Bad Astronomy

BA Book review: The Science Of Kissing

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, 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