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James Sinka and Andrew Fleischer, quietly writing and reading while on a dopamine fast, in their apartment in San Francisco on Oct. 16, 2019. Image Credit: NYT

SAN FRANCISCO - They would not be eating. They would not look at any screens. They would not listen to music. They would not exercise. No work. No eye contact. No talking more than absolutely necessary. A photographer could take their picture, but there could be no flash.

Doing, or not doing all this meant going without their daily fix of dopamine, the feel-good hormone.

But why are they doing it?

After all, everything was going really well for these men of Tennessee Street, James Sinka, Andrew Fleischer, and Alberto Scicali.

Women wanted to talk to them; investors wanted to invest; their new site got traffic; phones were buzzing; their Magic: The Gathering cards were appreciating. This all was exactly the problem. There was too much of feel-good.

They tried to tamp the pleasure. They would not eat for days (intermittent fasting). They would eschew screens (digital detox). It was not enough. Life was still so good and pleasurable.

And so they came to the root of it: dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in how we feel pleasure. The three of them - all in their mid-20s and founders of SleepWell, a sleep analysis startup - needed to go on a 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.

Dopamine fasting

Dr. Cameron Sepah is a startup investor; professor at University of California, San Francisco 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 fast against stimulation. But the name works well enough, Sepah said.

“Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced and makes for a catchy title,” he wrote in an email. “The title’s not to be taken literally.”

On a recent cool morning, Sinka and his startup co-founder Andrew Fleischer, both 24, were beginning their fast while Alberto Scicali, 26, another founder, managed the startup from his bedroom.

Sinka, who has a mop of curly hair, was wearing water shoes and a cable-knit sweater as he did light morning stretching. Fleischer was reading a book.

A dopamine fast is simple because it is basically a fast of everything.

They would not be eating. They would not look at any screens. They would not listen to music. They would not exercise. No work. No eye contact. No talking more than absolutely necessary. A photographer could take their picture, but there could be no flash.

The number of things to not do is potentially endless.

The ultimate dopamine fast is complete sensory deprivation, like maybe floating in a dark water tank or locking oneself in a closet. But the dopamine fasters of San Francisco do hope to keep existing in the normal world.

“Any kind of fasting exists on a spectrum,” 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.

The three of them graduated recently from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, where they met and started working together.

Their job is to put their clients in various sleep gadgetry - the Dreem sleep headset, Oura sleep ring, Withings sleep mat - and test interventions.

Their apartment is clean and modern with an empty fridge and few decorations.

Their usual schedule of all day, every day hacking away on different projects was too much. Investors and clients had demands. Their startup iterations had turned into a real job.

“I’d never thought about fasting work,” Sinka said. “Once there was pressure around work, though, it became less fun, and I thought maybe we’ll try fasting work.”

Like a weekend? No, he said, they don’t have time to not work for that long.

But fasting from work got them thinking more about fasting everything.

Throughout that day of their dopamine fast, they wandered slowly from room to room. They read. They put on more and more sweaters. The food fasting makes them cold. They went on walks, though these are tricky because they have to avoid needing to ask for anything like water or bathrooms.

“I avoid eye contact because I know it excites me. I avoid busy streets because they’re jarring,” Sinka said. “I have to fight the waves of delicious foods.”

Deprivation can bring happiness

Silicon Valley is not the first group to discover that moderating emotions or spending periods trying to feel less can lead to happiness. In their quest, they are moving toward two very old groups: those in silent meditation and the Amish.

Steven Nolt, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and the author of “A History of the Amish,” said parts of the dopamine fast do echo elements of Amish life.

“Compared with many of the rest of us, you would find Amish emotion to be more muted,” Nolte said. “The idea of limits on life, that there should be limits and yield signs, is a pretty central Amish assumption.”

But ultimately the Amish would not approve of the dopamine fasters.

“They don’t have a great deal of confidence in individuals on their own making good decisions,” he said.

Karen Donovan, who is developing a new Vipasana silent meditation center in Silicon Valley, said she sees this trend as moving closer to the ultimate dopamine fast: sitting on a dark floor with eyes closed for 10 days. Vipasana is an Indian meditation form that requires the doer to not speak or partake of any sensory pleasures for 10 days.

The fasting can reset the pleasure meter

As the day wore on at Tennessee Street, Sinka, now wearing a thick vest, continued to hang out at home doing basically nothing.

“Your brain and your biology have become adapted to high levels of stimulus so our project is to reset those receptors so you’re satiated again,” he said.

Sinka returned to resting.

“Yeah, man, drop down that cortisol,” Scicali said as encouragement.

After the fast, Sinka finds that everyday tasks are more exciting and fun. Work is pleasurable again. Food is more delicious.

“Biology can get hijacked,” Sinka said, noting that “early homo sapiens” didn’t have much in the way of sweets - blueberries and the like.

Sometimes it is hard or upsetting for people who encounter the Tennessee Street men while they are fasting.

The other day, Sinka ran into an old friend but had to tell her they could not continue speaking.

“I hadn’t seen her in six months, and it was extraordinarily exciting, super-stimulating, and I could feel how excited I was,” he said. “So I had to cut it off, and I just said, ‘Listen, it’s not you, it’s me, doing this dopamine fast.’ “

The New York Times News Service