The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, by Sheril Kirshenbaum, is as entertaining to read as it is informative. Kirshenbaum explores the origins of one of our most pleasurable activities and then explains what makes it so from a scientific standpoint. To me, this represents one of the best kinds of science writing, and Kirshenbaum does it well.
Kissing has been around a long time in one form or another, and has triumphed over repeated attempts by those in power to suppress it. Kirshenbaum points out the possible evolutionary significance of kissing as a way to evaluate a potential mate, so perhaps it's little wonder our species can't seem to refrain from indulging whenever possible.
Even with all the explanations of how kissing releases "feel-good" chemicals throughout our bodies, Kirshenbaum and the scientists she consulted couldn't completely demystify kissing. "Scientists are not exactly sure why we kiss," she says in her introduction. "This may be in part because they have not even definitely decided what a kiss is."
Kirshenbaum begins with "The Hunt for Kissing's Origins" in Part One, where she describes possible evolutionary origins of the practice. She goes on to discuss other behaviors that may serve purposes similar to kissing by bringing two people into close enough proximity to pick up on scents and other cues that may indicate suitability of a potential mate.
For the sake of her own argument, Kirshenbaum limits the definition of a kiss to mouth-to-mouth contact between two people, although she devotes a chapter to describing other "kissing-like" behaviors. My favorite line in the book comes from her description of how dogs may or may not be engaging in "kissing-like" behavior when they lick. "If it's a noun, dogs will probably lick it," she says. Having owned dogs all my life, I had to concur on that point, and laughed out loud when I read it.
In Part Two, "Kissing in the Body," Kirshenbaum describes the biochemical effects of kissing, first in a general human context. Although most of us can probably list things like increases in rates of of respiration and pulse, Kirshenbaum goes beyond those. She describes which brain chemicals and hormones are released in larger quantities. Higer levels of adrenaline increase feelings of excitement, while serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine all provide pleasurable feelings. Dopamine especially is involved with the feeling of "elation and craving, and can also result in the obsessive thoughts many of us experience in association with a new romance [...] stimulating the same part of our brain as a line of cocaine."
In Chapter Six, "Women are from Venus, Men are Easy," she breaks down the difference in response between the sexes. Skeptical of a study showing that women place much higher significance on the role of kissing in deciding whether to go farther with a relationship, Kirshenbaum conducted her own, non-random, informal survey. While the original study had included only heterosexual college students, and Kirshenbaum's survey contained a highly diverse sample set, in age as well as sexual orientation, her results were essentially the same. She asked one of the authors of the original study, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. of State University NY at Albany, why. He explained that kissing is important to men, but in different ways.
According to Kirshenbaum, "women have a vested interest in choosing a [good] father [...] To that end, we need ways—like kissing—to assess if someone has 'good genes,' and whether he's healthy, to ensure that our offspring will have the best possible start in life." On the other hand, men will "swap spit in the hopes of swapping other bodily fluids later." The evolutionary drive for men is to inseminate as many females as possible using an almost inexhaustible supply of sperm. Women, with a limited number of viable eggs, tend to be more selective. In fact, in a recent study, 50% of men and 66% of women reported breaking things off with a prospective partner because a first kiss felt wrong.
In the final chapter, Kirshenbaum lists ten kissing "tips" to keep in mind for maximum results. It would be hard to read this book and not become more aware of what is going on in our bodies and brains whenever we kiss, and that could be a very good thing.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. In addition to her conservation and outreach work, she is an accomplished science columnist and blogger. At Wired.com, she hosts the Convergence blog, focusing on the interdisciplinary nature of understanding our world with great emphasis on the conservation of biodiversity. She co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Visit her website.
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