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st.valentine-samantha brooks

St. Valentine was famous for supporting the Christians during their persecution at the hands of the mighty Romans, circa 250AD.  But what does neuroscience tell us about the minds of those people who defend the underdog?

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

Love is in the air again, and the shops are full of red cards and gifts as we approach the 14th February – or St. Valentine’s Day – the day that the great martyr died in 269AD.  Most of us associate Valentine’s Day with love and all things sweet and romantic.  This is because, according to one story, when the Roman Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. But Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. However, when Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Were Valentine’s actions a true show of love – putting oneself before another?  Do his choices to rebel against the Romans demonstrate the true nature of love?  How is it that we can put ourselves in a position to be persecuted ourselves? Are there any evolutionary benefits to this seemingly altruistic behaviour? 

Think of the persecution – throughout our recent history – of black people, women, Jewish, Muslims, and of those people like Nelson Mandela who were prepared to die to help save people from their struggles.  Yet in 2019, as we approach St. Valentine’s Day again, there appears to be a lack of universal altruism, as we seem more intent than ever on satisfying our own desires at the expense of the planet and of other people’s feelings.  So what can neuroscience tell us about the kind of selfless love that St. Valentine champions? What are the neural correlates of altruism, why do our brains sometimes act in this way, and is it normal?

In his recent work, The Altruistic Brain, neuroscientist Donald Pfaff sets out his Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT), which suggests that human beings are “hardwired” to be good, just as we are “hardwired” to acquire natural language(s). This means that our brains may be genetically predisposed to function in a manner that prioritises the needs of the other before our own, which could also be why John Donne famously quipped that no man is an island.  If the bells tolls for someone, it also tolls for us.  The philanthropic view is an optimistic view of humanity, reflected in the behaviours of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg donating large proportions of their wealth, not to their children, but to social causes. However, others like Prof Steven Pinker, who wrote the book Better Angels of our Nature, suggest that human nature is rather prone to violence and Schadenfreude – experiencing pleasure from others’ misfortune – and that it is only in recent years that we have reduced this tendency to be so hostile.  So which is it?  Are our brains predisposed to philantrophy and love, or to violence and aggression?

To answer this question we might turn to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, a field of neuroscientific   The id stands for all those selfish, childish desires we want to immediately satisfy, sometimes aggressively at the expense of others.  It is associated with the unconscious dopaminergic drive system deep in the mid-brain, where our passions and our animal tendencies are found.  The superego represents what our parents, or society have taught us, the idealogical right or wrong, and is found in the prefrontal cortex – that part of the brain that allows us to hold in mind perfectionistic beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.  But perhaps the healthiest part of this mind system – the ego – is a referee in the middle, keeping the two competing factions (the id and superego) at bay, so that one is not more dominant than the other.  The part of the brain responsible for the ego is called the anterior cingulate cortex.  We cannot always be good, or in love, or virtuous, nor can we go around being aggressive all the time.  Sometimes it is right to act aggressively when someone tries to attack, or not to love everybody all of the time, and sometimes is it good to show you care.  It is often complicated to know which option is the best, but the anterior cingulate referee tries to help us choose the right outcome in any given situation.

study which views the human mind as tripartite, comprising of the id, the ego and the superego, representing our animal instincts, our reality and our perfectionistic personas respectively. And the movement called Neuropsychoanalysis, led by UCT’s Professor Mark Solms and colleagues, has got closer to pinpointing where in the brain these mental compartments lie.

Given that our minds are dynamic – changing from moment to moment to help us adapt to the demands of the environment – there is never any hard and fast rule as to which is best.  However, we are social animals, and the root of altruism – like those selfless acts carried out by St. Valentine – probably have a hidden, rewarding value to us.  The sceptics view of altruism is that there is always something in it for us! Sending a card or flowers or chocolates, or just showing our feelings to that special person in our life may give us a comforting sense of security that we have a lifelong companion.  And as loving partners grow together they begin to mimic behaviours and expressions that reinforce patterns of behaviour.  Such behaviour can be linked to increased levels of a chemical called oxytocin in the brain, which strengthens our ability to bond with another person, be it a baby or an adult.  And so while the id may be the most powerful, unconscious force in our brains, directing our minds to satisfy our basic urges, those who are better able to bond with others by performing selfless acts may stand a better chance of surviving and thriving in society. Had St. Valentine learned to bond with the Romans he might well have been able to continue marrying couples in love while also sparing his own life!

What is quite clear though, as we approach St. Valentine’s Day this year, is that the collective aggressive, self-serving, consumerist mind appears to be dominant.  It has led to a rise in global warming, border-building, increased poverty, a rise in cancer and illness, and a general sense of disorder across the planet.  As such, perhaps we should not only think about our loved ones this Valentine’s Day, but also what can we do, as individuals, to love the Earth before we serve ourselves.  Happy Valentine’s Day Harfielders!

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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