13 Feb 2024 News in English

Love Actually: The Heart or The Brain

When asked to draw a house, children practically always draw a square with a gable roof, a window, and a chimney. And although the young artist most likely never lived in such a dwelling, in the child’s mind there is a certain symbol that represents any and all buildings, houses, huts, and cabins. 

Also, everyone, young and old, knows that a red heart is about love, and that every year for almost 300 years a whole whirlwind of red and pink “Valentines” bursts into a gray February day. Balloons, toys, sweets, bouquets in the shape of hearts – all these things are usually given on Valentine’s Day, February 14th. And to this day, most people send paper cards with hearts to their loved ones – text messages, social media posts, and emails don’t count. 

By the way, did you know that the first Valentine’s card in the United States was made by Massachusetts resident Esther Howland in 1847? And 177 years later, her fellow countrywoman, popular science journalist, microbiologist at Harvard University and columnist for the Boston magazine The Atlantic and The New York Times, Catherine Wu, decomposed the formula of love into molecules and reagents. It turned out that we do not love with our hearts after all – the human heart is simply a tireless engine of our body. According to research summarized by Katherine, a key role in the emergence of romantic feelings is played by the brain, namely its oldest, so-called “reptilian”, part. Scientists have found that in moments of contemplating an object of beauty, experiencing intimacy or lust, a chemical-biological reaction occurs in the brain, accompanied by the release of inhibitory hormones into the blood. They evoke a whole range of feelings, which we call love.

Today we will talk about love or, to be more exact, about its “chemistry”. This has been taken seriously by a group of Massachusetts researchers, which includes graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with at least a master’s degree. Their main mission is to translate complex concepts from scientific language into popular language, as Catherine Wu did when studying the hormonal cocktail in the blood of people in love. And our columnist, psychologist Helena Savinova adapted this study and added her personal professional assessment to it. 

You’ll find everything about the chemistry of love in our article: 

Valentine’s Miracle

For starters, a short excursion into history. Saint Valentine, or Valentine of Rome, also known as Valentine of Terni, was a Christian bishop and martyr who lived in the 3rd century AD. In the late Middle Ages in France and England, the life of St. Valentine began to be associated with the traditions of courtly love and the secret wedding of couples in love. According to the Golden Legend, the powerful and cruel Roman Emperor Claudius II forbade men from getting married so that they would fight better, and women and girls from getting married as well. Valentine, a field doctor and chaplain, sympathized with all unhappy lovers and conducted secret wedding ceremonies under the cover of darkness. Soon the actions of the disobedient priest became known to the authorities, and he and his three servants were thrown into prison. 

As a patrician, Valentine could escape punishment, but his subordinates, people of low birth, faced the death penalty. Then, wanting to encourage the doomed fellow Christians, the bishop sent them messages in the form of red hearts (prototypes of Valentine’s Day cards), expressing Christian love. He passes them on through the blind daughter of the executioner, who, according to legend, became the last love of the Saint.  

Later, he persuaded the guards to release his servants in exchange for his own life. On the night before his execution on February 14, 269, the noble prisoner wrote a letter to the blind girl, signing it “Your Valentine.” After this, as the legend says, she regained her sight. This is considered one of Valentine’s miracles – love did not blind, but, on the contrary, opened the eyes to the world.

The First Valentine’s Day Card in the US Comes from Massachusetts

Any of us can confirm that falling in love changes the perception of the world. As one poet in love wrote, “everything around became blue and green.” When we receive a loving-heart message on Valentine’s Day, the world immediately seems better and people, kinder. 

The oldest Valentine’s Day card, written in 1477, was found in an English library. In that love letter, the girl asks the young man to prove his love and says that she will get a dowry for them from her mother at all costs. 

Valentine’s Day cards reached their greatest popularity in the 18th century. In the United States, Valentine’s Day was first celebrated in 1777. 

In 1847, a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, made the first postcard in America with the magic-bearing red heart and soon opened a successful business in hand-making such messages. Later in the 19th century, homemade Valentine’s Day cards were replaced by mass-produced greeting cards.

According to the United States Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day cards with hearts are the second-most popular after Christmas cards. 

Where Does Cardiocentrism Come from, and Why Did the Heart Become a Symbol of Love?

The tradition of using the image of a heart as a symbol of love appears in the late Middle Ages. One of the earliest belongs to the brush of Giotto – this is the painting “Mercy”, in which a woman hands over a pear-shaped, upside-down heart to Christ. It can be seen in the Scrovene Chapel in Padua, decorated in 1304. Another early design of a heart as a symbol of love confession was found in a mid-13th century French manuscript entitled “The Romance of the Pear.” One of the illustrations depicts a kneeling man presenting what appears to be a heart to a beautiful lady. 

As for the well-known and familiar image of a red heart, its exact origin is unknown. According to one of the most popular hypotheses, the heart is a transformed ivy leaf, a decorative element popular in Antiquity, an attribute of various gods. Some researchers believe that ivy in Antiquity both symbolized immortality and was a sign of a brothel. Then the heart ivy migrated to Christian art as a decorative element, and later became a symbol of love. 

