper that Tyler linked to a week or so ago where somebody proposed a new theory of utility that seems to be based on the integral (over time) of the consumer's instantaneous utility levels, but under some sort of new formulation.

On the whole though I think that the insights from psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary behavior, and behavioral economics are the most useful here: something that initially gives us joy, dopamine spikes, etc. cannot continually do that or we'd keep doing that to the detriment of doing other things. So we re-set our "happiness set points" as Mark H points out.

It takes some effort to overcome those built-in tendencies. Or in terms of Grommy's comments, in theory people should maximize their total (lifetime) utility but their actual behavior does indeed tend to over-focus on marginal (and short-run) utility.

I conjecture that some study of philosophy or Zen Buddhism might help. Most of us can't annihilate desire (and probably don't want to anyway), but we might be able to train ourselves to focus more on TU than on MU.

However, it's far from clear to me that these dopey fasters are doing it the right way.

OK, Boomer!

(sorry, couldn't resist ;^)

There's some evidence that meditation works, and maybe what they're doing is a low level analog of that: reduce distractions and sensations, clear your mind, etc. and come back ready to deal with the world.

Or more likely it's the mental equivalent of fads such as giving up gluten, paleo dieting, and the like.

I thought of a version of this, but more along the lines of seeking seratonin more than dopamine. Which is difficult, because even though seratonin feels better, you want dopamin more.

Dr. Cameron Sepah quoted in the article wrote a response:

tldr; The NY Times is filled with lying scumbags.

And the NYT also refuses to publish my letter about how my neighbor's dog uses my toaster to send messsges ro my mind!!

No, Dr. Cameron Sepah is the attention wh*re who wants to use the term "fasting" to described the act of not using Facebook. Exhibit 1: the very first plot in the link you shared is titled "The effects of fasting from Facebook for one week"

What is fasting? In our popular culture comes from the Bible and the term refers to abstain from eating food or drinking water with the goal of knowing God. Today, it is also a medical term used to describe the abstinence of food or water in medicine, e.g. not eating before anesthesia.

Food and water are essential for living. In a religious context, you give up food for a great good. How is Facebook essential for living? Would someone not using Facebook for month die? How this compares to someone not drinking water for a month?

Few if any fasting disciplines give up water.
But to understand the word usage here, in modern English usage this is one of those verb conjugation things. You say "she diets" but "he fasts".

This is a modern rediscovery of the old adage "abstinence makes the heart fonder?"

Bonus trivia: because of the absence of patents, the invention of concrete was rediscovered twice, once by the Romans and then later by the medievalists. It's not just as easy as baking limestone and adding water. Who knows how far civilization would have advanced had patents existed in ancient times rather than the default trade secrets?

I know patents are your thing, but how could a patent survive when the recipe could not?

Abstinence is a skewed statistic. The internet, while not quite ruling it out, leaves room for interpretation. And my interpretation would be this: sex is more important than abstinence.

+ 1

I eagerly await R.L.'s alternate history, if he's willing to share it for free.

Sounds like a short story by Luis Borges. Or by Walter M. Miller, Jr., "A Canticle for Leibowitz". In fact, the latter book, which I've speed read on Wikipedia, features as I recall a patent (or a technical spec). The idea being a patent, being written down and widely disseminated, is less easily lost than a trade secret, which by definition is secret.

Bonus trivia: in my professional capacity I have seen and kept many astonishing secrets. Stuff that would blow your mind, stuff that will become public knowledge 20 years from now, if then (I've even seen top secret prior art not available to the general public except on a need to know basis, mostly in nuclear energy). But, unlike the journalist/traitor Julian Assange, I don't care to share them with the public. Which raises the question: why would a patent be kept secret, isn't that an oxymoron? For example, one of the pioneer patents kept secret for decades by the government (the inventor got a IEEE pioneer award) was in spread-spectrum communications, which is how your modern cell phone can send a text message with only 1 bar in an elevator, with a signal to noise ratio that's astonishingly small. The inventor got largely nothing for the longest time, he died, and his widow complained to the government (it's in the patent file wrapper), which I thought was poignant.

"I have seen and kept many astonishing secrets. Stuff that would blow your mind, stuff that will become public knowledge 20 years from now, if then ... I don't care to share them with the public"

Ray is going all Roy Batty on us: "I have seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion ... All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."

"Ray is going all Roy Batty on us"

Ray knows it's 2019...

Why would patents in antiquity have preserved ancient innovations?
Because with a patent you'd have multiple users who'd pay licensing fees and anyone could just copy it. With a trade secret, it might not even be transmitted to the next generation if the father died at an unexpected moment and didn't write it down. Or didn't tell anyone where he hid the parchment. Each extant copy made (especially in different places) increases the odds of the idea surviving.

