A Kiss Is Just a Kiss? Hardly.


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Kisses are a better fate than wisdom.
{e. e. cummings}

Just in time for Valentine's Day! The Science of Kissing is Everywhere. {NPR, NBC's The Today Show, Time, Newsday...}

Kissing is one of the most intimate things we do. What does it mean?

This post is worth bringing back for Valentine's Day!

A private act, it embodies romanticism, friendship, parental safe harbor as a child drifts into sleep, a casual greeting or whimsical play. Kissing can have wildly different meanings, depending upon context, timing and the partners, ranging from innocent to illicit. Kissing is over played in Hollywood as the dénouement of two lovers connecting, accompanied by orchestras playing sanguine sweet symphonies. Kissing can begin a lifelong bond between a couple or a parent and child. The first peck on the cheek that I gave to my newborn son is a moment that I will never forget.

Why do we kiss? Is it unique to humans? What happens biologically?

These are questions that author Sheril Kirshenbaum addresses and so much more.

But could kissing be a topic for science, for buttoned-up researchers in laboratories? Sheril Kirshenbaum, in her newly released book "The Science of Kissing - What Our Lips Are Telling Us," provides ample evidence that it is. The allure of her topic is that it provides fresh perspective on a behavior that seems so simple, so primal at first glance but upon inspection opens up layer upon layer of new questions.

The formal topic of osculation or philematology, the science of kissing, has had relatively little attention in the literature. Those terms alone seem to strip away the appeal and romanticism of a kiss (the power of words!) but the author assures us in the beginning of the book that "I promise, this knowledge won't take any of the magic away." She is right.

Interestingly, this topic enjoyed its first spark of broad interest here at ScienceBlogs, and led to a panel discussion at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Discussions at such an august meeting are certainly a sign that such a topic has come of age. I believe this book provides compelling reasons why the "science of kissing" is a subject that warrants more research that has already led to, according to the author:

...tie seemingly unrelated fields of science together in unexpected and intriguing ways.

I agree!

Readers coming from a wide range of interests and backgrounds will learn new perspectives about kissing from this book. As a biochemist, I gravitated towards the section on physiology and neuroscience (Part 3 - "Great Expectations") and learned of a fascinating brain imaging experiment to measure changes caused by a kiss. How did they do it? I'll let you read that part to find out.

Sheril Kirshenbaum's writing style is accessible to the non-scientist and captures the process and joy of science. Her book is well researched and provides numerous examples of collaborating with experts across a wide range of fields, from anthropology to neuroscience to biochemistry, to name a few.

Here's one of my favorite excerpts:

Kissing and the Brain

Throughout our lives, the physical structure of the brain's neural network is continuously changing as we experience the world, and the new neural connections formed can be strengthened over time with experience.

Indeed these new connections represent learning, memory and can enhance sensory perception and even healing. See Oliver Sacks' recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, "This Year, Change Your Mind" for a broader perspective, and my response, "Mind Tricks."

When we kiss another person ---especially someone new---there's a lot of information being processed: his or her scent, taste, movement, touch and even sound. This information helps the brain interpret the way we think and feel about this individual by associating these sensations with him or her. So as we kiss, we alter the brain. Changes occur on a microscopic scale (as they do with any activity), but it's fair to say that in this manner, kissing can literally reshape the mind.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who ever wondered why we kiss and ...Who knows? You might even learn how to be a better kisser.

A particularly insightful review of this book was published in the New York Journal of Books.


More like this

Give me a kisse, and to that kisse a score;
Then to that twenty, adde a hundred more;
A thousand to that hundred; so kisse on,
To make that thousand up a million;
Treble that million, and when that is done,
Let's kisse afresh, as when we first begun.
~Robert Herrick, "To Anthea (III)"

By piano keyboards (not verified) on 27 Jan 2011 #permalink

Thank You. I highly recommend this book for anyone who ever wondered why we kiss and ...Who knows? You might even learn how to be a better kisser.

By Dini Sohbet (not verified) on 28 Jan 2011 #permalink

Thanks for writing in such an encouraging post. I had a glimpse of it and couldnât stop reading till I finished.

By Madal Bal natu… (not verified) on 28 Jan 2011 #permalink

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