Dopamine Fasting, the Suffering House and “Halvet”


Dopamine Fasting, the Suffering House and “Halvet”

With everything in people’s lives so readily reachable, people can get confused when using programmed reflexes that have evolved over millennia. Humans are social animals. When we see others behaving in a certain way in a digital environment, these behaviors appear “normal” because other people are doing the same. Today, “Twitter” has become the social media messaging platform preferred by ordinary people, experts, and even presidents of certain nations. This is because we are like flocks of birds. As soon as one of us lifts our wings, our entire flock rises into the air (1).  

American psychiatrist, clinical scientist, and head of Stanford’s Department of Addiction Medicine Diagnostic Clinic, Professor Dr. Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence (2), which explores how to reduce compulsive overconsumption in the modern age, has recently hit the shelves in the United States.  

To support her thesis, the author explains that we are trying to please ourselves to  death, referencing the bestsellers Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. According to the world happiness index, she states that we  were all happier on the surface of the earth in 2008 compared to 2018.

The book is divided into three main sections, consisting of nine subsections, on topics such as the connection between pain and pleasure in the brain, addiction and dopamine. Five years before Dopamine Nation hit the market in 2021, Professor Lembke wrote the 2016 dated book “Drug Dealer Medical Doctor”, which argued that the poppy (opium) epidemic was a result of the marketing of opium to doctors to prescribe to patients. 

At that time, CEOs and senior executives, especially those in the tech business, were experimenting  dopamine fasting. Today, I feel that people need a technological detox by isolating their brains from the stimuli that constantly secrete dopamine and they miss the feeling of belonging to a place again, especially instead of the environment where many people work remotely and socialize in the conditions of the ongoing Covid19 pandemic. Therefore, it was inevitable to read Professor Lembke’s latest work, especially when looking to find something in dopamine science for the business world (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8). 

The title of the first chapter in the book, which consists of three main  chapters, is Seeking Pleasure; Dr. Lembke shares a striking story in the introduction. The heartbreaking story of a lifelong masturbation addict… This story is striking, but also a reason for a conservative to be dissuaded from reading the book. Dr. Lembke metaphorically recounts this “shocking” story to explain how some people find themselves in a miserable and pitiful state in pursuit of pleasure. She means that addicts are pathetic like a masturbator, but they don’t realize it.  

In the book, the author describes her own overconsumption experiences and difficulties with examples from high addiction and overconsumption. Dr. Lembke parses the neurological pleasures we seek according to their relatedness. According to the author, 70% of global deaths worldwide can be attributed to modifiable behavioral risk factors such as smoking, physical inactivity, and diet. That’s why it’s important to learn how our brain processes our experiences and how it affects our actions, she says.

Furthermore, it is not only ourselves that overconsumption is affecting. ‘Our compulsive overconsumption risks not just our future but also that of our planet. The world’s natural resources are rapidly diminishing. Economists estimate that in 2040 the world’s natural capital (agricultural land, forests, fisheries, fossil fuel) will be 21 percent less in high-income countries and 17 percent less in poorer countries than today. Meanwhile, carbon emissions will grow by 7 percent in high-income countries and 44 percent in the rest of the world. We are devouring ourselves.’ Professor Lembke highlights this further with a quote from Aldous Huxley’s book  Brave New World  “above all, mass communications industry which talks about subjects that are unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant rather than the true or the false. . . we failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

The author, who later gives some technical information about the neurons in the brain, said: “The main functional cells of the brain are called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other at synapses through electrical signals and neurotransmitters… The transmitter is the presynaptic neuron. The receiver is the postsynaptic neuron. The gap between the two is the synaptic cleft. Just like the transmitter and the neurotransmitters -like shooting between receptors and transmitters, neurotransmitters communicate between neurons; they’re chemical transmitters that regulate electrical signals in the brain. There are many important neurotransmitters in the brain, but we’re going to focus on dopamine.” 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends signals from one neuron to another. The scientists, Arvid Carlsson and Kathleen Montagu were the first to describe dopamine in 1957. Carlsson later received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for these studies. 

 Peasure, motivation and reward are embedded in our experience. Dopamine is the chemical the brain releases when something good happens in our life or when we are rewarded for what we do, see, hear, feel and experience. From an addiction standpoint, dopamine is common phenomenon to all pleasurable, ecstatic, and ultimately rewarding experiences.

