I was thinking about last night’s movie, looking at the ceiling while lying in bed. I had just woken up and was enjoying the peaceful time between waking up and getting up. I know, all the things performance gurus tell you not to do.
“Do you think sex used to feel better 10’000 years ago? What about 20’000 or 100’000 years ago?” I asked, still looking at the ceiling as Anastasiya started waking up. In retrospect, perhaps I could have done something about the timing and phrasing.
“Huh? What? Where does that come from? Anastasiya answered while making no effort at veiling her puzzled look.
I wasn’t talking to her. I was mainly just lost in thought.
“I mean: sex is fine, but it hits the same endorphin and dopamine receptors as so many other things like alcohol, drugs, coffee, sugar, porn, and whatnot. Indeed, those receptors must be somewhat fatigued (I assure you I don’t talk like this. This is just a written recount of the conversation)? What if I were to remove all those things for a couple of weeks? What do you think would happen? I continued.
“Oh, Marco, you’re just so weird!” She concluded as she stood up to take a shower.
She had a point. I could indeed have chosen a better timing to have what must have looked like an existential crisis from the outside.
I had met Anastasiya a couple of months ago at a river bar in the center of Zurich; it was quite unfortunate that she had a flight back home to Minsk only a few hours later. I did not expect to see her again. Still, here she was, on a stopover in Zurich from Minsk to Madrid, becoming the unfortunate accessory to a potential revelation that had nothing to do with her. When did the world become so small? But I digress.
Connecting the Dots
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
I waited for Anastasiya to get on her plane before resuming thinking about my little plan. At that time, I had just finished The Paleo Manifesto by the uncannily witty and ever eloquent John Durant. That book has very little to do with tired dopamine receptors or obnoxiously blasé manufacturers of creativity in a quest for dopamine diet. However, it raised a series of questions that rang a bell in my head and gave me perspective.
John asks a simple yet powerful question in his book. He uses the analogy of animals in captivity, inviting the reader to think about what habitat we would craft to keep them healthy and happy. It stands to reason that we’d try to mimic the habitat in which they evolved and to which they became perfectly adapted. For instance, you put penguins on ice with cold water nearby and snakes in green artificial jungles. The same applies to the diets of animals in captivity. At best, you feed them the foods they evolved to eat. It’s quite simple when you break it down to its essence. You feed mice to snakes, you feed leaves to gorillas, and so on.
Since humans are of nature as much as gorillas or snakes, it would stand to reason that human diets, for instance, would be the healthiest at their primal essence. After all, civilization is only a few millimeters thick—a few millennia of civilized living in millions of years of evolution. Yet, some humans think that diet soda and artificial sweeteners or donuts are acceptable foods. Some people even go as far as to call ancestral diets fads or hypes. If eating whole foods that early humans evolved to eat in their original habitat is a fad, then it’s a six million-year-old fad. Also, let’s consider that the concept of eating three meals a day is at best 200 years old, and Pepsi Cola introduced diet sodas in the 1970s. What’s the real fad at the end of the day?
All that thinking about foods that humans naturally evolved to eat, exercise that we naturally evolved to perform, behaviors that are part of our core being, food restriction and its effect on health—let’s call it our firmware, or our default setup, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
My little brain hasn’t evolved to be continuously rewarded for anything, to get something for nothing continually.
People often tell you that human brains are the most complex thing in nature and this and that… Maybe… Human brains are also stupid dopamine junkies that don’t know the difference between dopamine generated from effort (good dopamine) and dopamine generated from cheap artificial behavior (junk dopamine).
For instance, in one day, I could eat more sugar, salt, and fat than any of my early ancestors could in one year. The mechanisms that made us binge eat when we found a good and rare source of sugary or fatty food in the wild are not working to our advantage when we put modern refrigerators into the equation. I don’t think so much food is a good thing. I could, in 30 minutes of Instagram or left-handed browsing, see more scantily clad girls than any of my forefathers could have in a lifetime… a lifetime, in 30 minutes or less. I could literally see more naked women on my shabby iPhone in that time than a small tribe of early humans could in their whole lives. All of that, while doing nothing and deserving nothing, mind you. I don’t think it’s a good thing either.
That’s all the thinking my trigger-happy little Portuguese brain needed. Let’s put this freak show on the road!
“If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.“
The objective was of pure simplicity. I wanted to understand how life, food, and sex felt like to my forefathers. My postulate: there’s too much reward for free in the modern world, and I want none of it. But let’s be honest: I’m not going to pretend I was searching for a metaphysical epiphany (although I found the dark mode of relentless work and productivity). I just suspected that too many short-term rewards would short-circuit long-term fulfillment.
Please notice that I used the word fulfillment and not happiness. There’s no happiness to be found in this, and it’s good. Happiness is overrated. Fulfillment is not.
If you read Complete Human, you surely grasp that concept when it comes to food. You understand that no amount of mouth pleasure even comes close to the feeling of power, control, and achievement that being lean and strong gives you.
