Everything was going really well for the founders of SleepWell, a sleep analysis startup. 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.
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 — 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.
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 stimulation fast. 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 years old, 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. They would not touch other bodies for any reason, especially not for sex. 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 startup was going through evolutions every few months. It began as a coffee extraction company that turned into a cannabinoid extraction company (much more profitable) that turned into a cannabinoid synthesis for sleep aid that turned into, now, sleep coaching.
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 wine fridge and few decorations, save for a “Breaking Bad” poster.
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.
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 Vipassana 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.
“There’s a growing self-awareness of what in Vipassana terms we would call suffering,” she said.
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.’ ”