Making Out. Snogging. Canoodling. Kissing. An activity that is teetering on the edge of gross when viewed objectively, but one that most everyone enjoys in practice. But why do we kiss? What compels us to attach our lips to the lips of another human being? Or push the envelope even further and indulge in the tongue-to-tongue tango?
Kissing has been a noteworthy activity throughout history. The Indian Kama Sutra, the ancient guide to getting-it-on, devotes an entire chapter exclusively to various modes of creative lip-locking. Herodotus mentioned kissing among the Persians, who greeted those of equal status with a kiss on the mouth, but those of lower rank with a kiss on the cheek. He also pointed out that since the Greeks ate cow meat, Egyptians would not kiss them on the mouth because cows were sacred to them.
During the days of the Roman Empire, everyone kissed everybody, and your social status was determined by where on the body you could lay one on the Emperor. Kisses were used to finalize agreements (“sealed with a kiss”) and marriages were made official by smooching in front of a crowd, a custom still practiced today.
Things changed dramatically with the rise of Christianity. Kissing for romantic purposes disappeared (at least publicly) for a thousand years until it re-emerged in the 11th century under the guise of courtly love. Star-crossed lovers like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet personified the double-edged sword of unfettered romantic love — exciting and liberating but also ill-advised and dangerous. The obvious inference was that kissing the wrong person could be downright deadly.
But why does kissing feel so good that we’re often willing to throw good sense out the window?
Researchers believe that a combination of psychological and biological factors may link the pleasure associated with kissing to the comfort humans experience feeding as infants. For babies, nursing is not only necessary for nourishment but critical for bonding. These early memories forge strong subconscious associations between the mouth and security, attachment and love.
Some mammals feed their offspring by chewing food and passing it from their mouths into the mouths of their young, a practice called “kiss feeding.” Our human ancestors did this as well (maybe they stopped when they realized how nasty it was.) Animals form an association between the mouth and pleasure, which is why dogs and cats will groom each other as a sign of friendship. Even reptiles will rub each other’s cheeks to show affection.
But the only mammals that truly kiss are the notoriously horny bonobo monkeys, who share almost 99 percent of our DNA make-up. They kiss to lighten the mood. They kiss to make up. They kiss as a sign of goodwill. They kiss because it’s Monday. Obviously, in the animal kingdom the bonobos are the most like us when it comes to kissing.
So, is kissing learned or instinctual behavior? Those who believe it is learned behavior postulate it harkens back to when our ancestors were spitting dinner down each other’s throats. Another fact supporting this theory is that not all people kiss. Roughly 10 percent of the earth’s population does not engage in the act of kissing, which would suggest the practice is a learned behavior rather than an instinctual one.
The main consensus is that kissing helps us (literally) sniff out the best possible mating partner. When two people’s faces are close enough to kiss, getting a whiff of each other’s pheromones can alert them on a chemical level if someone is worth pursuing. Women subconsciously are attracted to the scent of a man whose genes, coupled with her own, will create offspring with a strong immune system. These children will have a better chance of survival, and therefore will be more likely to support them in their old age.
It’s also interesting to note that men are more apt to favor pre-sex kissing — when its purpose is geared more toward sexual arousal, while women tend to favor kissing after sex — when its function is to promote bonding and attachment. (It’s also interesting to note that water is wet.)
The hormones your body releases during kissing change over the course of your relationship. Kissing a new partner stimulates the release of dopamine, which creates that “new love” sense of excitement, desire, and stupidity. When you kiss your partner in a long-term relationship your brain releases oxytocin, and this encourages attachment, bonding, and a capacity for endless bad TV.
As an added bonus, it’s been found that couples in long-term relationships who make a habit of smooching enjoy happy and satisfying unions. The same can not be said for those couples who only have a lot of intercourse. Kissing would seem to be a far more intimate act than sex for most.
And, let’s face it kids, kissing feels good. The human tongue and lips are jam-packed with nerve endings, and smooshing them up against someone else’s tongue and lips who really gets your motor running isn’t a bad way to kill some time. You can only surf the web so much. I know. Burn the witch.