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16 November, 2009

Kiss Me Like A Scientist

Today, I'm going to play the role of godless social liberal and talk about why it would make sense for people to mess around a little before they so much as agree to a dinner date.

Relationships, as almost all human behavior is at root, are about feeling good.1 Personally, I wouldn't want to commit to a relationship unless I had reason to think that the new lover and I might get along smashingly. I do see dating (or "repeatedly hooking up", or whatever one does these days) as a way to get to know someone, but it seems imprudent to get that process rolling if there's not yet a reason to think that she has the sort of personality I enjoy. Committing to a steady relationship is a big investment, and I want to be sure the odds of enjoyment are high.

The same principle applies to sexual interactions. I wouldn't want to start dating someone I hadn't kissed yet. For one thing, that's because I love the attitude of people who think it's fun to start with kissing and go from there! Aside from the personality considerations, though, there are some concrete reasons to kiss first and ask questions later.

Sometimes, a kiss is a moment of bliss that can't be described through language. The first time I ever kissed someone, I instantly understood why people would do such a bizarre thing. Every sensation other than that one point of contact seemed to vanish, and those lips against mine defined the scope of my reality. That went on to be an amazing, life changing relationship. I don't mean to imply cause & effect, but I do think that those two facts may have had a common cause. On the other hand, I once kissed a lesbian friend of mine on whom I had a bit of a crush at the time, and we both decided that there was just nothing happening there. I was definitely interested, but ... nope. Nothing. It was as though we'd taken our faces and pressed them up against each other such that my lips rested on hers, and we just weren't sure of what to do about that. It lacked that elusive ingredient, that ... spark!

Yes, That Spark

I mention that kiss because it demonstrates that the emotions involved might not be the only factor determining the pleasure of a kiss. Yes, I enjoy kissing more when I'm excited or in love with the person I'm kissing, but that night, although I was definitely interested, neither one of us got much but disappointment (well, that and precious knowledge - we are scientists, after all!). A kiss seems to exchange more than just tactile expression of emotion. Dr. Helen Fisher, a prolific sex researcher whom I'm sure I've cited at least once in each year at college, says whenever interviewed on the subject that kissing involves an exchange of chemical information between partners, but I can't seem to discover the studies from which she draws that information.

I have read studies discussing the possibility that testosterone is exchanged through saliva, one of the things Fisher mentions. I seem to recall also reading that men are more enthusiastic about french-kissing than women, at least in whatever sample group participated in that study; this is noteworthy because testosterone is critical to female sexual behavior. Further, a friend of mine tells me that communication on the level of the immune system takes place (not surprising, given our apparent subconscious concern with difference in immune systems, which seems pretty important, given the possibilities for disease exchange between sexual partners). Intriguing data, but - since the citations elude me - somewhat unreliable. If one of you has superior google-fu, please feel free to post the original papers.

My point, spotty data aside, is that kissing appears to transmit more than just the obvious behavioral information. When two people kiss for the first time, they get a preview of their basic physical compatability. Yes, some people are just better kissers - either that or everyone who's kissed a certain friend of mine has immune systems remarkably different from hers - but it's not just about skill. There appears to be a physiological exchange, not yet fully explored by Glorious Science,2 that partially determines just how enjoyable sexual interaction will be. Kissing isn't the whole scope of sex, sure, but I call it a poor plan to find out whether you'll enjoy kissing someone only after you two have exchanged your class rings. Futhermore, if the information exchanged is actually part of the suite that influences attraction in general - immune system information, for instance - then it is indicative of how well that sexual relationship can go. Sexual compatability also relies on the psychological side (hello, kinky), but common interests can only take you so far if you don't have the chemistry.

1 If you object to that statement, consider: actions like making war aren't necessarily about the soldiers' feeling good, but they may advance the careers or assuage the egos of politicians, which gives them a sense of triumph; the individuals involved may be motivated by anger, hatred, or a sense of injustice, and thus be about not feeling good. Actions that cause one person to suffer are often about another person's sense of comfort or power, both of which fall into the category of positively valenced emotions. Most actions undertaken by humans, though, are at the very minimum about not feeling worse than one already does (see: remaining in slavery rather than running away and being shot), which puts them into the category of things that are about moving toward feeling good and away from feeling bad (or dead). As for relationships, no doubt someone will mention arranged marriages. Consider that, in societies in which mate choice is concerned with family alliances as much as or more than with dyadic satisfaction, the goals remain emotional; it is simply the relative importance of the emotions involved that differ. If someone can find me an example of an action that is not emotionally motivated, please inform me so that I can perform a case study of the person who performed it.

2 See, we glorious scientists3 don't claim to know everything. We just claim that there's a something that can be known! Now fuck off, Derrida.

3 I hope one day to found a journal entitled "Glorious Science Monthly".


  1. As an addendum, I'd suggest girls take any hormonal birth control into account when considering new partners. Apparently we're more apt to choose geneticall dissimilar partners when ovulating (good for that spark, and fertility), but what if you're going to spend most of that relationship on the pill? Science daily on partner selection here and a Time Magazine article that might cite a couple of those studies you wanted here.

  2. Ooh, thank you! That's a well-written article, and it does discuss the very claims I was looking for:

    "Not only does kissing serve the utilitarian purpose of providing a sample of MHC, but it also magnifies the other attraction signals--if only as a result of proximity. Scent is amplified up close, as are sounds and breaths and other cues. And none of that begins to touch the tactile experience that was entirely lacking until intimate contact was made. "At the moment of a kiss, there's a rich and complicated exchange of postural, physical and chemical information," says Gallup. "There are hardwired mechanisms that process all this."

    What's more, every kiss may also carry a chemical Mickey, slipped in by the male. Though testosterone is found in higher concentrations in men than in women, it is present in both genders and is critical in maintaining arousal states. Traces of testosterone make it into men's saliva, particularly among men who have high blood levels of the hormone to start with, and it's possible that a lot of kissing over a long period may be a way to pass some of that natural aphrodisiac to the woman, increasing her arousal and making her more receptive to even greater intimacy.

    Sadly, I still can't find citational information. It's nice to have a more detailed secondary account, though, and that article is pretty sexy overall. It's a good read. Also, note:

    "Males or females who volunteer their babymaking services too freely may not be offering up very valuable genes. Those who seem more discerning are likelier to be holding a winning genetic hand--and are in a better position to demand one in return."

    There's a point: if my ancestors fucked around with just anyone, that may have decreased the "genetic quality" of their mates and, thus, me. So, that might be yet another reason for an adapted dislike of promiscuity in one's partners.

  3. Oh crap, I just read the very last paragraph of the article Olivia posted. It's embarrassing. They've been rolling along, doing a seriously great article, and then suddenly:

    Survival of a species is a ruthless and reductionist matter, but if staying alive were truly all it was about, might we not have arrived at ways to do it without joy--as we could have developed language without literature, rhythm without song, movement without dance? Romance may be nothing more than reproductive filigree, a bit of decoration that makes us want to perpetuate the species and ensures that we do it right. But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn't something more at work--and the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced. That's a nut science may never fully crack.

    It's as if they haven't read their own article. Joy exists because creatures motivated to perform adaptive actions - motived emotionally - are the creatures who survived. So, no, we couldn't have found a way to do it without joy; emotions are functional, they're the elements that produce behavior and thus not an experience derived from following the dictates of evolution but rather the force pushing us toward those dictates. Whoever wrote that last paragraph just doesn't get it.

    The rest of the article is well penned and informative, though! I still recommend it, but keep the brain on while processing its claims.