BA Book review: The Science Of Kissing

By Phil Plait | February 8, 2011 12:00 pm

I have philematophilia. I practice on my wife every day, and I’m not ashamed to say I spent a good part of my youth working on it as well.

So what’s philematophilia? Actually, I made up that word — though a web search will turn it up, it’s not officially a real word. But it should be: it means a lover of kissing. I based it on philematophobia, a proper word, and I learned that one in a very cool book called The Science of Kissing, penned by my Discover Magazine co-blogger Sheril Kirsehnbaum, who writes at The Intersection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book — literally, I had no idea about the history of kissing, the science of it, or even if you could study it scientifically — but it turns out to be a very fun read, with a lot of really interesting information about locking lips.

The first part of the book is devoted to the history of kissing as a greeting, which I found interesting (I always assumed shaking hands was an ancient custom, but she implies it’s actually rather modern, for example). But of course it was the hardcore science that got me hooked. The flush of cortisol and oxytocin, the change in the way the brain fires, the heart pounding… but I have to admit, it was the chapter on cooties that had me engaged the most. As you might expect, a lot of little beasties ride the wave when oral fluids are exchanged, and it was fun reading about them. That might give some people pause, but I assure you it won’t deter me in the least in engaging with my wife.

For those of you still out there looking for mates (even temporary ones), this book may help. Sheril outlines how kissing is actually an excellent practice in mate-seeking. You literally get a taste of the potential partner, exchanging scents, fluids, getting a rush of hormones, and possibly even assessing their health status. She goes into detail about the physiological changes we undergo while kissing, examining differences between sexes, including how each gender interprets a kiss.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is where Sheril herself came up with a scientific experiment about kissing. She asked for volunteers — lots of BABlogees jumped in — to look at pictures of people kissing and to categorize them. From there she went to New York and met up with cognitive neuroscientist David Poeppel, who used a magnetoencephalograph to measure how our brain reacts to seeing pictures of kissing couples. I won’t give it away, but it was a pretty cool little experiment, and I hope it leads to more research into kissing.

The book is a pleasure to read, and I recommend it. If there’s a science geek in your life — and c’mon, if you’re reading my blog at the very least you yourself count as one — this would make an excellent Valentine’s Day gift. Why go with the standards of chocolate and flowers when you can actually stimulate the brain? And as a lot of geeks of both sexes have told me over the years, the brain is the real organ we’re interested in.

If you want to know more, Sheril has a blog set up for the book. It’s available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, and she also has an interview she did on MSNBC about the book. Finally, you can also read an excerpt from the book to give you the flavor of it.

And one last thought: if there’s a word for the fear of kissing — philematophobia — there really should be one for those of us who like it. After reading Sheril’s book, I have to admit kissing is even more intriguing than ever. Science and learning tend to do that for a topic… and this is one I think I need to do more research on.

Drawing credit: Alex Fine, Baltimore City Paper

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Science

Comments (35)

  1. Steve

    Meh.

    Still ticked at the duo’s performances at The Intersection, so I think I will skip it.

  2. Quiet Desperation

    a lot of little beasties

    This is why I command my vast evil organization from within a hermetically sealed bubble.

  3. Chris

    I find it a little depressing that I may never experience a kiss. I guess I’ll just have to read about it and try to imagine what it’d be like.

  4. Gary Ansorge

    “And as a lot of geeks of both sexes have told me over the years, the brain is the real organ we’re interested in.”

    Ah yes, the old Tim Leary statement that the sexiest organ in the human body is the brain(Well duh. It’s also the only one with a pleasure center).

    I was afraid of girl cooties when I was ten. By the time I was eleven, I wouldn’t have cared if I caught Aliens. Ah, the magic of hormones,,,

    Gary 7

  5. Myself

    “Meh. / Still ticked at the duo’s performances at The Intersection, so I think I will skip it.”

    Everything that happened with M&K @ Intersection is still a bit of a bitter point for many of us. The whole fiasco over the “You’re Not Helping” Blog (aka the “Tom Johnson affair”) pissed off almost everybody, and highlighted the real problem over accomodationism, which is that its proponents had to flat-out lie to come up with all the scary atheist stories that supposedly justify their soft and cuddly approach to religion.