Though how would you enforce patents in older times? Maybe in the Roman Empire it might have been enforceable, but I dunno.
I'd say it needs a very large, centralized polity. Not Greek city states in eternal competition with each other.
If a patent is only enforceable in Athens and Thebes doesn't give a damn, then Athens is at a competetive disadvantage by honoring it.
Mutually agreeing to honor each other's patents and make licensing work across city states can't work, because they like going to war with each other.

[uninformed speculation]
I personally don't see the point of still having patents & copyright around, if China and India won't honor them. If a large enough party defects or never really agreed to play by the rules in the first place, then what's the point? Also it disincentivizes R&D happening in those places, too.
Why bother with inventing things, when you can just steal inventions. And why invent anything themselves when it will be stolen?
Makes the West exploitable for its brains, makes China and India dumb. Noone is being better off here.
[ok, worse off assuming there's a better alternative, but I think at this point, the current patent system is even worse, than all of a sudden all patents being voided and none more allowed]

And with no copyright, someone might actually make a good Star Wars movie. One where they have fast-paced light saber combat, which also isn't directed against nameless red BDSM-muppets, preferably.

@David Gretzschel - if you're still reading this, the secret to making a world patent work is: world peace, world government (without the bad social stuff), a world court of justice. Solve for the equilibrium (flying car).

If you can find a reason for Ostragoths, Norsemen and Huns to respect Roman copyright law, you'll have a point.

Copyright law isn't about protection, it's about creativity. Yes art is primarily about patience but so is theatricality....

I'm an Episcopalean, which means I am tolerant but place a high value on moderation whatever the behavior or practice. Playing video games hour after hour (or any behavior to excess) is not moderation. For those paying attention, Donald Trump triggers dopamine in his followers, which means his behavior must become more and more bizarre to stimulate and satisfy his followers.

So what does he trigger in his detractors, who need less and less to lose mental control?

Mostly he triggers lawsuits and indictments, and legal settlements that he immediately cries about.

Seems more likely that Trump Derangement Syndrome is behind all the dopamine hit, click bait, and CNN talking head shrieking I see online (and in airports).

Trump is just handy for a dying business. They need clicks and controversy, and would find it somewhere. Pre Trump it was some guy not baking cakes or some kid getting into a tussle with a cop and getting killed. What Trump has done is not too dissimilar from the world of wrestling where there is the hated guy who fills arenas so people can yell at him. Which happened at the baseball game. The best and the brightest walked right into that role. They would recognize it if they weren't so disconnected.

Brightest - yes, best - maybe; I stand by my assertion that - contra especially the cons who mourn the loss of gravitas that used to ... oh whatever, that has rarely been earned in recent memory ... Trump's tweets are exactly the best thing he does. He is a clown, he was never going to be granted much room to maneuever - but he's just "honoring the rigors of his putrid f**king nature," in Al Swearingen's memorable phrase, nothing's gone seriously wrong for Americans and one or two things have been allowed to go temporarily right. The record so far doesn't make me think there's anything he could do to convince me he wasn't exactly what the system deserved.

I know it was just a brief reprieve, but for me, this whole chapter of history will be completed to satisfaction if only a selfie of Hunter Biden and Eric Ciaramella would turn up so he can do that superlative Nickelback thing again: LOOK AT THIS PHOOOTOGRAPH!

Trump has destroyed NATO, and now announces he'll go to Putin's May Day parade.

What a fun joke?

It's true the movies lost something when the Cold War ended, maybe reason enough to reignite it.

@God of Thunder
well yes, those affected by Trump Derangement Syndrome are also his followers.

Pardon me while I go on an acetylcholine fast. If I refrain from using my muscles for a month I'm sure I'll be super strong at the end of it.

There’s an optimization analysis technique from grad school that I can’t remember. You can spend time either producing or consuming, and your utility comes from consuming what you’ve previously produced. Making cookies vs eating cookies. Something maybe with the words control, flow, guided, ... ? It was mentioned in year 1 math for economists, but not a main topic, more like an aside that we might need it later. Does this ring a bell with anyone? It’s what I thought of when I read this even if I can’t spell it out clearly.

@Mark -What you describe is so general it could be anything. In my mind it's the Lotka-Volterra equations (predator-prey equations). What you say about things sticking in your mind is accurate. I recall in numerical analysis the math professor saying: 'Runge Kutta: STICKS LIKE GLUE!" and it's stuck in my mind ever since (In numerical analysis, the Runge–Kutta methods are a family of implicit and explicit iterative methods, which include the well-known routine called the Euler Method, used in temporal discretization for the approximate solutions of ordinary differential equations)

Bonus trivia: Dr. Black got a patent on negative feedback in electronics, in the 1920s. Wow! These days he'd probably be shot down by an overzealous US patent examiner for violating 35 USC 101.

The phrase that springs to mind is "optimal control", which I think of as the calculus of variations, but with the added complexity of constraints being added to the problem.

