The Science of Kissing, Sheril Kirshenbaum

‘The Science of Kissing’ Does Not Diminish the Magic of Kissing

Romantic films, robots, and cooties – The Science of Kissing takes readers through pop culture, technology, and biology to explore the magic of kissing.

The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us
Sheril Kirshenbaum
Grand Central
January 2011

Two words most might not put in the same sentence: science and kissing.

Scientist and author Sheril Kirshenbaum combines both concepts to create the fun and fresh book The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us. In the introduction, she promises, “By the end of this journey, you’ll know vastly more about what’s behind a kiss—but I promise, this knowledge won’t take any of the magic away.” And for the most part, Kirshenbaum keeps her word.

While a few scarily-scientific terms and phrases (neurotransmitters, vancomycin-resistant enterococcus, magnetoencephalography, Lactobacillus acidophilus) pepper the text, primarily, the tone is friendly and not what I remember from Chemistry 101. Chapter titles such as “Women are from Venus, Men Are Easy”, phrasing like “The average bacteria’s life is pretty dull”, and the rather sweet story of two bonobos’ first kiss make The Science of Kissing seem less like science writing and more like witty cultural studies fun.

However, The Science of Kissing does have decidedly scientific beginnings. In 2008, Kirshenbaum penned an article, also called “The Science of Kissing”, and posted it on The Intersection, the Discover magazine blog. “Readership spiked as the page was linked widely around the Internet”, so Kirshenbaum ”co-organized a panel discussion on ‘The Science of Kissing’ for the normally staid annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.” Kirshenbaum continued her research, discovering that very little had been written about kissing and its cultural significance. Kirshenbaum notes, “As the kissing queries continued, I dug into some books to see what was out there. The answer was, not much. The standard how-to manuals contained few answers to my growing list of questions.”

Containing 13 chapters, The Science of Kissing covers the history of kissing, theories about why humans (and other animals) kiss, and what happens (neurologically) when people kiss. The examples and little details, even the research, are remarkable. Kirshenbaum describes a research project that involved exotic dancers, includes quotes from Dickens and Einstein, and details the first big screen kiss: “The first onscreen lip-lock was captured in 1896 by the Edison Company, entitled ‘The May Irwin-John C. Rice Kiss’. The entire film lasted less than 30-seconds, and simply consisted of a man and a woman half-kissing, half-talking, followed by a full kiss.”

She uses a scene from Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 sci-fi comedy Back to the Future to illustrate why “it’s not at all uncommon to kiss someone seemingly perfect, only to discover you’re no longer interested in romance once your lips meet.” Kirshenbaum explains that “prostitutes often won’t kiss because it requires a ‘genuine desire and love for the other person’” and asks if we “Remember that scene in Pretty Woman when prostitute Vivian Ward (played by Julia Roberts) explains she’ll have sex with—but not kiss—her clients?”

Hollywood kissing aside, real-life kissing, as Kirshenbaum explains, isn’t always happily ever; think about the chapter titled “There Are Such Things as Cooties”. While this chapter may not “take any of the magic away”, suggestions like “The human mouth is a filthy place and serves as the breeding ground for legions of bacteria” may not necessarily make anyone want to pucker up, either.

The chapter titled “The Future of Kissing” provides another unique perspective. This chapter discusses Roxxxy, “the world’s first robotic girlfriend”; she “knows your name, your likes and dislikes, can carry on a discussion and expresses her love to you and be your loving friend. She can talk to you, listen to you and feel your touch. She can even have an orgasm!”

But can she kiss? No.

Some of this information, along with the notion that “instead, her mouth was designed to be pleasurable for other oral purposes”, might seem to rate quite high on the “ick” factor; however, the overall point of the chapter is thought-provoking: has technology or will technology change kissing? Kirshenbaum’s answer—most likely:

Perhaps it will be possible to ‘kiss’ a loved one through the computer, or maybe virtual technology will allow us to experience the kiss of a celebrity or idealized partner. Just as with inventions like space shuttles and smart phones, the coming decades will reveal new kissing technologies that we can’t begin to imagine in the present day.

To return to the promise Kirshenbaum makes in the introduction, The Science of Kissing is educational. Although the magic doesn’t vanish, this might not be the book to read in its entirety before your next amorous evening. Perhaps peruse the kissing tips “that emerge directly from the science discussed in the preceding pages” and leave the section on kissing and its connections to tooth decay for another time.

More importantly, though, consider one of Kirshenbaum’s comments from the Preface: “If a book on kissing raises some eyebrows, I can live with that. So with an open mind, several scientists in tow as allies, and a few inspired ideas, I embarked on the journey to understand the kiss—and I learned more than I could have possibly imagined.”

While The Science of Kissing may not be all candlelight and walks on the moonstruck beach, Kirshenbaum’s honesty, wit, and creativity make reading it a journey to take some pleasure from.

RATING 8 / 10