    This all came to a head around the time Phil gave his now infamous “don’t be a dick” speech, which was very true in a lot of ways but failed fundamentally in finding its appropriate target. Ideologically consistent atheists were getting the rap and “doing the time” while the accomodationists were (and still are — think “Josh Rosenau”) the ones most often “committing the crime,” so to speak. The accommodationist framing succeeded in getting themselves viewed as the friendly scientists, and many of them don’t seem bothered that they had to lie (or at least allow themselves to be willfully misled) and undermine the real cause in order to do it. Way to inadvertently help the anti-science folks, isn’t it?

    I know the context quite well for everything that happened, so please trust me when I say that when M&K stop talking about the subjects of religion and communication they can actually be quite good at doing science and (ironically) communicating it well! It’s only when they feel they have to justify the science to the childishly sensitive or when they try to introspect on how they successfully communicated science that they suddenly fall flat on their faces. This is crucial to realize, as K’s book is a well-written, well-researched piece worthy of consideration independently of her actions in the great accomodationist wars. Please consider reading it, and don’t be too hurt by the past to prevent you from enjoying it.

    In the end, this book is further proof that whatever missteps she has made, Sheril Kirsehnbaum is still an overall friend to science and a good writer. As the former Israeli PM (now President) Shimon Peres once said, “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend is still a friend, and the mistake is still a mistake.” Hold M&K accountable for their mistakes, but don’t let that stop you from recognizing their meritable contributions.

  6. Robin Byron

    Alas, I have only sweet memories of kissing my late, beautiful wife of thirty-nine years.

  7. ScottF

    So you have “phil”emato”phil”ia? Hardly a coincidence I think.

  8. @6 Scott F,
    I hadn’t thought of that! I like the word even more now.

    Phil,
    Thanks taking the time to read and review my book! I’m so glad you enjoyed it – “cooties” and all.

  9. grung0r

    Phil:

    Seeing as how you supported Dr. “never met cranrkery I didn’t endorse” Oz as a ‘Rock Star of science’ for the Intersection(To name but one incident), I found your sycophantic and water carrying review of this book to be less then credible.

  10. RwFlynn

    Hmm. “Philematophilia.” Sounds perfectly cromulent to me.

  11. Just ordered it for my girlfriend as a valentines gift. I will more likely read it before her though.

    Thanks for the tip, anyhow!

  12. grung0r

    Myself:

    It’s only when they feel they have to justify the science to the childishly sensitive or when they try to introspect on how they successfully communicated science that they suddenly fall flat on their faces. This is crucial to realize, as K’s book is a well-written, well-researched piece worthy of consideration independently of her actions in the great accomodationist wars

    What is this book supposed to do if not communicate science? M & K’s postion on the communication of science, as far as I can tell, is to communicate it through spin, lies and deceit, and to stimey or shut up anyone or anything that could make the masses have to think about how new research or ideas might conflict with their ancient and silly superstitions, all so the most people will raise their hands in a poll that asks “do you believe in evolution?”.

    I fail to see how her book being well written or well researched matters if she ignores the research that actually means something, for fear of upsetting the religious. Has she ever done or said anything to your knowledge that would make you think she did otherwise in this book?

  13. MK

    Not the chick from The Intersection, please.

    Those guys have been “pwned” so much during “Tom Johnson” affair that it is not even funny and we should not even mention them in polite conversation.

    Among the most deceitful people you could know.

  14. grungor (#9): Since I specifically noted that I wasn’t happy with Oz being included in the list in that post, I find your comment less than credible.

    Also, your comment in #12 is quite telling: “I fail to see how her book being well written or well researched matters if she ignores the research that actually means something, for fear of upsetting the religious.”

    You haven’t read the book, and have no idea what it has to do with religion (nothing, oops) but still feel that even if it’s well-written and well-researched it doesn’t matter. Nice.

  15. Matt B.

    I think “philemato-” might more literally mean “love-making” (since “philo-” = “love”).

  16. NAW

    @ Chris
    Don’t worry, it will happen one day. And if you are not like me. You won’t make a fool of yourself.

