Book Review: The Science of Kissing

Feb 07 2011 Published by under Book Reviews

Pucker up!


Sci was very excited to get a copy of Sheril's first solo book effort, "The Science of Kissing: What our lips are telling us". I've always enjoyed Sheril's writing and her fun take on life in general, and so I was excited to get the book. But I admit I was also a little worried. After all, it's the science of KISSING. What if it was...well, like a Cosmo article or something? Of course I know Sheril better than that, but there was a deep dark worry in the back of my mind.

(Is this a kissing book?)

"The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips are Telling Us" by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

(Disclaimer: I did give some advice and information for the book, and got the book for free. Sadly, I didn't get to participate in any of the surveys contained therein. Rats.)

The Science of Kissing is divided into three main sections, covering the origins of kissing as we know them, the biology of kissing, and where the kissing field is going scientifically. So while the book begins with a more historical and sociological perspective, it goes into biology and all the way into an experiment itself before coming out again.

The origins of kissing begins the book, and talks about forms of "kissing" in other species, forms of what may be considered "kissing" around the world that differ from the traditional liplock, and how kissing spread from what may have primarily been a show of master-servant relationship to the romantic thing we know and love today. Everything from the Eskimo nose rub (which is apparently more than just a nose nuzzle, apparently you're supposed to kind of suck up the person's skin in your nostrils, which I can only imagine to be EXTREMELY gross if you're that far north and your nose is running from the cold all the time, but then I'm not an Eskimo) to cats licking each other, to the kinds of kisses used for kinship, affection, and to show social ties in Bonobos. Sheril also talks about how the kiss may have evolved, going through ideas of mimicking a nipple shape and sharing pre-chewed food with one's offspring (doesn't make you feel much like kissing, that one).

This was the section I actually had the most problems with (not because of anything that Sheril wrote, mind, but because of the idea of kissing evolution itself), because although the evolutionary mechanisms that Sheril discusses, like food sharing and dominant/submissive gestures in other species, are enough to explain kissing for familial or social bonding reasons,...what about romantic kissing? None of these really seem to lead there, though there are many biological reasons why we might kiss. Not only that, as Sheril points out, it appears that kissing as we know it today was a Western phenomenon, and that many societies that Westerners contacted did not in fact kiss, though they all had some sort of intimate facial caress. So I wonder, is traditional kissing in a romantic sense REALLY something that evolved? Or is it a byproduct of a close facial caress or sniffing? Both of these are options, but doesn't it really weird your mind out to think that maybe romantic kissing isn't destiny?

In the second section, Sheril goes in to the biology of kissing, from the various hormones and neurotransmitters involved to the differences between male and female preferences. This is where I think Sheril's writing really stands out as making the science extremely accessible. The whole book was an easy and breezy guide to the kiss, but making the tough science here NOT sound like a literature review couldn't have been easy. This section remains light and fun, keeping interest without sliding in to some of the assumptions that many people begin to draw when discussing neuroscience and psychology. Basically, it was like reading a really long, interesting article in a women's magazine. Only, you know, GOOD. And RESEARCHED. Sheril's writing is maximally accessible and consistently interesting and fun, particularly good for a broad audience that would be turned off by heavy scientific prose.

The final section, though, was my favorite, because in this section Sheril describes designing and performing a experiment herself on reactions to kissing (though the results didn't come out as planned). I think it's so fabulous that people can not only read the interesting history of kissing and the biology of kissing, but that they also get exposed to science as it happens! It's a wonderful way to do outreach and get people interested in the process of scientific questioning, and may inspire people to read more about other types of neuroscience research, now that they have a basic idea of what might be going on.

The book ends with a discussion of where the science of kissing is going. And it's got a very long distance to go. There's really very little out there on why we kiss and what kind of benefits or drawbacks it may incur. We know that some kisses and kissing techniques may turn us off, but is that REALLY because we might be genetically incompatible? I require further proof of that, myself.

The only thing that struck me as being a bit gimmicky was the kissing tips at the end. Even with all the power of science, there's not much that can be added to basic kissing tips like making sure the person is comfortable and really WANTS to be kissing you, and perhaps laying off the Axe body spray. But I imagine that many audiences wouldn't get as much fun out of a book if they didn't get some tips at the end.

So if you've ever wanted to know why we might kiss, and what happens when we do, check the book out! It's a fun and easy read, and you'll learn something on the way. I know whenever there's another kissing study, I'm totally signing up. I want to help advance the science of kissing!

9 responses so far

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  • sarcozona says:

    I think I need to read this book, if only to find out what the current science of kissing says about me - I don't like to kiss my romantic partners!

  • KBHC says:

    There is absolutely no need for me to write a review of the book now, because you have exactly nailed it here, Sci -- both where you were a little uncomfortable, and what you appreciated.

    I truly recommend the book and think it's great! I just think the hypotheses that she was drawing from at the start of the book are weak and too much storytelling. But that's not her fault, that's the fault of the folks who do the research. If anything, Sheril describing these hypotheses should only serve to inspire more researchers to do a better job -- so kudos to her!

  • I was gonna be all up in arms about use of the word Eskimo as opposed to Inuit, but apparently in Alaska, unlike in Canada and Greenland, "Eskimo" is not considered to be a pejorative. So I guess it makes sense for a US author (and blogger!) to use it. You learn something new every day, eh?!

  • I don't know - it's tricky because the term we would use in Canada (Inuit) is apparently, when used in Alaska, a generalisation that offends some people (because all people previously called "Eskimos" in Canada are Inuit, whereas Alaska is home to Inuit plus the Yupik people, both historically called "Eskimos"). (This thread has been instructive today!). I do know that when one of our collaborators, herself First Nations, gave a talk once about working with Aboriginal communities in northern Canada, she said (in response to a question about "Eskimos") that "Eskimo" is considered as offensive as "Indian". But, like I say, apparently what's true in Canada is not universal.

    Maybe "Inuit/Eskimo"? "Inuit/Alaska Native"? I dunno. Sorry to throw a spanner in the works of your very well-done book review post!

    • Scicurious says:

      Hmmm, ok I might stick with Eskimo for now, both because I don't know, and because that's what Sheril used in the book itself (and I'm sure she looked it up). But if people do find it offensive I can change it!

  • KBHC says:

    I had friends who were union organizers for Indian casinos, and they told me that most of the folks they worked with there preferred Indian to Native American. I tend to use "native" or "indigenous" terms, but wonder if they might be too academic, and therefore not be useful either. So... yes, mileage may vary, asking always helps, and it's always totally ok to make mistakes!

  • mokawi says:

    Eskimo is a Montagnais word, which people usually assume to mean "raw meat eater" and have a connotation like "barbarian". Turns out it might be false (the real etymology would be something like "snow-shoe lacer" or "foreign language speaker").
    However, I live in a place where Inuit are not a rare sight (they come here to study), and I've never met a single Inuk who rejected the word, even if they all thought the "raw meat" etymology was true. As a matter of fact, they do eat raw meat, it's their culture, and they're proud of it.
    So, Inuit won't be using Eskimo, as it's a foreign word, but they usually don't really mind.

    In any case... I really hate it when authors go all J-J Rousseau with origins. It really kills it for me. It's 21st century, wise up folks.

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