The latest TikTok, Silicon Valley, wellness fad is “dopamine detox”. To me, the term is a good example of many of the things that are wrong with the wellness and self-help industries. It takes a complex topic and boils it down to a misleading and drastically oversimplified “life hack”, that can be packaged and sold. In this case it may be ironically reinforcing some of the behavior that it claims to address.
What, allegedly, is a “dopamine detox”?
The idea comes from a hyperreductionist and misleading popular notion about what dopamine is. It is supposed to be the “reward” chemical. When you do something pleasurable, you get a “hit of dopamine.” This oversimplified notion leads people to believe that dopamine itself is addictive, or that the dopamine is what is causing the pleasurable reward experience. None of this is true.
Dopamine is simply a neurotransmitter, one of the many chemicals that allow different cells in the nervous system to communicate with each other. The chemicals themselves don’t have a specific neurological function. What determines their function is the effect of binding to receptors and the circuit in which they are being released. Neurotransmitters are essentially either excitatory or inhibitory – they either increase or decrease the activity of the neuron they bind to. But the net effect of their action depends entirely on the circuit itself. An inhibitory neurotransmitter can decrease the activity of an inhibitory circuit, thereby increasing some activity.
What matters, in other words, is the neurological circuitry itself, not the neurotransmitters they use. Dopamine, for example, is used in many parts of the brain for different purposes. It is involved in the basal ganglia, which regulates voluntary movement. Dopamine producing neurons are what are damaged in Parkinson’s disease. But dopamine is also involved in many higher cognitive functions as well, which is why if patients with Parkinson’s disease take too much medication intended to increase the dopamine-mediated activity in the basal ganglia they can get psychotic side effects, and why some psychiatric medication can cause movement disorder side effects.
In other words – there is nothing inherently rewarding or pleasurable about dopamine. It just happens to be the neurotransmitter involved in the reward circuitry. And in fact, dopamine secreting cells in the reward circuitry are more involved with motivation and behavior than any pleasurable sensation. When you have sex or eat cheesecake, it’s not dopamine in the nucleus acumbens that makes these things feel pleasurable, just motivate us to engage in these activities in the first place.
The idea of detoxing from a neurotransmitter is therefore nonsensical. Of course, “detoxing” is still a trendy wellness concept, which is why this is all being framed as a detox. Sometimes it is called a “dopamine fast”, which is still trendy and problematic.
The overall idea is to avoid behaviors for a period of time that allegedly release dopamine. For either a few hours a day, or one day a week, or one week a year, you avoid any activity that might trigger a reward reaction in the brain. The claim is that this will keep your brain dopamine levels low (utter nonsense) and therefore “detox” your brain from dopamine. The slightly better, but still highly problematic, claim is that it gives your dopamine receptors a break so that they will not be as tolerant to the neurotransmitter, and therefore “reset” your addictive behaviors. This is getting a litter closer to reality, but still, in my opinion, is overly reductionist and misleading, and turns a complex situation into a simple “life hack”.
The deeper problem with this approach is that it frames a complex behavioral issue into a simple matter of brain chemistry. This is similar to the “brain training” marketing. It focuses on brain function in a simplistic way, taking attention away from the behaviors themselves and the whole person, in order to sell a quick fix.
Human behavior is a complex combination of inherent neurological traits, culture, environment, individual experience, and circumstance. I am all for understanding how our brains work as one method for having insight into our own behavior, cognitive biases, and motivations. But human behavior cannot be reduced to this. To generalize, systems need to be understood at every level of organization, not just their most fundamental parts. You cannot understand traffic patterns, for example, by studying the workings of the internal combustion engine, or the chemical reaction of burning fuel. You cannot understand human behavior by focusing on neurotransmitters.
Ultimately the “dopamine detox” is about addictive behaviors. This is a complex topic I cannot do justice to here, but suffice to say that humans have the potential to engage in behaviors compulsively. And yes, we can understand the neuroanatomical correlates of compulsive behavior, and the circuitry that underlies this behavior, but this does not explain at every level why someone may be engaging in such behavior, nor how they can change their behavior in a positive direction. Another layer here is that it is common to frame behavior addictions as if they are the exact same thing as chemical addictions. They aren’t. A chemical or physiological addiction is primarily a brain phenomenon that can be best understood at the neuroanatomical and neurochemical level. But psychological addiction (while it has neurological correlates) needs to be understood and addressed at the psychological level.
It is tempting, however, to focus at the neurological level, because then the problem is not you, the choices you make or the behaviors you engage in. The problem is your pesky brain. And if the brain is the problem, then the fix is also in the brain. The complexity here is that for many conditions, the problem is, in fact, with the brain. Sometimes these are understood as neurological disorders, but if the manifestation is primarily behavioral or mood, they may be considered psychiatric, even though they are brain function disorders. Mistakes can be made in both directions – blaming people (environment, parenting) for a brain disorder, or blaming the brain for bad choices (because dopamine).
When it comes to addictive behaviors (psychologically addictive, not chemical dependence), dopamine is irrelevant. It’s focuses on the wrong level. There is also no “one crazy trick” that will solve the problem. But it is a good idea to think about your day-to-day life and ask if there are any behaviors that you may be engaging in compulsively, or that are taking up a lot of your time with little reward or benefit. Electronic devices and social media likely fall into these categories for many people. It is helpful to recognize that people can be susceptible to compulsive behavior. For some things it may be best to stop the behavior entirely, for others to set limits or have down time. “Everything in moderation” is a good rule of thumb.
If you are having difficulty with this, then the compulsive behavior may be a manifestation of a more complex issue, or you may lack the skill sets necessary to change the behavior. This is where cognitive therapy can play a role. The questions to ask yourself are – why am I engaging in this behavior, is it having a negative impact on my life (if for no other reason than it’s a huge time suck), and do I need help in changing my behavior.
But don’t just blame it all on dopamine and think that a quick “detox” or fast is going to solve the problem. In fact, seeking out and engaging in these quick fix life hacks can be just another form of compulsive behavior.