Let’s get into the details of the master plan. First, I figured, let’s decide on a timeline. We know that repeating the desired behavior for 30 days is enough to imprint it into neural pathways and make it the new normal. Ever heard neurons that fire together wire together? That’s what it means. Isn’t that the whole premise of The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg too? Let’s go for 40 days, just for the great fuck of it—40 days sounds biblical. I might as well make this sanavabich legendary.
The first thing to be removed will be sex. No sex for 40 days had to be manageable. After all, so many people spend weeks, months, or even years without it. How hard can it be? Then, with sex, I also had to remove masturbation and porn of any kind. I went as far as to delete my Snapchat account and Instagram. Amen!
I don’t want to sound like a prude, however. Mostly, because I’m quite far from it. I also have very few beliefs that I’m unwilling to throw away when stumbling upon new and better evidence. Porn might be useful or even beneficial in some cases. There seems to be a link between societies with easy access to pornography and reduced violence against women. There are good things to be said about porn. There are also bad things to say about porn. There’s an argument to be made about societal progress coming from the desire to impress the other sex. All of which disappears if you can get a reward by picking up your phone and going to the restroom for a couple of minutes. It starts looking akin to a rat, trapped in a lab box, hitting the sugar button over and over again. I want none of that.
Also, let’s be clear before I give you the impression to be some kind of overzealous ascetic: I watched enough porn back in the days to single-handedly – left-handedly, that is – maintain the whole worldwide industry healthy. I just came to realize that porn should be like heroin. I kind of want anyone to have the right to do as much of it as they wish, but I still think you shouldn’t do any at all.
Alcohol and other drugs need to go too. Not that I drank too much aside from the occasional red wine or used drugs apart from the devil’s lettuce now and again. But still, in my quest for destroying junk dopamine, all of it must go. I knew this one part of the plan was not going to be a problem.
Sugary, salty, and fast foods have no power here. Well, if you read Marco’s Food Mastery (upcoming) or Marco’s Binge Eating Mastery (upcoming), you realize that there is none of those in my diet anyway, aside from cheat days depicted in the latter. All I had to do was remove my weekly cheat days and keep eating dirt and licking stones seven days a week. This is no problem. As a short note, if stopping sugar or any pleasure food seems impossible to you, just think: so does stopping heroin for junkies or cigarettes for smokers. I think you give yourself too little credit. You are the product of at least a third of a billion years of sexual reproduction with constant conflict and resolution, endless choice of the better, most adequate option. You’re the result of it. There’s so much you can do.
Dopamine Starvation: Extra Credit
“Mimicking the herd invites regression to the mean.”
―Charles T. Munger
I pushed it further by removing artificial laughter. I understand your skepticism: what do I even mean? Hear me out first, decide later. I was talking about porn, sugar, and others as forms of undeserved artificial pleasure before. What do you think TV, Netflix, YouTube, or other digital entertainment are? It’s precisely what it claims to be. It’s digital entertainment. The more you connect with digital real or make-believe people, the less you connect with analog people. It had to go too: more analog, less digital.
I’m not relying on discipline alone. I cut the internet at home and reverted to a flip phone for 40 days—some old Nokia in a seldom opened drawer. Ordering uber became real hard all of a sudden, though, so I got a smartphone with nothing on it but Uber and a 3G card.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
After failing on the first try after three days, the second try went alright for a while. Unsurprisingly enough, there was just that one tricky thing. Everything else was ridiculously simple, i.e., porn, alcohol, sugar, digital entertainment, et cetera. Restraining from all was fine. Not drinking coffee was more inconvenient.
At first, I would think sex, porn, or masturbation were going to get me… It turns out I was a much bigger coffee junkie than I thought.
Come to think of it, maybe stopping all other behaviors was made easier because of stopping coffee too. I spend around two days in bed with headaches and four days barely being able to carry myself. This was a bad case of caffeine crash. Chances are, if you’re an entrepreneur or knowledge worker, you’ll experience the same kind of withdrawal as we’re all pretty much coffee addicts. Yet, I’d argue it’s worth it.
The mechanisms for coffee addiction are not that complicated. Caffeine blocks fatigue receptors and makes you feel awake. It also reduces brain blow flow, as has been shown for over 20 years in a fair amount of peer-reviewed journals , which is one of the reasons we don’t use caffeine in our products. Then the body makes other receptors as it picks up on something not being quite right. Caffeine then blocks those too, and so on. Now imagine how many fatigue receptors you’ll have when you’ve been drinking coffee for 20 years? The good story is that you can reset this by stopping coffee for about 30 to 40 days; more on this later as I’m digressing.
Out of Darkness
“There is more to gain by subtraction than by addition.”
Around day nine or ten, it all went away. The feeling was akin to taking off on an airplane, going through the tumultuous, turbulent part in the clouds, and suddenly breaking off to a tranquil blue sky. It was smooth, uneventful, from thereon.
Fatigue from coffee withdrawal disappeared, and it felt like I had motivation and energy for so many things.
