Self-expanding experiences like falling in love or engaging in novel, exciting and interesting activities activate the same brain reward mechanism (mesolimbic dopamine pathway) that reinforces drug use and abuse, including tobacco smoking. This suggests the possibility that reward from smoking is substitutable by self-expansion (through competition with the same neural system), potentially aiding cessation efforts. Using a model of self-expansion in the context of romantic love, the present fMRI experiment examined whether, among nicotine-deprived smokers, relationship self-expansion is associated with deactivation of cigarette cue-reactivity regions. Results indicated that among participants who were experiencing moderate levels of craving, cigarette cue-reactivity regions (e.g., cuneus and posterior cingulate cortex) showed significantly less activation during self-expansion conditions compared with control conditions. These results provide evidence that rewards from one domain (self-expansion) can act as a substitute for reward from another domain (nicotine) to attenuate cigarette cue reactivity.
Xu, X., Wang, J., Aron, A., Lei, W., Westmaas, J. L., & Weng, X. (2012). Intense passionate love attenuates cigarette cue-reactivity in nicotine-deprived smokers: An fMRI study. PLoS ONE, 7(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0042235