    Sad thing is I have not kissed in about 10 years. Almost long enough to make a fool of myself again when I do so again.

  17. Snowshoe the Canuck

    Why do some people make fun of scientists and nerds when we get to study all sorts of things? Where do I sign up to be a “lab rat”?

  18. MK

    @ #14 Phil Plait “You haven’t read the book, and have no idea what it has to do with religion (nothing, oops) but still feel that even if it’s well-written and well-researched it doesn’t matter. Nice.”

    It doesn’t have to be about religion.

    All of research made by “Intersection” folks is being put into question by their “Tom Johnson” fiasco when they used made up “evidence” (and their behavior after the whole thing exploded in their faces).

    It is about the question if you trust scientist (or anyone really) who used lies tp prove his/her point?

  19. grung0r

    Phil:
    : Since I specifically noted that I wasn’t happy with Oz being included in the list in that post, I find your comment less than credible.

    You also specifically noted that you supported it anyway:Given my druthers, he’d have been left out of this. But the other scientists are top-notch researchers and Nobel laureates, so I’m willing to overlook this one oversight.

    You supported the campaign. Your feckless disclaimer(in 2 point type) is irrelevant. You explicitly decided that the “rock stars of science” campaign was better existing then not, Dr. Oz Included. You made your bed, and now you have to sleep in it.

    You haven’t read the book, and have no idea what it has to do with religion (nothing, oops) but still feel that even if it’s well-written and well-researched it doesn’t matter. Nice.

    I didn’t say it had anything to do with religion(Oops). I said: if she ignores the research that actually means something, for fear of upsetting the religious.” The religious do not need a direct mention of their beliefs to get up in arms about a scientific idea. They only need to feel that the idea threatens their theology. The intersection crew pushes the idea that we should lie, spin, or just shut up when we(we meaning Mooney and Kirsehnbaum) perceive that new research could possibly be connected to religion. That’s why it doesn’t matter how well researched or well written it is. Good writing and good research doesn’t mean anything if it’s too afraid to tell the truth. And fear of telling the truth(and stopping others from doing so) is Mooney and Kirsehnbaum’s calling card.

  20. Myself

    Grungor, perhaps I was a bit unclear. M&K are not shoddy at conducting or researching science. Furthermore, they are skilled communicators. The problem comes in that they are horrible at telling *others* how to communicate science because it is shaped by their idea that everything is about “framing.” This view seems to have come from a deep-seated fear that we were losing the science communication battle at large because scientists were being viewed as hostile to religion. Their theory is that if you turn the religious off about their religious beliefs, you’ll turn them off about anything else you have to say in the process. There is some merit to this fear, as anti-science groups have been actively trying to get the public to make that same connection.

    Once everything was viewed through the lens of “framing,” they became vulnerable to confirmation bias, and fell into a self-affirming trap of believing the BS notion that atheist==nasty while accomodationist==nice despite lots of evidence that either side can “be a dick” and that accomodationists were having a field day being dicks without being called on it. It’s not so much that M&K were engaged in active deception and deliberate lies with the whole Tom Johnson affair (among others) as it is that the cognitive dissonance of their preferred belief’s edifice crumbling around them led to a defense mechanism of “doubling down” on their beliefs rather than abandoning them.

    That’s where your unilateral rejection of them breaks down. It makes sense if you could be highly certain that they knowingly lied, but the evidence doesn’t support anything more than that they fell prey to cognitive traps that even the best of us are capable of suffering. As far as I can tell, M&K haven’t really come to terms with what happened and its implications for their beliefs about science and religion, but there is nothing in their track record which should cause you to doubt their commitment to science outside of 1) topics with obvious religious impacts and 2) the topic of “framing” itself. This book is about neither, and its quality is not in question by those who have read it.

    Put another way, do you doubt Mooney when he calls out climate denialists on their BS just because of Tom Johnson? I sure don’t, because there is no need to feel he has been compromised by comforting the religious on that issue. That is why I quotes Shimon Peres; the friend *is* still a friend, and the mistake *is* still a mistake.