In the third subsection of the first chapter, entitled “Pleasure/Pain Balance,” the author delves into the science of brain chemistry by discussing two key aspects of dopamine’s effects. The first of these two basic features is the tendency of the brain to seek balance, and the second is the development of tolerance or neuroadaptation.

In the first: the same areas of our brain that process pleasure also process pain, and research says that the two are metaphorically trying to stay in balance. For example, when we eat chocolate, the balance is disturbed in favor of pleasure. However, the brain does not want to stay on one side for a long time and wants to return to its normal state with a reflex to regain balance. The author emphasizes that one can experience pain and pleasure at the same time, and a good example of this is what happens when eating “something spicy”.

Tolerance is explained as follows: when we do something pleasurable, like eating chocolate or ice cream or playing games on the phone, we try to eat chocolate again or play the next level in the game because we don’t want the pleasure to end. Well, there is a problem. When we are exposed to the same pleasure for the second time, our pleasure side does not enjoy it as we did during the first exposure – the duration of pleasure is shortened and reduced. Scientists call this process the neuroadaptation process. Tolerance is the need to take more of what gives pleasure each time in order to feel more pleasure with each additional dose, or at least to get the same level of pleasure. Tolerance is the most important factor in developing an addiction.       

You will find the following sentences of the author interesting: “Without pleasure, there is no eating, drinking or even reproduction. Without pain, we cannot avoid injury and death. Repetitive pleasures can make us permanent slaves, we are not satisfied with what we have and we  always look for more. But in the end, humankind has responded very well in the struggle to seek pleasure and avoid pain. As a result, it has transformed the world from a place of scarcity, often into a place of abundance.”

Then, Dr. Lembke states this crucial quote from Dr. Tom Finucane: “Our brains are not evolved for abundance… We are drowning in dopamine sea to adapt to this abundance environment like cacti changing species when carried from an arid climate to a rain forest for example having less needles.

In the title of the second chapter, there is a term I am unfamiliar with: ‘Self-Binding’, which refers to creating barriers to prevent indulgence in addictive behaviors.

The dopamine acrostic sums up the framework presented by Professor Lembke for recovery from addictions: 

D – Data (watching yourself, what and how much you do, pain-pleasure)     

O – Objectives (goals)       

P- Problems        

A- Abstinence (fasting)            

M- Mindfulness      

I- Insight (drawing conclusions from own behavior)         

N- Next Steps       

E- Experiment (self-learning by trial and error)        

The title of the last chapter is The Pursuit of Pain: The author discusses the pain side of addiction this time under the title of radical honesty, pro-social shame and balance lessons. Because of dopamine she states, we quickly get used to pain as well as pleasure. Both are perceived as a reward and are reinforced in the brain in a shorter way. For this reason, we need to stop imitating other people and get to know ourselves and establish a good balance between pleasure and pain. Here the author explains this situation by taking about cold water or ice baths, which were in fashion a century ago and are rapidly spreading. Shock pain raises dopamine and takes you under  influence for more than three hours. In other words, all scientific experiments prove that pain triggers the body’s balance (homeostasis) mechanism  leading to pleasure. The pleasure we feel is our body’s natural physiological response to pain. In fact, in 400 BC, Hippocrates emphasized the balance of pain/pleasure by saying that “if two pains occur simultaneously in the same part of the body, the strong suppresses the weak”. Experiments with recent neuroimaging studies also supported this view of Hippocrates. As one can see, Nietzsche’s saying “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” seems proven. However, the pleasure taken after the pain leads to addictive habits this time, and people start to repeat the pain in order to get pleasure. This is what the author calls establishing a pleasure-pain balance.       

Lembke’s “Balance Lessons” at the end of the book are as follows: 

1. The constant pursuit of pleasure leads to pain (as with most bad habits).

2. Healing begins with abstinence (fasting).

3. Deprivation reshapes the brain’s way of rewarding and our capacity to enjoy simpler pleasures.

4. Self-attachment creates a real, higher-level space of thought, awareness, between desire and consumption, which is a modern necessity in our dopamine-charged world. 

5. We can bring back the chemicals that are supposed to be missing in our brain chemistry through drugs, and we can feel better temporarily. All research to date has shown that at the end of the day, relieving our pain (depression) with medication is not a healthy way.  

6. When we start to feel pain, our balance goes to the pleasure side, and when we start to feel pleasure, the balance goes to the pain side. Our body has an innate mechanism that regulates itself and seeks balance.  

