Red roses and romantic rodents

Down came the executioner’s sword with a thud splattering blood everywhere. Neither the emperor who ordered the execution nor the mutilated victim would have imagined even in their wildest of dreams that this act would be celebrated centuries later by young couples with roses, kisses, and gifts. The fourteenth of February is observed worldwide in memory of that beheaded Christian priest- St Valentine- as a day dedicated to Romantic love. For a practicing Neurologist, St Valentine has a special place in his heart, though for a totally different reason. He is the patron saint for epilepsy and chanting his hymns was the only effective treatment for epilepsy till a century back when efficient drugs were discovered.
Romantic love spares none; I am yet to meet a human being who has not felt romantic love at least for a couple of minutes in his life. Blame it on your brain wiring, no one can escape from loving a partner. Our brain has a circuit that processes our rewards and romantic love activates the same pathway. Yes, romantic love is a highly rewarding experience and pleasant emotion; ask any love-stricken young girl or boy and they would vouch for that. And the chemical-dopamine -is responsible for evoking the love and activating reward pathway.
Romantic love is essential for the bonding between two partners. They remain faithful, help each other to raise the next generation. Romantic love thus becomes essential for the survival of the family and the species as a whole. More faithful and romantic partners kept their species thriving during difficult times. The primitive men survived the harshest of climate changes and food scarcity and evolved into an all-powerful species chiefly because of strong family bonding and cooperation as a group.
Animal experiments about love and faithfulness revealed interesting findings and the role of chemicals in pair bonding. Two hormones secreted by our pituitary gland stand out among them. One is Oxytocin which has a great role in a pregnant woman; it helps the uterus to contract and expel the fetus during labor and also helps in milk ejection to feed the infant. The other is Vasopressin which is normally involved in the maintenance of salt and water content of our body. It came as a pleasant surprise to the scientists that these chemicals are involved in the establishment of a strong partner bonding between two partners.

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A series of interesting experiments were conducted on a type of rodent – the voles. There are two closely related types of voles, we may call them cousins genetically. One is found in prairies, the prairie vole and the other is the Montane vole found in hilly terrain. When it comes to love, pair bonding, and bringing up a family their attitudes are totally different. Once they find a suitable partner and mate, the prairie voles remain faithful till the end of their life. They share the responsibility to raise the offsprings who stay with their parents till they are mature enough to survive on their own; much like a middle-class Indian Family. On the other hand, Montane Voles are masters of one-night stands; they never establish a long-lasting partnership with a single mate. The unfortunate offspring are thrown out of the abode at the earliest possible. The experiments revealed that this contrasting behavior is due to the difference in the amount of Oxytocin and Vasopressin receptors in their brain. Prairie voles have plenty of them than their unfaithful cousins. These chemicals are important for human beings as well. Every time you kiss your partner and have intimate moments with her/him your brain is flooded with these two chemicals, giving Fevicol bonding to your romantic relations. The couple who are smart enough to keep their oxytocin and vasopressin levels high maintain an everlasting faithful romantic relationship. These hormones also promote social bonding between the individuals in a group or society, again helping in species survival. I feel Valentine’s day should be dedicated to these hormones that helped our species in becoming the strongest on planet Earth
I can read the next question now popping up in your mind – can we create love ? Is there something like a love potion used by Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream? In lower animals, there are chemicals called Pheromones which can initiate attraction between opposite sex. Some experiments have suggested that human sweat, as well as seminal fluid, contain some chemicals like Darcin which may elicit attraction in the opposite sex. But their action is very weak in human brains – probably years of unstable relations have taught our species that love at first sight due to pheromones works only in Bollywood films. We learned that partner selection should be done only after reasonable analysis of pedigree, profession, and bank balance! Consequently, during millennia of evolution, the human brain lost the receptors and pathways for the pheromones -anything which does not work well for the species survival is suppressed and discarded during evolution. As a result, we have no reliable pheromones available as love potions. For the time being, we have to be content with Deodorants and Perfumes which claim to attract the opposite sex with a single spray on the neck!! Another interesting agent available is oxytocin nasal spray which is being used to strengthen bonding in those couples undergoing a tumultuous relationship; the results are encouraging. A casual search in Amazon will have different brands delivered at your doorstep: but a word of caution -use it under proper guidance.
It is alarming and painful to helplessly watch the rapid explosion in the rate of broken marriages, divorce rate, and single parents. Are the sacred institution of marriage or the human family system on the verge of extinction? The stark reality demands quick action by the young generation. It’s time that the homo sapien couple decided to reduce their life at breakneck speed in the fast lane and spend more romantic moments in each other’s arms.
Every year Valentine’s day floods the markets with red roses and the media with an equal number of hostile acts and comments against the celebration. We have to strip off all the political and religious colors from this beautiful concept and explain to the anti-Valentines day activists that what St Valentine originally intended to promote was long-lasting romantic love between the partners and not promiscuity or a montane vole like attitude in human beings. And if we have to remain the strongest species on this blue planet even in 3000 AD, Valentine’s day should not be an annual celebration but a daily ritual!

14 FEB 2022

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Dr V.T Haridas

Senior Consultant Neurophysician at Elite Mission Hospital

Dr V.T.Haridas is a Senior Consultant Neurophysician at Elite Mission Hospital, Thrissur, Kerala. He received his medical degree from the Thrissur Medical College and had his two years Post Graduate Training in General Medicine at the Kottayam Medical College. He completed his DM Neurology training at NIMHANS, Bangalore, Dr.Haridas has also received DNB degrees in General medicine as well as DNB neurology. He was a rank holder during his Graduation and his area of interest is Neuro-rehabilitation.

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