The Science Behind St. Valentine’s Day
When you think of St. Valentine’s Day what pops into your head?
Do you think of red roses, red hearts, boxes of chocolates, or romantic music? St. Valentine’s Day is about romance, or the sexual attraction between two people. Because of this, many of the symbols that we have come to associate with St. Valentine’s Day have their biological roots in sexual attraction. Let’s take a look at a few.
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St. Valentine’s Day has become synonymous with the color red. We eat chocolate covered red strawberries, men send women red roses, and we send each other cards adored with red hearts. But, why the color red?
Science has found that the color red enhances our attraction to another person. At the University of Rochester, Psychologist Daniela Niesta conducted a study that measured men’s attraction to the same woman by varying colors. She showed the same woman to different men, but varied the background colors or showed the woman wearing a red or blue shirt. Next she told the men "Imagine that you are going on a date with this person and have $100 in your wallet. How much money would you be willing to spend on your date?"
Under all conditions, women wearing red or having a red background were viewed as more attractive. But, that’s not all. The study found that the men were more likely to ask the “red” woman out and treat her to a more expensive outing.
The researcher’s then tested the effect of the color red on women. They asked a group of women to rate the pictures of men whose shirt color where digitally altered. The women also rated the pictures of men wearing red more attractive and sexually desirable. The men wearing red were perceived as having a higher social status, more likely to make money and more likely to climb the social ladder. The women also reported a higher willingness to date, kiss, and engage in other sexual activity with the “red” men.
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Nothing says St. Valentine’s Day more then scrumptious little tender melt in your mouth morsels of dark chocolate. Dr. Bankole A. Johnson, at the University of Texas states, “chocolate's ingredients have a significant impact on brain chemistry.” He has found that chocolate contains caffeine and two substances, tyramine and tryptophan, that the brain converts into the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. "It stimulates the brain's pleasure centers," Dr. Johnson says.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter of happiness. Most antidepressants work by keeping the levels of serotonin high in the brain. Therefore, as you might already know, each little bite of chocolate is literally a little piece of happiness.
The other dance partner of delight is dopamine. This is a the neurotransmitter of pleasure and it’s increase is associated with sexual arousal. In a study by Dr. Jennifer Nasser, associate professor of Nutrition Sciences in Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health, Dr. Nasser found that placing a small piece of chocolate brownie in a participant’s mouth caused a spike in dopamine. Dopamine is believed to teach the brain what is pleasurable. In other words, when someone gives you a box of chocolates, each time you pop one in your mouth, you could be telling your brain to associate the happiness and pleasure you feel with the person who gave you the luscious little treat.
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Romantic music can have an effect on women, making her a bit more willing and attracted. In a study published in the journal Psychology of Music on June 18, 2010, French researcher’s asked females to test food products as a ruse to study the effects of music. The women sat in a waiting room with either neutral music or romantic music. After the ladies rated their food products, the young man that ran the test asked each out for a drink. Although the young man got a phone number of 28% of the women in the neutral music room, he almost doubled the amount, at 52% from the romantic music room.
This effect was confirmed by a study at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. In this study, researcher Francesca Dillman Carpentier found that music could act as a primer. That listening to music affects a person’s judgment of a potential romantic partner. In other words, when you listen to soft romantic music, you begin to have warm fuzzy romantic feelings towards the other person. They also found that listening to sexually suggestive music could literally suggest sex.
The singer of the romantic song can also have an effect. A study at the University of London found that women are attracted to low-pitched male voices that are breathy. Therefore, male singers with deep voices may enhance the evening. Another study found that women tend to remember deeper male voices. That may be one of the reason’s Barry White’s singing is still so fondly remembered.
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Time reported that 3.5 billion dollars was spent in 2012 on a romantic evening on the town with a partner. A large portion of that involved dinner. In fact, according to restaurant.org, Valentine’s Day is the second most popular holiday to dine out, after Mother’s Day.
The importance of food on St. Valentine’s Day may come down to simple biology. Research shows that in most species, the male provides the female a gift of food. And, that more often than not, this gift of food is linked with sex. For example, Christine Gomes and Christophe Boesch at the Max Plank Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology found that over a 22-month period, female chimpanzees were more likely to mate with males who offered them meat than males who did not share.1
But if you really want to win her over, don’t simply buy dinner. A study by Thomas Alley at Clemson University found that men who actually shared his food by placing it in the woman’s mouth were perceived as more attractive.
But don’t simply take a new piece of food off your plate. When a man bites it first, then places it in the woman’s mouth, it is perceived as an intimate display equivalent kissing.
Image: Stuart Heath via Flickr
When giving perfume to his Valentine, a man maybe utilizing a phenomenon called associate learning. There are only three synapses separating our olfactory (or smelling) nerve from the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved with various declarative memory and learning functions.
Because of this close proximity of the smell center and the memory center, most odors are filed in the memory without conscious thought. Therefore, if a man gives perfume to a woman who she has pleasant experiences with, the perfume creates a type of instant download to her memory. Each time she smells the perfume; wonderful thoughts of him will magically flood forward.
In a way, he his training her brain to think fondly of him, each time she spritzes his perfume. It has also been suggested the scent of flowers can have a similar effect.
Dawn Maslar is an award-winning author, biology professor, and former radio talk show host. She is one of growing new breed of scientist, using her formal training to research and educate with social media. Her goal is to make biology fun, informative and relevant. She currently, speaks, writes and blogs, about the science of love for several publications and her wildly successful website www.dawnmaslar.com and YouTube channel at www.YouTube.com/DawnMaslarTV.