  21. MichaelL

    I need a kiss… :(

  22. Keith Bowden

    Group hug, everybody! ;)

    Seriously, I’ve no idea what the whole Tom Johnson thing is about, so I’m reading about it now. (BA is the only Discover blog that I read regularly, i.e., daily, so I missed that whole thing. And it seems it was a while ago…)

  23. Gonçalo Aguiar

    This is why I love this blog. Astronomy news then something really casual.

    Thanks Dr. Phil.

  24. grung0r

    Myself:

    M&K are not shoddy at conducting or researching science.

    Mooney is not a scientist, and does not conduct research, at least not in the scientific sense. He is a (supposed)Journalist who writes about science. He has in fact said as much. This makes your completely unsupported statement of their science bonafides, when applied to Kirshunbaum dubious at best.

    Furthermore, they are skilled communicators.
    You keep making these pronouncements, without even a hint of why you think it. Why do you think they are good communicators? Why do you think they are good a conducting scientific research?

    but there is nothing in their track record which should cause you to doubt their commitment to science outside of 1) topics with obvious religious impacts

    So, you don’t think the science of a sexual behavior has any obvious impact on religion? Hey Gay folk, the war is over! We won!

    the topic of “framing” itself

    But you agree that she is an advocate of framing science? and she wrote a book about a scientific subject? Do you think that maybe she thinks that framing science should be, oh I don’t know…used perhaps?

    Put another way, do you doubt Mooney when he calls out climate denialists on their BS just because of Tom Johnson?

    First of all, I never brought up Tom Johnson and I don’t think it has much to do with this discussion. But no, I wouldn’t doubt on Mooney on Climate science, unless he was presenting new research on it to me. Then, yes I would doubt it. How did He spin it? What did he leave out? What is lying to me about? The fact is, lying for accomadationism is what Mooney does. I’m always going to be skeptical of that.

  25. Kimpatsu

    Phil, handshaking as we know it dates from the Middle Ages. It was to show you carry no weapon. The Romans clasped each others’ forearms in greeting for the same reason. So I wouldn’t say it was particularly young.

  26. Keith Bowden

    And there’re statuary dating back to the 5th century BCE demonstrating handshakes.

  27. Here’s a nice interview with the author, by Desiree Schell…
    http://skepticallyspeaking.ca/episodes/97-the-science-of-kissing

  28. Chris

    @16 NAW
    It’s not that I fear making a fool of myself, it’s the fear of being sued. I don’t like the idea of having to deal with a sexual harassment lawsuit.

  29. Randy A.

    Bah humbug to you all with your arguments. I’m going to go do some research on the subject with my wife…

  30. Brian

    Myself@#5:

    In the end, this book is further proof that whatever missteps she has made, Sheril Kirsehnbaum is still an overall friend to science and a good writer.

    Hear hear. It’s easy to let all the misguided “framing” talk push one into a black-and-white attitude toward M&K, but ultimately it has little to do with something like this book.

  31. Jay

    Phil, I took the Jeopardy! online test tonight and I feel ashamed because, despite being a loyal reader of your blog and both your books, I failed to answer what should’ve been an easy question:

    “THE FINAL FRONTIER
    This 12-ton object rode inside the space shuttle Discovery until released April 24, 1990″

    Ugh, my mind just blanked. Still, got a 30/50 overall. Don’t know if that’s good enough but I thought it was harder than the show usually seems.

  32. Utakata

    If it was written by Chris Mooney, I suspect it would titled “The Science of Kissing Up”. Just saying.

  33. I’ll listen as soon as it’s available in audio. Hope that happens soon.

  34. bystander

    The Intersection has devoted way to much time to this book. It has been overexposed to the point of being spam. It may be a good book, but due to the incessant overexposure, I’m not inclined to find out. Enough is enough, there are other events in this world. What about the Jerusalem UFO? Even that seems more important to me.

  35. réalta fuar

    @ Utakata #32 You win my non-existent prize for producing the most hilarous comment on this thread! Thanks.
    @ grungor The B.A. being “sycophantic and water carrying”? Say it ain’t so (you left out name dropping :) ).
    My personal take: I don’t read books by people who have proved themselves to be jerks on important topics (if the jerkiness is self-serving, that’s even worse), regardless of whether they’re good scientists or even scientists at all.

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