The neuroscience of Lent

March 2, 2022 | By More

By Brendan Clarke

Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist

Imagine you are walking through a beautiful wood. As you explore the exotic plant and animal life, you notice that your way is blocked – there is a large red-brick wall, three timesas tall as you, and so wide that you’re not sure if you can see the end of it. You won’t go any further until you can find a way around it or through it. How annoying. Your instinctive response is that this absurd wall in the middle of the wood is pointless, an aberration, and has to be done away with as soon as  possible so that you can get to the other side. That’s how I  tend to feel about something like lent, which started yesterday. Why bother? What good reason could  there be to put myself through  discomfort when I could be comfortable? Or boredom when I could be excited? Why would I want to put something between me and my appreciation of life? Tear down the wall! The counter-argument  is  that something so unusual,  so out of place, that has been consciously constructed, might well  have  been put there for a good  reason, and that you should find out what  that good reason is before  knocking it down. So what might be the point of consciously depriving yourself of good things?


The Addictiveness of Everything

Dr Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist and director of addiction medicine at Stanford University, has some  thoughts. Her 2021 book ‘Dopamine Nation’ describes a particular theory about what happens when we become addicted to things, be they substances like drugs or food, or activities like playing video games, watching pornography, or even reading the news. Rather than being the molecule of pleasure, dopamine is better  characterised as the molecule of wanting. It is released to motivate us towards something we think  will bring pleasure. In particular, dopamine is triggered by new rewards. So, the first bite of your double kit kat chunky is great, the last one is good but maybe not quite as exciting as the first. If you  eat one every Wednesday, over time it’ll  lose its sheen, or in neurochemical terms, its ability to trigger  dopamine and motivate you towards  it. But one day, you’re at the till in Centra and see that they’ve  created a salted caramel double Kit  Kat Chunky, and suddenly  dopamine is firing and you are interested again. Or, take the example of  scrolling on your Facebook or Twitter newsfeed – novelty,  and therefore dopamine – is only ever a short scroll away, and if you’re like me, you’ve had experiences where you do this for ages, even though deep down you might have other things you’d really rather be doing.


Diminishing Returns

This is where another concept becomes important – homeostasis. The idea being that any great deviation from the normal functioning of your body and brain is stressful for your system, and as such, it will make an effort to return to its original baseline. What this means in terms of dopamine is that intensive production will lead our brains to decrease our dopamine sensitivity. What happens on a biological level, is that, because of excessive amounts of dopamine in the system the brain will ‘downregulate’ or decrease its number of dopamine receptors.


The result of this for us is that the pleasant feelings that accompany dopamine, like energy, focus and self-assurance, become harder to achieve and we enter a dopamine-deficit state, characterised by anxiety, irritability, and difficulty paying attention. In this kind of state, we’ll have the urge to continue ‘chasing’ the feelings that dopamine brings, but now we’re doing that not to feel good, but to not feel bad. Unfortunately, this can turn into a vicious downward spiral, where we seek greater and greater doses of the high, but for less and less reward each time. This can lead people to do more and more extreme things in order to just feel ok. Dr Lembke describes a client of hers who spent thousands of dollars online shopping for stuff that she didn’t need because she was so addicted to opening the packaging. Or take the example of a man addicted to playing video games “When I got home on a Friday night, I would sit at the computer and I wouldn’t leave until Sunday night”.

I find this last example to be an interesting one because-as someone who doesn’t play a lot of video games any more-I would have found it difficult to imagine that they could be that addictive. But this fits with a point Dr Lembke strongly emphasises, that we live in a world with games, gadgets, foods, drugs, websites and images that are more powerfully stimulating than ever before, and more accessible. Though it might seem mild by comparison, I can’t stop listening to a podcast called ‘The Idea Store’ and if I leave my headphones at work and have to do the cooking without it, I get surprisingly irritable.


The Good News

That is the bad news. But maybe there may be some good news to go with it, in the form of what has been called “dopamine fasting”. The phrase is a little bit confusing, partly because the person credited with coining it, Dr Cameron Sepah, a psychologist at the University of California in San Francisco, has admitted that he chose it for its attention-grabbing quality, moreso than its accuracy in describing the phenomenon. It isn’t about fasting from dopamine as such – that would not be possible, but rather means two things:


1 –  Changing impulsive and problematic behaviour patterns that are high in dopamine production and therefore possibly addictive. This is Dr Sepah’s meaning of the term.

But it has also come to mean:

2 – Consciously doing difficult or-on the face of it-understimulating things. Meditation could be an example of this, as could spending a day in silence, or having a “Tech Sabbath”, where you put away all phones, computers, tvs etc. Doing something difficult or boring like budgetting for the next 6 months, or dusting your skirting boards would also qualify. According to Anna Lembke’s theory, decreased dopamine production in the brain would lead to upregulation in dopamine receptors, meaning that when you are understimulated, your brain compensates for the lack  of dopamine production by creating more dopamine receptors, meaning more pleasure for less stimulation. So, suddenly, mundane activities like having a cup of tea or going for a walk can start to feel really enjoyable.

Boredom – The most amazing experience of your life?

There isn’t a lot of research on this phenomenon, so for now, the best guide we have are first-person accounts. Take the following account from author Robert Wright. He had just spent 10 days on a meditation retreat, that consisted of 5 hours a day sitting and focusing on his breath, 5 hours a day walking around in a circle and eating bland vegetarian food. He described this experience as initially “boring” and eventually “just about the most amazing experience of my life” where he found “a new kind of happiness, deeper than the kind I’d always pursued”. Sounds pretty good right? Or the more prosaic example of Richard, described in a Vice magazine article from 2019,who had consciously reduced the number of stimulating things in his day “You end up doing all the things you ‘should’ be doing. Since you just spent a whole day doing nothing, anything sounds fun.”


Tips for Boosting your dopamine/doing Lent

-Think about the life you want and set targets, whether that is the amount of time you want to spend on social media, or the amount of junk food you want to eat per week.


-Set limits on beahaviours that are exciting but get  in the way of that life. Record what happens when you follow them: How do you feel if you don’t  have that danish as usual at 11am? And what happens to those feelings over time, do they grow or fade?


-Meditate: Apps like headspace are a good place to start, or enquire about our 8-week mindfulness course here:


-After the fast, the feast. Remember that, aside from examples like hard drugs, it’s not the substance or the behaviour that’s the issue, but the habit. So if you love video-games, or donuts, or TikTok, then give yourself time to enjoy these things once in a while. As long as that fits with the bigger picture of  the life you want.  

Finding joy in the everyday

Before I finish, I’d like to go back to the wall. The analogy is not my own, but one I borrowed from the  early 20thCentury writer GK Chesterton, who is a hero of mine and its worth saying a little more about him here. When Martin Seligman was  compiling the “Manual of Character Strengths and Virtues”, as an antidote to the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders developed by the American Psychiatric Association), they chose different people as outstanding examples of various different virtues, for example Ernest Shackleton as an example of bravery, or Dame Cicely Saunders as an example of kindness. Chesterton was chosen as their best example of the character strength of  gratitude. To quote  from him: “I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being  themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of  steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud”. Maybe these are some of the ordinary things that voluntary absence can teach us to see the value in. Whether that is a cup of tea, a walk in nature, a sunset, or even, an apparently absurd and painful 40-day fast that has been handed down by previous generations, possibly to boost your dopamine.

If you would like to book an appointment with Brendan or are interested in our 8-week mindfulness course then you can call 091 727777 or get in touch via the contact page.


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