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Contemplating Love on Valentine’s Day

Tom Sullivan

February 14, 2017
Tom Sullivan

St. Valentine’s Day, the celebration of love, is a pretty big deal. The Catholic Church, as well as the Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist and other protestant Churches, acknowledge and honor the holiday.  It is also celebrated by millions of non-religious people in most nations around the world and on all continents. In the United States, the National Retail Federation calculates that Valentine’s Day will contribute $18.2 billion to the economy with the average celebrant spending about $136.

So, who was St. Valentine and what do we know about love anyway? The first question is easy to answer. The second question is something we humans are still exploring, pondering and trying to get right.

Valentine was a third century Roman priest who, as the account goes, was imprisoned for marrying Christian couples and aiding Christians being persecuted by Claudius II in Rome. Valentine was able to establish a positive relationship with Claudius, despite the serious criminal nature of these acts; that is until he tried to convince Claudius of Christianity’s validity.

Claudius apparently did not take well to Valentine’s position and commanded Valentine to renounce his faith or be beaten with clubs and beheaded. St. Valentine refused to renounce his faith and was executed outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269.

In honor of St. Valentine, I am pondering the idea of love. I love my wife, Jan.  She’s my high school sweet heart, business partner, sounding board, best friend and soul mate.  I also love the visible results of hard work.  I love a great performance on the sports field or stage when a player or actor puts everything they’ve got into the effort. I love to play with dogs and to hold a baby. I also absolutely love a cold beer after working outside on a hot summer day. So, what exactly is love?

It’s easier to dissect this question when thinking about the different kinds of love. The Greeks had different words for these: Eros (erotic love or desire), Phileo (friendship or brotherly love) and Agape (unconditional, other-centered love), which is a concept that gained traction in the early Christian church.

Modern science is delving deeper into this topic. “The biochemistry of love: an oxytocin hypothesis,” by Sue Carter and Stephen W. Porges, is a mind-blowing article describing what scientists are learning about how our brains are wired for love. This article examines oxytocin and vasopressin and their interactions in our plastic brains that change in response to social stimuli.

Here are a few interesting citations from this article:

  • “Although not essential for parenting, the increase of oxytocin associated with birth and lactation might make it easier for a woman to be less anxious around her newborn and to experience and express loving feelings for her child.”
  • “…oxytocin exposure early in life not only regulates our ability to love and form social bonds, it also has an impact on our health and well-being.”
  • “Lesions in bodily tissues, including the brain, heal more quickly in animals that are living socially compared with those in isolation. The protective effects of positive sociality seem to rely on the same cocktail of hormones that carry a biological message of ‘love’ throughout the body.”
  • “Vasopressin is associated with physical and emotional mobilization, and supports vigilance and behaviours needed for guarding a partner or territory.”
  • “…the molecules associated with love have restorative properties, including the ability to literally heal a ‘broken heart’. Oxytocin receptors are expressed in the heart, and precursors for oxytocin seem to be crucial for the development of the fetal heart. Oxytocin exerts protective and restorative effects in part through its capacity to convert undifferentiated stem cells into cardiomyocytes. Oxytocin can facilitate adult neurogenesis and tissue repair, especially after a stressful experience. We know that oxytocin has direct anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties in in vitro models of atherosclerosis. The heart seems to rely on oxytocin as part of a normal process of protection and self-healing.”

I am not a biochemist or a social scientist, but I know that we are all wired to thrive in the context of positive social relationships.  I feel better when I hold a baby or pet a dog and the scientists are telling me that doing both releases oxytocin. Scientists might also postulate that St. Valentine had high levels of vasopressin, but all he knew was that he was compelled to protect young couples that wanted to marry.

Carter and Porges concluded their article with the following statement:

“Communication technology, social media, electronic parenting and many other technological advances of the past century might place both children and adults at risk for social isolation and disorders of the autonomic nervous system, including deficits in their capacity for social engagement and love.”

So, this Valentine’s Day, think about doing more than making a post on your friend’s Facebook page. Call them up and tell them you love them. If they’re nearby, go give them a hug. Ensure that you are keeping these relationships alive and well in meaningful ways. Your brain will love you for it, too.