The facts about philematology—sealed with a kiss

A scientist is not the first person you should consult with questions about romance. There is surprisingly little sex or violence in this line of work. I hope that doesn’t discourage any younger readers who might be considering science careers. There’s more to life than that stuff. Like, well, uh, guitars, and evening walks and, well, lots of things.

I suppose I am confirming a stereotype. However, reading about Pierre and Marie Curie is not quite the same as reading about Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Then there was Nikola Tesla, who allegedly ran in terror from the first — and only — kiss of his life.

Although I don’t have a clue about romance, I probably know even less about philematology: the study of kissing. I know I like it — philemating I mean, not study. I’m not sure if philemating is a word or not, but it ought to be if it isn’t.

When I was younger I tried memorizing and reciting obscure love poems to girls. Later I expounded on scientific principles to my dates. Both brought about the same results: glazed eyes. And the young lady suddenly remembered that she had to be up early the next morning and really needed to get home.

I don’t think my mastery of fancy lab equipment had anything to do with my wife marrying me. Unfortunately, I really have no other explanation for her acceptance of my proposal. Like I said, I don’t have a clue about romance. I do like to kiss her though.

Statistically, people spend about 20,000 minutes of their lives kissing. I suspect those two weeks are not equally distributed over a lifetime but mostly crammed in between the ages of 14 and 24. One passionate kiss supposedly uses 34 facial muscles and burns up 26 calories a minute. Heart rate increases, and breathing becomes deep and irregular. Of course, if you needed a scientist to tell you that, you are spending too much time reading the newspaper.

I think the distribution of kissing during young-adult years may account for the tendency of people to gain weight after the age of 24. They aren’t burning enough calories after that. Later in life, after age 25, a lot of people take up the treadmill, which also uses a lot of muscles, speeds up the heart and causes deep, irregular breathing. The treadmill doesn’t look like it is nearly as much fun though.

There are all kinds of kisses, of course. Mothers kiss babies, aunts kiss nephews, girls kiss each other’s cheeks, and lovers kiss each other’s lips. All serve different functions. My wife always insisted the teenage children come in to kiss us good night when they got home on Friday or Saturday nights. She was checking their breath.

So why do we kiss?  We can only speculate, of course, because no one is really paying attention to why they are kissing when they are actually kissing. But scientists say that everyone’s lips and tongue are filled with very sensitive nerve endings that respond to the stimulation of kissing. Brilliant! So science concludes we kiss because we like it.

I wonder if they got a big grant to come up with that conclusion.

Another reason scientists speculate that we kiss is for the pheromones. A pheromone is a chemical signal that triggers a response in the person you are kissing. When you are close to someone’s face you can pick up on their pheromones, which supposedly tells you a lot about each other. While women may sense, from pheromones, whether or not a man can create a good, healthy child, men may subconsciously pick up on signals of fertility and strength. Funny, I never noticed any of that at the time.

I doubt very much that any of this scientific knowledge concerning kissing will make you a better kisser. However, reading this column together might help you entice someone into a little experimentation. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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