Kiss and Tell

A fresh look at a lip-smacking subject
Sheril Kirshenbaum, A02, examines the urge to pucker up in her new book, The Science of Kissing.
February 8, 2011

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Kissing is so commonplace that we seldom ask ourselves why we do it or what is happening in our bodies and in our brains when we do it. But as Sheril Kirshenbaum, A02, notes, such topics have inspired a good deal of research.

A regular blogger on “The Intersection,” Discover magazine’s site about the connections between science and society, Kirshenbaum wrote a short but hugely popular post about the science of kissing around Valentine’s Day in 2008, and scientists from a variety of fields contacted her wondering what studies she had found.

“There were a lot of pieces and no one was really putting the pieces together,” she says. Later that year, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked her to help organize what turned out to be a highly successful symposium on the science of kissing. The inevitable next step was her second book, The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us (Grand Central Publishing), which came out this month and presents research in disciplines ranging from endocrinology to anthropology to neurology.

The book not only delves into questions about why humans kiss but also explores how kissing behaviors vary across cultures and whether we are the only species that kisses. Kirshenbaum explains the chemistry of kissing as well, and even addresses the future of kissing, discussing how technological innovation may be affecting interpersonal cues that have evolved over time.

Blinded by Science

When Kirshenbaum arrived at Tufts, she thought she had left science behind. “In high school,” she says, “it doesn’t seem very relevant in what we do day to day.” But after taking an introductory biology course, she was hooked. She became interested in environmental science and conservation, taking part in the annual field trip to Costa Rica organized by Colin Orians, director of the Environmental Studies Program. In addition, she gained field experience on Hummingbird Cay in the Bahamas with Associate Professor George Ellmore of the Department of Biology and participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the Museum of Natural History, studying ocean science and marine conservation.

Then, after earning her master’s degree in marine biology and policy from the University of Maine, she worked as an environmental advisor to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). The experience was eye-opening. It became “really clear” that without good science communication, the science community wouldn’t “have an influence where it needs to in the policy realm and the social realm,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do something that was a little less traditional. I wanted to pursue the science policy-cultural nexus.”

To that end, she co-wrote her first book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, in 2008 with Chris Mooney, another blogger on the Discover magazine site. She also became part of the group behind Science Debate 2008, an initiative to get presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to answer 14 urgent science questions facing America. The initiative, which she calls a “nontraditional way to bring science into the public arena,” garnered the support of nearly 40,000 scientists, politicians, business leaders, academics and citizens.

  • On March 1, Kirshenbaum will be at Tufts to talk about the science of kissing. Details

Upon leaving Nelson’s office, Kirshenbaum worked at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. She is currently a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. While she’s found success in blogs and books, she says she could never step away from academia, because “it’s where people are really thinking about these big questions and finding the solutions.”

As for her new book, Kirshenbaum says she hopes it will “reach people who are interested and curious about the world but not always focused on why science is relevant and how it shapes who they are and what they do.”

One part of the book that she believes her audience will find provocative chronicles her work with neuroscientists at New York University as they measured volunteers’ reactions to seeing other people’s kisses—categorized as erotic, committed or friendly.

The results, gleaned from sophisticated maps of brain activity, were surprising, according to Kirshenbaum. For all categories of kisses, the volunteers, whether male or female, American or not, reacted based on whether the kissers were of opposite sexes or the same sex. Kirshenbaum says the likely explanation is what neuroscientists term the “frequency effect”—the tendency of a stimulus to evoke less of a response the more it is seen.

“It was a classic case of how science happens,” she remarks. “You don’t go into an experiment and find exactly what you’re looking for. It was a nice example for people who have no experience with science to see how the scientific process works.”

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