Valentine’s Day

Hype about a Hallmark holiday, or could love really be in the air?

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Every Feb. 14, millions of us in the U.S. and throughout the world will exchange candy, flowers, cards, and gifts with those we love. Americans alone spend about $27 billion on this day, with more than $820 million spent on our pets — all in the name of St. Valentine. But who was this guy? And why do we celebrate a day of love in his name? Here’s a look into some of the fascinating history behind this holiday, and also a peek into the science of love, why we love, and what really turns us humans on.

To really delve into the origins of this day, most historians say you need to look back in history to those wild and crazy pagan partiers, the ancient Romans. And then to a martyred priest in the year 270 A.D. 

In ancient Rome, a raucous fertility festival called Lupercalia was celebrated every year in mid-February. It lasted well into the fifth century A.D., and definitely was the go-to gala of the time (think naked Romans, and lots of wild and crazy things), in spite of the fact that 150 years before that, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Well, the Christian church was getting pretty fed up with all of this debauchery, and Pope Gelasius I finally recast this festival as a Christian feast day in celebration of St. Valentine.

And who was St. Valentine? He reportedly was a Christian priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that men made better soldiers without wives and families, he outlawed marriage for his troops. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret. When this was discovered, he was imprisoned and hanged on Feb. 14, 270 A.D. While imprisoned, he sent a loving note to the jailer’s daughter, signed, “From your Valentine.”

In 1537, St. Valentine’s Day was officially declared a holiday by King Henry VIII of England. But it was not until Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentine’s” that the day had any romantic meaning. From then on, particularly in England and then in the U.S., we certainly embraced the love-centric connotations of the day.

It turns out we humans really love love — we are hardwired for it. When two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, their heart rate synchronizes after about three minutes. Cuddling releases natural painkillers in us. Being in love, or thinking about love, can make the food we eat actually taste sweeter. Scientists know this desire for love has been embedded in our brains since the Ice Age. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, breaks this down into three main things — sex drive, romantic love, and attachment.

Our human desire for sex developed to get us out there looking for a range of partners. Romantic love (the obsession, passion, and infatuation stage) evolved to focus our energy on just one partner at a time. And attachment developed as a means of tolerating our mate, at least long enough to raise a child together as a team, to ensure all this important business of mating and breeding really gets done. The initial “falling in love stage” has a similar neurological effect on us as a cocaine high. In this passionate stage, our brains are flooded with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, but at the same time we also have a 40 percent drop in another brain chemical, serotonin. It’s similar to the brain profile of people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s that wild stage of love where we get sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, and obsessive focus. It’s why we can stay up all night with someone, watch the sunrise, and act so out of character with wild abandon. Nature really has made us “addicted to love.” It’s what so many songs and movies are about; it’s launched wars. It’s our endogenous love potion formula. 

But eventually we just can’t keep all this dopamine-drunk passion going, so it is replaced with the relative calm of a new type of brain chemical, oxytocin. That’s the hormone that promotes a feeling of bonding, and it ushers in the attachment stage of our relationship. When our brains have a lot of oxytocin, it intensifies the pleasure we derive from pretty much anything, and makes us sort of look at life and our partner with “rose-colored glasses.” 

Because we are so enamored with the pursuit of love, there is a never-ending quest for scents, foods, or products that promise to enhance these feelings. Several companies worldwide are fervently working on this concept. One thing is for sure, science has found that certain smells and foods really can help trigger some of our brain’s “love” chemicals. 

From a rudimentary survival basis, vision is the most important sense we have. But in terms of quality of life, smell is the most emotionally evocative sense, and the one most closely tied to mental health and happiness. People who have lost their sense of smell often go into deep depressions, and disconnect from relationships. We don’t often think of ourselves as being particularly smell-driven creatures, but we actually possess denser skin scent glands than almost any other mammal. 

Women have a keener sense of smell than men, particularly when they are ovulating. Recent studies done with women smelling sweat from male T shirts have shown that opposites really do attract, at least when it comes to smell. The women were most interested in the scents of the men that had an immune system chemistry farthest from their own. A man whose immune system was close to theirs was not found to be particularly attractive. In terms of evolution, this makes sense: The wider the gene pool, generally, the healthier the offspring produced.

Scent plays a larger role in our love life than we realize. Perhaps one of the most interesting studies has been carried out by Dr. Alan Hirsch, the director of the Smell and Taste Treatment Research Foundation in Chicago. Dr. Hirsch discovered that certain food scents trigger sexual arousal in men and women based on the measured increase or decrease in blood flow that occured when they were exposed to certain odors. The findings — men are most turned on by a combination of pumpkin pie and lavender. Women get enticed by the presence of (believe it or not) Good & Plenty candy and cucumber smells. Banana bread had an enhancing effect on both men and women. The smell of cinnamon rolls also had a particularly arousing effect, particularly on men.

No odor diminished male arousal; however, this was not the case in women. The scent of cherries and charcoal barbeque smoke decreased women’s interest the most. Turns out that men’s cologne was often a turnoff too. So guys, you might want to ditch the cologne and the charcoal grill on date night.

The scent of chocolate didn’t trigger high sexual responses from either men or women. But eating chocolate is a different story. Turns out chocolate can indeed alter a person’s mood — because of a chemical it contains, phenylethylamine. PEA, as it is known, is naturally elevated in us when we are in the early stages of infatuation with someone. So falling in love and eating chocolate really do produce similar changes in our brains. 

The infamous 18th century lover Casanova used to eat 50 raw oysters every morning to increase his virility. Oysters have long been rumored to increase the libido, but this is often debunked. However, new research has shown that Casanova might really have been on to something. When oysters are eaten raw, particularly in the spring, it’s been discovered that they are rich in rare amino acids. These amino acids are now known to trigger increased levels of excitement hormones in humans and test animals.

Other things that can certainly enhance our relationships and that make us feel good are embracing our loved ones, our pets, and laughing and having new, enriching experiences together. These all flood our brains with “love” chemicals as well. 

So this Valentine’s Day, maybe in addition to the long-stemmed roses, you might want to pick up some lavender oil (maybe from Cronig’s), some banana bread (say, from the Orange Peel or the Black Dog), or pop a pumpkin pie in the oven (think Pie Chicks). Pick up a funny, heartwarming card (maybe at Alley’s, Edgartown Books, Donaroma’s). Definitely stock up on chocolates (we wish Chilmark Chocolates were still here, but we still have plenty of other great chocolatiers on the Island). Give your dog a hug or your cat a cuddle. Partake of some local oysters. Stock up on plenty of Good & Plentys. Take in a funny movie, share a special meal together, and then pick up some cinnamon rolls (at Grey Barn Farm). Because love really is in the air.