THANK YOU. "optimal control" was exactly right. It's not a slam-dunk fit for modeling production/use of dopamine (where utility of dopamine usage is a function of how you have produced/used dopamine in the past), but I'm just happy to more fully remember rather than half-remember something from over a decade ago. Cheers!

Remember that Steve Jobs was doing that in his biography. Also compare with the Stoic practice of practicing poverty.

Wasn't Steve Jobs drinking fruit juice to cure his cancer?

It worked, but then he got second cancer.

He was on an all-carrot juice-diet when he was studying in a liberal arts college. Actually turned him orange. He also took LSD of course.
Definitely recommend the biography. But I didn't finish it, so I don't know about that cancer strategy.

They better be careful or dopamine fasting will become a status symbol and thus turn into another source of dopamine.

I get so much pleasure from denying myself pleasure!!

Anchorite, Madame Stricte is waiting for you in her cabinet to punish you until you don't feel pleasure anymore from denying yourself from pleasure.

I look forward to it. I really do. I am sure I will love hating the whole thing.

Do you get up in the morning and check this website?

You have been conditioned.

As a person who has a doctor as a neighbor,
I am qualified to advise you
That if you get up in the morning,
Pour a cup of coffee
And sit at your computer reading and
Replying to my comments,
And then experience a dopamine rush,
You should quickly counteract this feeling
By abstaining from replying.
I know it's difficult,
Particularly if there is a reference to Krugman.
Take that first step to recovery

You are correct.

And, in fact, I misled you.

I am the one who gets the dopamine rush when people respond to the comment.

we also enjoy the dopamine
from the articles, papers, links and some of the books!
viva la revolucion marginal]

I didn't get a chance to see those comments; I have a vague impression that more comments are being deleted in recent days or weeks?

Most of the time I never see them in the first place, but the recent few that I have seen did deserve to be deleted. But deletion of comments that should be acceptable is disturbing.

Did you block me? Surely you realize that an imposter was doing that yesterday. It's the downside to the open login forum. Surely you are already aware of it.

How strange. The cμck dude seems to make it through alright.

I love NYT Style section articles published on Thursdays! This is delicious red meat. The pictures!

Many brain/body processes are homeostatic. If you think about it for a few minutes it's obvious why, basically motivation doesn't work without it. If pleasure becomes more vivid the lack of it will become more painful. This is why we have happiness set points, and why happiness research is looking at the wrong thing.

It was happiness research (Dan Gilbert) which taught me about the setpoints.

"...activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t"

Professional burnout?

They are pretty much practicing Catholic fasting. Instituting seasons of self-denial for the healing of the soul. Interesting. Make Lent great again. Semper Quadragesima as some monks used to say.

To be annoying and for the Christians out there that want to put something like this into practice with being new-agey... check out exodus90. It’s a little intense but basically is quite similar to what is being advocated for here.

*without being...

Did Nellie Bowles or her N. Y. T. editor confront James Sinka or Dr. Cameron Sepah with any findings from brain physiology or neurochemistry?

No reader of Times fluff, I don't know whether Dr. Sepah is a trained neurochemist or brain physiologist: but given his enthusiasm for a locution as dubious as "dopamine fasting", UCSF Med School might want to re-examine his credentials sooner rather than later.

The editors of Psychology Today were insisting as recently as 2017 that the neurotransmitter dopamine is NOT itself addictive, regardless of any role it plays in structuring "addictive" behaviors.

"Neurotransmitter reductionism" seems a late entry in the most recent running of the Therapeutic Hucksterism Steeplechase.

It's tiresome how everything has to be tarted up with "science". This whole point could be made without reference to any words of obvious Greek construction. A hundred proverbs and parables in any language are ready at hand to make this point, but, in a way that's hard to monetize.

What shape is the utility function over dopamine vs time? I.e. should we strive for high variance, or a steady drip-feed? (passion vs comfort?)

Utility is subjective.
What is it you think is utility for you ("you" might include a wider set of people you wish to consider)?
And what do your revealed preferences show, what you instinctively consider utility?

Going autistic to become good mathematicians.

Reminds me of the NoFap/NoNutNovember movement where a bunch of guys think by retaining their semen they are going to become super human

Hey, it worked for the Catholic Church.

For certain values of the word "worked".

So basically someone found out about Epicureanism.

Not sure if I buy the growing trend part. I've observed parents of young children doing this for at least a decade now with regards to their kids. It's 21st century parenting 101.

Are these folks NoFappers?

I belatedly read this article that came out the same day in the NYTimes, which on the whole says keep enjoying familiar experiences, which is largely contrary to what these dope fasters are doing.

OTOH, the article does agree with them that seeking new stimuli can be overdone, and one of their interview subjects says "“Coffee will never taste as good as it does if you quit it for a month. So it’s true that novelty is fun, but given enough of a break in between, repeat experiences regain that initial buzz”.

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