Our culture celebrates friendship on momentous occasions. Families and friends gather to celebrate births, birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, retirements, and deaths. Hit a milestone, get a party.

Valentine’s Day is a slightly different kind of commemoration in that everyone expresses affection to close and/or romantic friends on the same day, even though the friendships typically continue across the year. Valentine’s Day on February 14 has existed for hundreds of years in various cultural formats—although it’s still problematic which noteworthy Valentine of several candidates is responsible for the day’s title. The hearts and cupid icons that incorrectly suggest the nature and source of romance are obviously remnants of ancient beliefs.

Valentine’s Day originally involved the exchange of affectionate letters, but by the middle of the 19th century the exchange had shifted to printed cards and gifts (such as candy, flowers, and jewelry). And just as we’ve recently seen duplicated December letters and cards morph into electronic greetings, we can probably expect the Valentine’s Day exchange to shift eventually from paper to email.

The various December greetings tend to go to a wider circle of acquaintances, but valentines imply a closer more romantic relationship (except perhaps in elementary schools, where students tend to distribute valentines to everyone in their class). So what’s the point of a standardized card and gift exchange on a specific day for a personal and continuing relationship that has many opportunities across the year to exchange comments of endearment? It’s difficult to get a restaurant reservation on February 14th, when the 13th and 15th create no problems—and yet, most folks will chose the 14th.

Cognitive neuroscientists identify two principal forms of long-term memory. Procedural memories process skills, such as riding a bicycle and tying shoelaces, that are difficult at best to explain, but that tend to remain robust after they’re mastered (even if you’ve not been on a bicycle for years).

Declarative memories process factual verbal information that can be stated (or declared), and are more apt to be forgotten unless continually activated. Declarative memories are further divided into semantic memories (general information such as state capitols or the spelling of various words), and episodic memories (personal information on emotionally important autobiographical events, such as one’s first romance).

The strength of the emotional overtones of an experience will enhance the nature and robustness of an episodic memory. For example, having an especially good or bad meal at a new restaurant will probably affect our decision to return. First impressions aren’t always the way we finally end up feeling about something or someone, however.

Recurring, formalized, ritualistic celebrations help to shape and maintain the robustness of episodic memories, and that’s probably why they’ve become so culturally important. When family and friends gather to commemorate an event or achievement, the conversation tends to focus on what occurred during previous related gatherings, and on recollections of events that led to the commemoration. The group’s individual and corporate memories get activated sufficiently to remain robust until the next gathering (albeit typically altered somewhat by the current experience).

It’s difficult to think of another purpose that would justify the effort involved in high school and family reunions. Think back to the last such a reunion you attended—how dormant memories popped up throughout the event, as one recollection sparked related recollections.

Valentine’s Day Tokens and Memory
Romantic bonding typically follows three stages: lust, attraction, and attachment (Fisher, 2004). Lust is the innate generalized desire we have to seek a romantic partner. Attraction is the initial highly focused attention of partners who have recently met and seek to know each other better. Attachment occurs with commitment, when the partners agree that they’re in it for the long haul, and are thus willing to work to maintain the relationship despite the inevitable problems and distractions that will occur.

Ritualistic Valentine’s Day greetings and tokens can enhance all three stages, because they connect a personal feeling with a cultural phenomenon.

LUST. Using a Valentine icon to inform a potential partner about our interest in establishing a relationship is helpful in that it’s typically transmitted through a safe third party, such as the postal service, the Internet, or a florist. This gives the recipient an opportunity to think about the sender and expression before responding.

ATTRACTION: Valentine icons given to a partner within the throes of attraction are typically delivered in person, and are shared. Eating chocolates together is a great way to begin a Valentine’s Day date.

ATTACHMENT: Comfortable warmth enters into the valentine exchanges and activities of a bonded relationship. Because the couple feels secure with each other, it’s OK to exchange cards that poke fun at romance and the relationship, and for the meal to be at a funky café. No need for dressed-up pretension.

Valentine icons thus have something for everybody at every ascendant bonding stage. It’s a kind of cultural serendipity that much of the world community joins together on February 14 in a communal celebration of what are actually millions of individually bonded relationships.

So have a good time on February 14th, but don’t forget that February 15 and all the rest of the days of the year are also important in establishing and maintaining a romantically bonded relationship. Valentine’s Day is simply a communal reminder of what the rest of the year should be.

And sad to say, valentines occur in your brain and not in your heart—although the color of blood still predominates.