Just in Time for Valentine's Day: The Science Behind the Kiss

By Larry Bock
Founder and organizer, USA Science & Engineering Festival

It's both funny and remarkable how some of the most simple and natural acts we do each day are teeming in science.

Take for example, the kiss.

A kiss, especially a passionate one, sets off a cascade of emotions and chemical reactions in our brain and body that would surprise most of us if we knew the whole story.

Well, just in time for Valentine's Day, Sheril Kirshenbaum, science writer and author of the recent book, The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, sheds light on exactly what goes on biologically when we lock lips. Kissing basically "acts like a drug by stimulating the natural chemicals in our bodies, yet unlike other human behaviors, science has barely begun to put kissing under the microscope" to study this intriguing evolutionary behavior," says Sheril, who serves as director of the University of Texas Project on Energy Communication and appeared last year as a speaker at TEDGlobal 2011.

This April, as a featured author at the USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo and Book Fair hosted by Lockheed Martin, she'll bring insight into the kiss by discussing her book, answering questions and sharing other information that research is revealing about the science of kissing. But in the meantime, for all you sweethearts out there, here's a timely message from Sheril to take to heart. She writes:

On Valentine's Day, many of us will acknowledge those we love with chocolates, flowers, and cards. But the most meaningful messages will be exchanged without spending a dime: It's kisses that leave the most indelible impression of all.

Our lips are packed with sensitive nerve endings so that even the slightest brush sends a flurry of information to our brains that often feels very good. Although we often don't think of them in this way, our lips are the body's most exposed erogenous zone. When they are involved in a passionate kiss, our blood vessels dilate as our brain receives more oxygen than normal. Our pulse quickens and our breathing can become irregular. Our cheeks flush as our pupils dilate causing many of us to close our eyes. Five of our 12 cranial nerves jump into action as we engage all of OUR senses in interpreting what's going on and anticipating what may happen next.

When there's real chemistry between two individuals, a kiss sparks romance by triggering a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that cascade through our bodies and brains. In this manner, locking lips serves as humanity's most intimate experience because it conveys more than our words can possibly express. It's nature's ultimate litmus test telling us when to pursue a deeper connection with someone special or to step back because we're incompatible with a partner. And understanding the science behind how this happens doesn't take any magic out of the moment. Instead, it provides a better understanding and appreciation of our ourselves and our relationships.
Sheril is one of many intriguing authors who will take the public behind the mystery and wonders of science, engineering and technology April 28-29 at the Festival Expo and Book Fair in Washington, D.C. (the nation's largest celebration of science and engineering). This free-of-charge weekend celebration, scheduled for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, culminates a month-long series of Festival events which will be held nationwide to inspire the next generation of science and technology innovators. The Expo allows kids, their families and others to participate in over 2,500 exciting, interactive activities and see more than 150 live performances by science celebrities, best-selling authors, explorers, innovative entrepreneurs and world-renowned experts.

At the Expo's Book Fair, visitors will get the chance to meet and hear some of the country's most intriguing authors who are regaling readers worldwide through their work. In addition to Sheril Kirshenbaum, these include:

--Astrophysicist and former NASA scientist Jeffrey Bennett who has not only authored best-selling college textbooks in astronomy, astrobiology and mathematics, but is also the author of the award-winning children's books such as, Max Goes to the Moon, Max Goes to Mars and Max Goes to Jupiter.

--Alfredo Quiñones, esteemed neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, who in his autobiography Becoming Dr. Q, tells the amazing story of how he rose from an impoverished background as an migrant worker to become one of the most renowned physicians in his field.

>--Robin Cook, a physician and Naval officer, whose string of 30 best-selling books include such medically-based works as Coma and The Year of the Intern.

--Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, whose works such as Knocking on Heaven's Door has made her among the most cited and influential theoretical physicists today.

--Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam, whose autobiographical book, Rocket Boys formed the basis of the Hollywood movie October Sky.
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--Seymour Simon, whom the New York Times called "the dean of the [children's science] field," and is the author of more than 250 highly acclaimed science books, more than 75 of which have been named Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children by the National Science Teachers Association.

Experience these and other authors who never let us forget that, like the wonder of a kiss, science is indeed all around us. Join us in April at the Festival!


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Are kisses since it is also a feature of animals being considered as an atavism of us? Will we improve this phenomena in 200 years by manipulating the chemical reactions in us in order to feel as good as it will be demanded by growth in sexual stimulation or it will be decaying as counterpoise to machinery revolutions and involvements in all our secluded human basis?

By andre platun (not verified) on 12 Feb 2012 #permalink

Ok. This is really fascinating stuff. There's no doubt that kissing acts like a drug by stimulating the natural chemicals in our bodies, but I'm also interested in the psychology of what's related to the biology of kissing. As a counsellor who work with couples all the time, I'm interested in how the biology and psychology of kissing changes across the course of a relationship. What seems so potent in the early part of a relationship can then become less potent as the relationship develops and familiarity sets in. I'm curious about what Sheril might say about this phenomena.