Happy Valentine’s Day! The Power of Love (Pssst—It’s All in the Eyes and Nose)

393px-Red_roseRed roses are synonymous with love, and have been for centuries.  But there’s an interesting story behind the tales of starry-eyed lovers and their proclamations of everlasting romance.  The red rose it seems, has as much to do with our eyes and nose as it has to do with affairs of the heart.

First, let’s take a look at the flower that started it all:  the beauteous and aromatic rose. Roses can be traced back 35 million years according to fossil evidence.  Roses were growing wild in many places as diverse as Persia and in what is now Colorado in the United States.  As early as the 11th century BCE the Chinese were cultivating flowers of all sorts.  In fact, China has incredible biodiversity and boasts 93 species and 144 varieties of roses that are native to its habitats.[1]  China became the dominant breeder and purveyor of roses until around 300 years ago, when Europe took the lead in cultivation and breeding.[2]

Isis, the goddess of love. This painting is in the tomb of of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (KV17).

Isis, the goddess of love. This painting is in the tomb of of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (KV17).

The rose has a storied history in many cultures.  Wreaths of roses have been found in Egyptian tombs.  Roses were associated with Isis, the Egyptian goddess of love, and as well were thought to have aphrodisiac and medicinal properties.  Minoan frescos on Crete from 1700 BCE are decorated with roses. Greeks and Romans used roses in their celebrations, although the flower in the latter case became unfortunately associated with the excesses of the empire.  There was such a demand for rose petals to adorn Roman baths and fountains, to strew on seats and floors and to use as confetti that peasants were forced to forgo food cultivation in favor of roses.  Actually, the Romans were quite sophisticated in their rose production, even developing a technology to force blooms.  They also imported roses from Egypt.[3]

Miniature from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 364), folio 83, Mirth and Gladness lead a dance.

Miniature from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 364), folio 83, Mirth and Gladness lead a dance.

In the 1200s the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris was a sensation in courts across Europe.  The poem was written as an allegory on chivalric love and was intended to “expound the whole art of love.”[4]

During the Middle Ages roses were used for religious and secular celebrations, as well as medicinally.

Remember the War of the Roses, the dynastic slaughter between the Houses of York (represented by a white heraldic rose) and Lancaster (represented by a red heraldic rose) for control of England in the 15th century?

The 17th century saw roses and rose water as valued legal tender. The Netherlands emerged as an important trader in roses as well as other cultivations, particularly tulips.

Rosa centifolia foliacea, a painted engraving of a rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840).

Rosa centifolia foliacea, a painted engraving of a rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840).

Napoleon’s wife Josephine was so enamored of roses that she had a garden of more than 250 varieties at Chateau de Malmaison.  Pierre Joseph Redouté  was a botanical illustrator whose Les Roses as drawn from the garden is still considered a masterpiece.

While roses are varied and produced in a myriad of colors, the red rose is one of the most popular.  It heralds beauty, love, remembrance, passion…the list goes on in terms of its coveted attributes.  In fact, the color red has a long historical association with passion and primal emotion. In Greek and Roman times the color red was tied to the goddess of love, and throughout history many cultures have carried the hue in their celebrations, including weddings.  But why is a red rose such an apt expression of our deepest desires?  It’s all biology, folks.

The Limbic System

The Limbic System

Ah, the smell of the rose—unforgettable, sweet, abundantly…neurological?  The olfactory nerves are directly wired to the part of our brains called the limbic system.  Situated beneath the cerebral cortex, it is associated with “emotion, motivation and association of emotion with memories….Smell is unique among the senses in its privileged access to the subconscious.”[5]  In other words, smell and memory are deeply linked, even without any conscious effort on our part.

And what about that color?  According to a study by Andrew J. Elliot and Henk Aarts, “(r)ed seems to initiate a surge of energy” in both the men and women who were test subjects. “This study shows that when compared to gray and blue of the same lightness, red induces a stronger and faster motor reaction and facilitates strength and force.” So the color red produces a profound neurological effect, immediate and powerful.[6] 

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro, McGill University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, have re-interpreted how the senses interact in the complex wiring of our brains.  “It’s known that there are separate specialized brain areas for the different senses such as vision, smell, touch and so forth but, when you experience the world around you, you get a coherent picture based on information from all the senses. We wanted to find out how this works in the brain,” says Dr. Christopher Pack, lead investigator at The Neuro.  The researchers proceeded to stimulate the visual portions of the brain in test subjects, and measured before and after their ability to process and recognize smells.  “The results from the study demonstrate that visual cortex activity is incorporated into the processing of smells, proving for the first time a cross-wiring of the visual and olfactory systems in the brain.”[7]

You see, throughout the aromatic and colorful history of the red rose, we were just being homo sapiens responding to our biological impulses.  So the next time that red blossom carries you away in romantic meanderings of sight and sound, thank your brain.  Isn’t love and neurology grand?

Whether you’re celebrating a hip, modern relationship or a love as old as time, the Huffington Post has you covered. Click here for some unique Valentines, both modern and vintage.


1. http://www.quarryhillbg.org/page14.html

2. http://www.quarryhillbg.org/page14.html

3. http://www.ecbdflowerstore.com/108091.php.

4. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/remarkmanu/roman/

5. http://www.cf.ac.uk/biosi/staffinfo/jacob/teaching/sensory/olfact1.html

6. Elliot, Andrew J. “Perception of the color red enhances the force and velocity of motor output” , Emotion, 2011, Henk Aarts, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York and the University of Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands

7. McGill University. “Open your eyes and smell the roses: Activating the visual cortex improves our sense of smell.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 February 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120228185542.htm>

5 responses to “Happy Valentine’s Day! The Power of Love (Pssst—It’s All in the Eyes and Nose)

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Celebrate an Ancient Valentine’s Day, Courtesy of AntiquityNOW | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: The Rose in History: Power, Beauty and the Sweet Smell of Success | AntiquityNOW

  3. Pingback: KIDS’ BLOG! The Rose in History: Power, Beauty and the Sweet Smell (and Taste) of Success | AntiquityNOW

  4. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Asia | AntiquityNOW

  5. Pingback: Have a Historic Valentine’s Day! | AntiquityNOW

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