7. As in the ice example given above, it is necessary to see the addictive side of pain and avoid becoming addicted.   

8. Studies show that on average an adult lies between 0.59 and 1.56  times per day. Lying behavior starts from the age of 2, but between the ages of 3-14, the child discovers the harm of lying and lies less frequently. Adults have a more developed lying capacity  than children. Studies have found that honesty and not lying change the brain that the pleasure-pain balance is more aware, that honest, non-lying people avoid excessive consumption that will lead to addiction. (They say, “The liar has to always remember the lie.,“. I thought, probably  this obligation spoils people and makes  them unhappy)          

9. A sense of social shame is very important in society as being ashamed confirms that we belong to a society. The feeling of shame brings with it honesty; it increases one’s belonging to society and leads to avoidance of addiction.   

10. Instead of escaping from the world, we can find a way to escape by immersing ourselves in the world. For example, regarding workaholism, you work hard, suffer for a while, but then the rewards achieved turn into pleasure, that is, it leads to an increase in dopamine secretion. Here too, it is necessary to pay attention to the balance of family, friends, and work life, but it has not been seen that being lost to the world by working hard has resulted in disastrous results for people compared to other ways. Studies conducted in the USA show that as the level of education increases, the rate of workaholism increases. The writer counts reading a lot and writing a lot among the verbs of escaping by being immersed in the world.       

When it comes to honesty, it is useful to mention the part where Lembke explains the concept of “false self”. The concept of the “false self” was first coined by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1960. In other words, the creation of a “persona” that is different from the one in personal relationships. The author says that the “false self” makes people fall into a deep sense of meaninglessness and that excessive consumption in pursuit of pleasure can lead to actions to balance the pain experienced here. When I see the “self” presentations on social media that have nothing to do with reality, I say to the young people, be careful, it is getting harder to become and be yourself in this age; do not cut your ties with society, family, and friends; do not compromise your honesty; adopt the motto of Make Happy Be Happy.

Dopamine fasting and the author’s balance lessons reminded me of two Islamic terms. One is çilehane (the suffering room) and the other is E’tikaf (Seclusion). In the Anatolian Islamic tradition, dervishes belonging to various sects suffer for mystical purposes. The places where suffering is taken are called the suffering room. To better understand this phenomenon in our Islamic Sufi culture, first of all, it is necessary to look at the concept of “halvet”. “Halvet” is an Arabic word and means seclusion and solitude. In terms of Sufism, seclusion means giving up everything in life by getting rid of the thoughts in  mind in a secluded and empty space free from everything. Some define  Halvet as begging and the heart’s conversation with Allah in a place where no one can see, like Prophet Muhammad’s stay in the cave of Hira… It is said that Halvet consists of three stages. Namely, the first stage is to leave home, that is, from the known, the habitual, the mundane. The second stage is the entry into the unknown, a world of experiences that often differ dramatically, such as mystery, power, and challenge. The third stage is; homecoming. In many ways, this part is the most important part of the trip. Its importance lies in what we learn, how we change, and what we bring back with us. Entering the private room is done alone in a small place with religious acts such as worship and dhikr. The rooms in the lodges where suffering takes place are also called “halvethane”. The Turkish Language Association defines the private room as the room in the lodges where dervishes are isolated only to pray and suffer (9).  

If I come to E’tikaf as a religious term, it means that a Muslim who is mentally healthy and has reached the age of puberty stands for a while in a mosque where five daily prayers are performed, with the intention of praying. A person who practices E’tikaf eats, drinks, sleeps in the mosque, and supplies what he needs in the mosque if possible. He leaves the mosque for a short time for his natural needs such as toilet, ablution, and  bathing (10). What I want to say is that the need for purification is not the topic of today. Some pleasures released dopamine at every age, and people needed to discipline themselves by depriving themselves of these pleasures. Today, things that bring pleasure and pain may have increased, but there is an “enough point” and when it reaches that point, there is a tendency to discipline oneself. It was like this in the past and it is like this now… Abnormal behaviors should not be confused with behaviors within normal limits. They are the work of physicians.   

And now I’m explaining a conclusion that the author considers certain: ‘A month of fasting usually allows the body to ‘reset’ the brain’s reward pathway.’ Of course if this was your intention…

See you in Ramadan?!

Note: This article, which is open source, can be quoted by mentioning the author.



2) Lembke, Anne, Dr.; Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, Dutton, 304 pp.