By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
February 14 marks Valentine’s Day, encouraging gifts for romantic partners. The holiday dates back to at least the 5th century and is usually recognized by providing one’s significant other with gifts intended to symbolize affections. Falling in love considerably affects the human brain.
On February 14, people celebrate Valentine’s Day, a holiday meant to honor romantic partners. History.com explained: “Each year on February 14, people exchange cards, candy, or flowers with their special ‘valentine.'” The website stated, “St. Valentine’s Day is named for a Christian martyr and dates back to the 5th century, but has origins in the Roman holiday Lupercalia.”
Lupercalia was an ancient Roman fertility festival conducted on February 15. In modern culture, Valentine’s Day focuses on people in love. When your brain falls in love, it undergoes notable changes.
Whether or not love at first sight exists, scientists have learned much about how we respond to seeing attractive faces. Some of this knowledge comes from how we react when we see faces that have been digitally altered to look less attractive.
“When you see someone with a beautiful face, there’s a feeling of pleasure that many people report,” said Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary, in a lecture for The Great Courses. “It just feels good to look at someone who’s handsome or beautiful. Most people, when seeing [a] distorted face would report that it looks aversive. It generates a mildly unpleasant sensation.”
According to Dr. Vishton, brain imaging studies show that when we look at an attractive face, as opposed to an unattractive face, particular brain systems are activated. Those systems that show greater activity are associated with pleasure. They’re subcortical circuits near the nucleus accumbens. Unattractive faces trigger responses in the amygdala, which is a brain region associated with negative emotions and our “fight or flight” response.
It’s long been believed that the brain functions differently when someone is in love, and studies have been conducted to that effect.
“This has often been studied by recording nervous system activity while a person thinks about or looks at a photograph of someone for whom they feel romantic love,” Dr. Vishton said. “The data is then contrasted with the nervous system activity while looking at other photos—for instance of other very familiar people for whom the participants do not feel love.
“Note that this is important, since we know that familiarity matters a lot in terms of how the brain responds.”
The brain sends electrical signals throughout the body. For example, it tells muscles when to contract. Similar electrical events happen in the skin. Dr. Vishton said that when we look at a picture of someone for whom we have romantic feelings, or who we find attractive, our body pushes more water than normal into the skin and a lower electrical resistance occurs.
“When you look at a picture of someone you love, your skin conductance level rises within a few seconds—quite consistently, actually,” he said. “Within about three seconds of the appearance of an image, the skin conductance rises and continues doing so for several seconds thereafter.”
If we had the means, we could make Valentine’s Day a very different holiday by measuring our loved ones’ electrical conductivity and brain system activation. Then again, maybe it’s better that we don’t.
This article contains material taught by Dr. Peter M. Vishton from his course Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You. Dr. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University.