Falling in love activates the same basic brain system for wanting (the Reward System—specifically the mesolimbic dopamine pathway), as do all drugs of abuse, including addiction to heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine. Because this central neural network becomes active when addicted to any drug of abuse, I have long wondered whether feelings of romantic love can smother a drug craving; whether a drug craving can smother feelings of romantic love instead; or whether these two very different cravings might even work together—sensitizing this brain network to make the drug addict more receptive to romantic love and/or make the lover more prone to other forms of addiction. In short: how does this central brain system accommodate two different cravings at once?
All of these questions are still largely unanswered. But in 2012 a new article has made some inroads into this conundrum. In this study, Xiaomeng Xu and her colleagues put eighteen Chinese nicotine-deprived smokers who had also just fallen madly in love into a brain scanner, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As these men and women looked at a photo of a hand holding a cigarette and also at a photo of their newly beloved, the researchers collected data on their brain activity. Results? Among those who were moderately addicted to nicotine, the craving for the beloved reduced activity in brain regions associated with the craving for a cigarette.
But there is some added value here. The article also suggests that engaging in any kind of novel activity (unrelated to romance) may also alleviate nicotine craving—by hijacking this same dopaminergic reward system. This single correlation could be of tremendous value to those trying to quit smoking.
And I shall go out on a limb to propose a wider meaning to these data. Although there is only this very limited evidence for my hypothesis, this study suggests to me that there may be a hierarchy to the addictions. In this case, one’s addiction to a newly beloved may, in some cases, suppress one’s addiction to nicotine. Romantic love may be the mother of all addictions—indeed a positive addiction that enables one to overcome other cravings to win life’s greatest prize: a mating partner.