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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fact checking Valentine's Day

A happy Valentine's Day to Penigma readers.  As our valentine to you, I thought it would be fun to fact-check the day, and some of the symbols associated with it.  Beginning with the classic heart image found in heart shaped boxes of chocolates, jewelry, cards, etc (from Wikipedia).:
"The heart () has long been used as a symbol to refer to the spiritual, emotional, moral, and in the past also intellectual core of a human being. As the heart was once widely believed to be the seat of the human mind, the word heart continues to be used poetically to refer to the soul, and stylized depictions of hearts are used as prevalent symbols representing love."

heartleaf philodendron

Some of the earliest references to the soul residing in the heart go back to ancient Egypt - the same places that have been in the news recently for a peaceful 'soft' coup.  It shows up in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, as part of the soul relating to judgement and the after life - spiritual, but not very romantic.  It shows up in the Abramic religions in Genesis as location for the thoughts of evil men  Among the Greeks, Aristotle believed it to be the location where thought took place, rather than the brain. Galen, the famous Roman physician figured out a bit more of how it worked inside the human body as a circulatory pump, but even he still thought our emotions were experienced there rather than as a neurological function.  Other theories have the origins from the ivy leaf into the modern heart shape.  Personally, I see more of a heart in the heartleaf philodendron.

St. Valentine
of Rome
So what about the Saint part of St. Valentine's Day?  First of all, there's not just one St. Valentine, there were several martyrs, dating back to 496 AD.   Secondly, he/they aren't saints anymore, having been demoted in 1969 along with St. Christopher and a number of others.  So.....who are these St. Valentine martyrs, and what the heck do martyrs have to do with romantic love?  We have Valentine of Rome,  who was  martyred in 269 AD, and then there was Valentine of Terni (a city in Umbria, Italy) was martyred around 200 AD. And there was another Valentine who is light on details from Africa, martyred as part of a group. All three of them used to have a Saint's day on February 14th.  The earliest romantic link I could find was an unsubstantiated legend in the medieval era positing that one of the Valentine's defied the Roman emperor Claudius II who ordered men to remain single, because single men made better soldiers. Valentine, as a priest, was secretly marrying these men in defiance of the order for them to remain single.  Scholars don't find a definitive link before Chaucer that shows a romantic St. Valentine as having any romantic attributes. Chaucer wrote this around 1382:
"For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make."
("For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.")
So there isn't a lot of saintly connection to St. Valentine's Day as a romantic tradition.

So......why the distinctive heart shape, since it doesn't really resemble the human heart (or any other heart for that matter)?  It is hypothesized that it mimics various parts of the human anatomy that are, shall we leave it at distinctively rounded, particularly when upside down rather than pointed side down.  Another theory is that it is represented a plant, the silphium, which was an herbal contraceptive - contraceptives and abortifaecents are among  the earliest items in the human pharmacopoeia.  This makes a lot of sense when you see how exactly like our modern heart symbol this was:

ancient coin from the Greek city
of Cyrene, Libya, founded in 630 B.C.
featuring the silphium
 So, there really isn't an authentic saint associated with romance on February 14th, and the heart symbol is really more of a botanical contraceptive plant image, and the actual body part which is the area where we experience love is the brain not the heart anyway.   Specifically, the limbic system, the part of the brain that is associated with intense romantic love is on the right hand side.
Surprise discovery: romance is on the right, 'attractiveness' to the left
Another important discovery, Brown said, was that "to our surprise, the activation regions associated with intense romantic love were mostly on the right side of the brain, while the activation regions associated with facial attractiveness were mostly on the left.

"We didn't predict such a striking lateralization," Brown reported. "It is well known that speech is largely a left-sided cortical function. But our data indicate that lateralization also occurs in lower parts of the brain. Moreover, different kinds of rewards (in this case, the "rush" of romantic love, compared with the pleasing experience of looking at a pretty or handsome face) is also lateralized. These results give us a lot to think about how the normal human brain learns and remembers and functions in general," Brown added.

But it isn't all a downer to our romantic imagination; there are some interesting discoveries to how we love in the brain:
Love physiology changes over time; 'Romantic love more powerful than sex'

Another breakthrough, Brown noted, was that "we found several brain areas where the strength of neural activity changed with the length of the romance. Everyone knows that relationships are dynamic over time, but we are beginning to track what happens in the brain as a love relationship matures."

Helen E. Fisher, a research anthropologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, noted that not only did the brain change as romantic love endured, but that some of these changes were in regions associated with pair-bonding in prairie voles. The fMRI images showed more activity in the ventral pallidum portion of the basal ganglia in people with longer romantic relationships. It's in this region where receptors for the hormone vasopressin are critical for vole pair-bonding, or attachment.

"Humans have evolved three distinct but interrelated brain systems for mating and reproduction – the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment to a long term partner," Fisher said, "and our results suggest how feelings of romantic love might change into feelings of attachment. Our results support what people have always assumed – that romantic love is one of the most powerful of all human experiences. It is definitely more powerful than the sex drive."
It would be a mistake to rule out our sex drive in the bonding experience of love though.  We have good old
Keeping it G-rated, I will simply link to here.  And the explanation for the relationship to chocolate and romance here, along with a further explanation for the biochemistry of love.  Here is hoping that today bring each of us who connect here at Penigma a reminder that we are loved by someone..........and  chocolate (not necessarily in that order).

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