Kissing: A Subject That's Worth More Than Just Lip Service

Sweet, sinful, saucy or sublime, a smack on the lips is always something to remember.

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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

Okay, so: kissing. Here's what we know.

It has major evolutionary advantage. Only the hottest and highest species do it.

Yet among current humans, the future of kissing seems an open question. In our liberated era, have we become so quick to get past the kiss and further into lovemaking that we have devalued the icons, wisdoms and traditions of the ancestors? Have we diminished the meaning and memory of the lingering smooch, the languid summers of interlabial osculation spit-swapping lip-lock?

If so, this is a horrifying situation. It must be stopped. Kissers of the world, unite.

* * *

"A kiss is a blast of information that you are sending out and information that you are receiving," says Helen Fisher, the Rutgers anthropologist who is the author of "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love."

"Basically it's a mate assessment tool. Much of the cortex is devoted to picking up sensations from around the lips, cheeks, tongue and nose. Out of 12 cranial nerves, five of them are picking up the data from around the mouth.

"It is built to pick up the most sensitive feelings -- the most intricate tastes and smells and touch and temperature. And when you're kissing somebody, you can really hear them and see them and feel them. So kissing is not just kissing. It is a profound advertisement of who you are, what you want and what you can give."

"At the moment of the kiss, there are hard-wired mechanisms that assess health, reproductive status and genetic compatibility," says Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a professor of evolutionary psychology at the State University of New York at Albany who studies reproductive competition and the biology of interpersonal attraction.

"Therefore, what happens during that first kiss can be a make-or-break proposition."

For example, a woman can sense whether the man's immune system proteins are different from hers, thus increasing the odds of healthy offspring. "Women apparently are quite drawn to men who have differences rather than similarities in their histocompatibility system. They pick it up by smell, and they can pick it up from kissing," says Fisher, who is also science adviser to Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com.

Kissing thus not only conveys serious evolutionary advantage. It can dramatically alter the outcome of Saturday night.


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