The University of Texas at Austin
  • A kiss is not just a kiss

    By Sheril Kirshenbaum
    Sheril Kirshenbaum
    Published: Feb. 7, 2011

    Sheril Kirshenbaum

    Sheril Kirshenbaum, university researcher and author of “The Science of Kissing.”

    Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research associate 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. Her new book, “The Science of Kissing,” explores the real chemistry, history and biology behind one of humanity’s fondest pastimes.

    As Valentine’s Day approaches, kissing is a popular topic. And as the most intimate human experience, the right exchange has the power to start and maintain a special relationship when real chemistry is involved.

    Why is kissing so significant? When we are that close to another person, all of our senses are engaged, allowing our bodies to assess compatibility and the potential for a long-term relationship. According to the work of Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, this behavior evolved to facilitate three essential needs: sex drive, romantic love and attachment. In other words, kissing helps us find partners, commit to one person and keep couples together long enough to have a child.

    Book cover of The Science of Kissing

    A good romantic kiss quickens our pulse and dilates our pupils, which is probably part of the reason so many of us close our eyes. Our brains receive more oxygen than normal and breathing can become irregular and deepen. Our cheeks flush, too, but that’s only the beginning.

    There is an associated rise in the neurotransmitter dopamine, responsible for craving and desire. Meanwhile, serotonin spikes to stimulate obsessive thoughts about a partner. This is the same neurotransmitter involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Oxytocin, popularly called the “love hormone,” is involved in bonding, fostering a sense of attachment. This is the chemical likely responsible for maintaining a loving relationship over years and decades.

    Notice anything? The hormones and neurotransmitters coursing through our brains and bodies are responsible for many of the “symptoms” we associate with falling in love.

    Of course, sometimes a kiss does not go well and romantic feelings instantly change upon first contact. According to evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the University of Albany, 59 percent of men and 66 percent of women say they have ended a budding relationship because of a bad kiss. It turns out that our sense of smell may be partially responsible as we pick up subconscious clues about the other person’s DNA or reproductive status. Biologist Claus Wedekind found that women are most attracted to the scent of men who have a very different genetic code immune system than their own in a region known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This may be because potential children would have a higher level of genetic diversity, making them healthier and more likely to survive. In this manner, kissing serves as nature’s ultimate litmus test to help us determine when to pursue a relationship.

    No matter what the outcome, a first kiss is very likely to be unforgettable. Psychologist John Bohannon of Butler University and his research team surveyed 500 people to compare their recollections of a various important life experiences to determine what made the most lasting impression. A first kiss was found to create the most vivid memory  and when asked about specifics, most people could recall up to 90 percent of the details of the moment regardless of how long ago it occurred.

    Join me on Feb. 9 for Science Study Break where I’ll be talking about my new book “The Science of Kissing” by using some of film and television’s best kisses along the way. On Feb. 11, I’ll also be speaking at Science in the Pub at the Cactus Cafe.

    Watch a video of a previous Science Study Break on movie monsters.