Think of it this way: how much pleasure will you get from low dopamine activities like building your business when you constantly bomb your brain with porn, social media feeds, etc.? It’s like looking at the gloriously incandescent sun all day and entering the most fantastic room covered in the most exquisite art… The room is still going to look dull compared to the sun. In case this needs to be spelled out before people accuse me of high vampirism: I’m not arguing against the sun. Going out is good.
It’s interesting to note that I missed almost nothing I had removed. Alcohol and drugs were extremely easy.
Social media, the internet, YouTube, and the likes also were of no concern. Those are more an impulse to kill boredom than they are a need. I think there’s some compulsive aspect of having a smartphone with internet access and apps installed. It was no issue since I was using a dumbphone with nothing but a cellular network and SMS. It’s much harder to keep those things in check when owning a smartphone.
Not having the unwise impression to connect with people digitally also made me noticeably more social. Instead of looking at my phone while idling in public, I’d just start talking about stuff. Contrary to what people might tell you, everybody likes to banter, especially when it becomes quite clear that you want nothing but to chat. Removing want is incredibly powerful in a great many scenarios. I’m sure everyone knows the feeling of being stuck in a self-serving conversation with some self-obsessed individual. The exact opposite is conversing with someone who’s just there to talk about stuff and genuinely interested in what you are thinking about. It’s quite frightening to notice the brainpower recreative internet takes from you (a bit like McAffee constantly eating up CPU in the background)—or the amount of real estate sex occupies in your mind.
The flesh is weak, but the mind is indomitable.
The Icing on the Cake
“You have no power here.”
Remember that I started all this to see how sex feels after a long period of being dopamine starved. I know I’m weird; this is nothing new. Well, surprise, surprise: it feels quite good.
But this is absolutely not the exciting part of what I found. Well, I actually didn’t find anything: dopamine starvation is nothing new. It’s just one of those things that’s really easy to understand and hard to execute.
Also, let’s note that the scientific community massively discards the existence of this phenomenon at this time. Dopamine starvation is in the realm of pseudoscience to them. To me, this is insane. But I also remember that scientists in labs (primarily men) were refuting the existence of female orgasm not so long ago.
The whole argument on dopamine detox being real or not relies mainly on the “how it works” rather than on the “if it works.” I think we all know that if you eat pizza all day, every day, then broccoli really looks uninteresting. If you eat nothing but broccoli and plain beans, then after a while, broccoli starts to feel pretty gourmet.
The same applies to behavior; when you remove yourself from junk dopamine long enough, low dopamine activities like working on your business, exercising, and socializing become much more enjoyable.
You see a consequence of this with entry-level entrepreneurs who make their first financial success. A vast majority fails afterward, not because it gets harder per se, but because they become weak entrepreneurs. All of a sudden, they have access to the world’s most refined foods and entertainment. With that kind of distraction, working on your business becomes a chore more than your primary source of fulfillment and satisfaction.
I can only recommend dopamine starvation for periods where you need to create and focus on producing quality work. Pablo Picasso used to say that greatness only comes through deep boredom, which might sound contradictory for someone known to have many female conquests. My take is that the essence of this is that it doesn’t need to be all the time, but it needs to be some of the time.
It’s so easy to solve business problems when they are the only source of pleasure you get. It must be so easy to paint all day, every day when you have nothing else to do.
The best way to do it is to go somewhere you know nobody, rent a cabin in the woods with nothing in it but a bed and a desk, and just work on your thing.
I just wouldn’t recommend going dark mode for too long at a time… also, it might be a tough sell if you’re married.
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
―George Smith Patton
I set out to spend a couple of weeks without artificial sources of pleasure, without being rewarded for nothing. What I found is more than just a reset. It’s more than only all the time I saved. I saw genuine fearlessness. I discovered that the mind could subdue even the most basic, hard-wired of needs. It made me fearless in the sense of knowing. I know now that life is good without. I know that life is good with. I appreciate it when it is here. I have no concerns if it should go away.
The same applies to money, I’ve noticed. I had no money at university. By no money, I mean no money. I would have needed to launch a Kickstarter campaign to buy a pack of chewing gum. I couldn’t even buy a coffee without budgeting for it. But it had a positive effect; it made me unfearful of money. Life was fun without. Life is fun with. I always say: “I think about money, the same money thinks about me,” which is nothing.
The same applies to the other pleasures above, artificial or natural. Freeing me from them for a couple of weeks made me realize how much I don’t need them and how much mental power can be used for other things.
I also found the thing that might be more useful right away for most people: it’s so easy to find motivation for work when it’s your primary source of pleasure. You get out of bed and just start working without coffee or anything; just pure unrestrained lust for work.
As a concluding thought: everything in moderation also includes moderation in moderation.
I hope this helps. You might want to try a period of dopamine starvation for yourself and see how you feel.
- Fredholm, B. B., Bättig, K., Holmén, J., Nehlig, A., & Zvartau, E. E. (1999). Actions of caffeine in the brain with special reference to factors that contribute to its widespread use. Pharmacological reviews, 51(1), 83-133.