The heart became an element of mass culture in the 19th century due to the popularity of Valentine’s Day. In the second half of the 20th century, the heart began to be used as a logogram for the word “love.” This first happened in 1977 as part of a campaign promoting New York to tourists. The I ❤ NY logo was registered as a trademark and began to be actively used by manufacturers of souvenir products.

With the advent of video games, the heart began to be used to represent lives, and on social networks it became one of the most popular emoticons with the traditional meaning of this symbol: “love,” “sympathy,” “affection,” as well as one of the varieties of “Like.” 

The Conclusion Suggests Itself: Is the Heart the Organ Where Love Is Born?

Scientists in fields ranging from anthropology to neurobiology have been asking this question for decades and argue that things are far from clear-cut. Indeed, when we meet a person we like, our heart begins to beat faster, we turn red or pale, and our palms sweat. Therefore, it is not surprising that for centuries people believed that love originates in the heart. But recent research shows that the main driver of our emotions is the brain. According to a team of scientists led by Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, romantic love can be divided into three categories: sexual desire, attraction, and attachment. Each category is characterized by its own set of hormones, the signals for the production of which are sent by the hypothalamus. 

This part of the brain stimulates the production of both testosterone and estrogen, which cause sexual desire, and dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and vasopressin, which influence our emotions and states, such as affection, sympathy, friendship, and falling in love. Interestingly, lust and attraction block the prefrontal cortex, and with it the ability to think rationally.

Why Do Lovers Become Sleepless and Lose Weight?

When a person we like reciprocates, those areas of the brain that are responsible for reward are activated. This partly explains why the first few weeks or months of a relationship can be so exciting and even overwhelming. 

In 1996, Dr. Fisher asked college students who thought they were madly in love to undergo MRI brain scans.

Brain scans of these people showed that major reward centers, including the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus, activate like crazy when a lover is shown a photo of a person they are strongly attracted to. And they remain calm when they look at, for example, a photograph of their classmates

When communicating with a partner, the brain releases dopamine, which is produced when we do something that pleases us. These things include spending time with loved ones and sex. It is the cocktail of dopamine and norepinephrine that causes euphoria, dizziness, loss of appetite, and insomnia – the well-known set of a lover. 

But the level of serotonin, a hormone that is responsible for appetite and peace of mind, decreases at the initial stage of a relationship, so we don’t want to sleep or eat. 

Why Do Lovers Become Sleepless and Lose Weight?

But it’s not only about love. Love, or rather its acute phase, does not last long, otherwise the person in love would simply burn in the fire of passion. It is gradually replaced by the warmth of affection, which is more acceptable for long-term relationships, relationships between parents and children, friendship, sympathy, and social connections. The two main hormones here are oxytocin and vasopressin

For this reason, oxytocin is called the “cuddle hormone.” Like dopamine, it is produced by the hypothalamus and is released in large quantities during sex, breast feeding and childbirth. And while love is more about joy and pleasure, affection with its empathy and sense of security helps us survive difficulties in different periods of life. In some ways, attraction is a lot like being emotionally dependent on another person. 

Therefore, scientists believe that dopamine is useful in moderate doses – to feel warmth and tenderness towards loved ones and friends, but not to become dependent on them, to remain independent and responsible for your own life. This is the secret to adult long-term relationships.

And finally, what would love be without embarrassment? Sexual arousal, as we mentioned above, shuts down areas of the brain that regulate critical thinking and rational behavior. For this reason, scientists believe, love makes us a little crazy: in a state of love, we often do things that we later regret. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely those extravagant actions that we will remember as the brightest moments of our lives. So, love is doing things like running three stops after the bus in which your beloved left, or stealing a bouquet of flowers, or climbing a drainpipe onto a balcony, or flying to the other end of the country just to see and hug your loved one. Our own brain does all this to us through hormones, composing them into a kind of “formula of love.” 

For Love or for Convenience?

Scientists have not yet determined what elements love contains; moreover, they are inclined to think that everyone has their own love formula. The hormonal part of the love equation is more or less clear, but this does not mean that our feelings are generated exclusively by a cold-blooded brain, measuring hormones with accounting precision. 

This is where His Majesty the Heart probably comes into play: it identifies “the right person” among a thousand others; it is “broken” when we suffer a failure or loss. It is thanks to the heart that we love children boundlessly, empathize with those who suffer, sacrifice to those in need, forgive friends and even enemies. It is not for nothing that it is the heart and not the brain that has become a symbol of the best that can happen to a person. And let a cool head beware – sometimes we ourselves want to make mistakes. Remember the parable about how Einstein, having got to heaven, confronted God with an error in His formula for the creation of the world. To which the Creator replied wearily: “I know.” So, we know how to live, but it’s too boring and predictable for us. 

“Love can be both the best and worst thing for you – it can be the thing that gets us up in the morning, or what makes us never want to wake up again. I’m not sure I could define “love” for you if I kept you here for another ten thousand pages,” Wu says. 

“In the end, everyone is capable of defining love for themselves. And, for better or for worse, if it’s all hormones, maybe each of us can have “chemistry” with just about anyone. But whether or not it goes further is still up to the rest of you.”

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Author: Helena Savinova  

Editor:  Ilia Baranikas  

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