    • Quote 2
      Rachel - The Online Posters Enthusiast said on Feb. 21, 2011 at 11:20 p.m.
      Just to quote "kissing helps us find partners, commit to one person and keep couples together long enough to have a child." I believe that this is true. Kissing helps us determine the right person for us. If the kiss with someone is boring, then probably we won't enjoy being with them in the future. But in case, we enjoy that kiss to whom we are in relationship with, then we could take a shot to know if he/she can work out a relationship with us.
    • Quote 2
      bella said on Feb. 18, 2011 at 10:12 p.m.
      Unbelieveable,there is so much knowledge in a "kiss"
    • Quote 2
      The Science of Smooching: Why Men and Women Kiss Differently : Beezodog's Place said on Feb. 17, 2011 at 11:16 p.m.
      [...] to research by evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the University of Albany, Kirshenbaum writes on the University of Texas website: Fifty-nine percent of men and 66 percent of women say they have [...]
    • Quote 2
      Nathan said on Feb. 16, 2011 at 11:44 p.m.
      I would say that a kiss isn't all that important in my experience. There a lot of other things that hold more weight like perceived obstacles and creating them to increase attraction. Research shows that most people want the unattainable so creating an obstacle increases someones attractiveness exponentially.
    • Quote 2
      Bob Gill said on Feb. 13, 2011 at 6:40 a.m.
      It's not so much the first kiss that I remember, but the kiss that really got my attention. I'd known this girl for quite some time - as a friend only. On taking her out on a date and giving her a kiss as she was leaving, I wondered what had hit me. It was the most wonderful experience and one that I can clearly remember some 20 years later. By the way, I ended up marrying her - so I get those kisses every day!
    • Quote 2
      Rob Rox said on Feb. 13, 2011 at 3:53 a.m.
      A kiss can be an amazing thing. Great article. Very passionate indeed!
    • Quote 2
      stock assault said on Feb. 13, 2011 at 3:35 a.m.
      I agree that the first kiss is make or break. If sparks don't fly, you're pretty much toast lol. Not that it's a matter of rejection, rather it's a matter of compatibility. If the person you're with as a great match, a great kiss is practically inevitable. But if the chemistry isn't there, the kiss will be awkward or just plain non-existant!
    • Quote 2
      AC said on Feb. 12, 2011 at 11:36 a.m.
      sorry I don't get what "men who have a very different genetic code immune system" means? Do you mean very different genes, especially those coding for the immune system?
    • Quote 2
      simplifier said on Feb. 11, 2011 at 10:00 p.m.
      to RF and PLA: I agree with PLA. Imagine if she was Temperance off of Bones.
    • Quote 2
      The Science of Kissing: Why Men and Women Kiss Differently - TIME Healthland said on Feb. 11, 2011 at 12:37 p.m.
      [...] to research by evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the University of Albany, Kirshenbaum writes on the University of Texas website: Fifty-nine percent of men and 66 percent of women say they have [...]
    • Quote 2
      carla said on Feb. 11, 2011 at 10:43 a.m.
      hahaha thats sooo kool how kissing works:)that says alot when i kiss my booboo i love him soo much!!!!
    • Quote 2
      PLA said on Feb. 10, 2011 at 7:22 p.m.
      For RF: I think because she's addressing the prominent role kissing plays in mate selection, an activity essential to the propagation of species. I don't think her framing is intended to exclude, just to explain what goes on with the majority of humans.
    • Quote 2
      RF said on Feb. 10, 2011 at 12:03 p.m.
      Why is this framed in a heterosexual way. Instead of naming it the "science of kissing" it should be the science of heterosexual kissing.
    • Quote 2
      Bob said on Feb. 10, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.
      I wonder how universal a kiss is. I seem to remember that the Eskimos at one time rubbed their noses together. Was this an alternative to kissing or was it simply an additional form of endearment? And, with the encroachment of western influence, has nose rubbing declined or been eliminated?
    • Quote 2
      Carmen Perera said on Feb. 10, 2011 at 9:00 a.m.
      I found this article to be true! it refreshed my memory.
    • Quote 2
      J said on Feb. 9, 2011 at 10:46 a.m.
      My first kiss was disgusting, but I knew no better at the time. At the time it was just disappointing. I didn't stay with that guy for more than a week of dating. It was slobbery and way too much tongue, but it was still romantic for being my first. Good thing I moved on :)
    • Quote 2
      Jake Godejohn said on Feb. 9, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.
      Wowww!Thats Sooooo Cool Hahahah! (:
    • Quote 2
      darlene said on Feb. 9, 2011 at 8:50 a.m.
      wow
    • Quote 2
      Tweets that mention A kiss is not just a kiss « Know -- Topsy.com said on Feb. 8, 2011 at 6:29 p.m.
      [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Kav, Sheril Kirshenbaum. Sheril Kirshenbaum said: A kiss is not just a kiss - http://www.utexas.edu/know/2011/02/07/science_kissing/ My latest piece for @utaustin's Know [...]
    • Quote 2
      Can’t wait until Friday for your kissing science? « Science In The Pub said on Feb. 7, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.
      [...] also penned a piece for UT’s Know news series that you can find here. Unfortunately, Wednesday won’t have beer, but it’s a great series that everyone should [...]
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