The other day at the grocery store, a man came up to me and said, "You must know that you smell incredible." "Uh, thanks," I murmured because, in truth, it was all I could do to tamp down my geeky impulse to add, in a manner reminiscent of a female Mister Peabody: "Ah, you are responding to biological clues in my scent. Most likely you are detecting a favorable genetic similarity between us--although not too much similarity, as that would encourage genetic mutations in our young. All this sensory information is telling you we are probably well-suited to bear healthy, symmetrical young with a balanced assortment of genes."
It is impulses like these that make me glad I am already married. As Dorothy Parker said, "Men seldom make passes at girls who say nerdy &%$# like that."
So it was with trepidation that I started studying the biochemistry of kissing. Because as any formerly religious person can tell you, there's nothing like a little science to ruin a wondrous, magical thing.
"Soul meets soul on lovers' lips," said Percy Bysshe Shelley in Prometheus Unbound. A truly good kiss does feel like the meeting of souls -- maybe it's because so much is happening in a kiss. Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, calls kissing a "mate assessment tool" and says, "When you kiss, you can touch, see, feel, taste somebody. A huge part of our brain lights up." Feeling someone's breath upon us or inhaling the scent of their neck is lovely in its own right, but also provides us clues as to each other's health, diet, and genetic make-up. In other words, it makes good biological sense to mate with the one whose kisses make you weak in the knees.
So why is kissing the right person so damn good? Well, darling, those sweet kisses are making you crazy with a triple hormone combo that increases your sex drive (testosterone), makes you think pair bonding with this person is a fine idea (oxytocin) and causes you to be all sappy and prone to the excessive playing of Iron and Wine CDs (serotonin). In a 2007 study, researcher Wendy Hill compared the hormone levels of college students who had spent 15 minutes kissing with those who merely held hands and listened to music in the student center. For some reason, I love the detail that they were in the student center. The results of the study--stress levels in the kissing couples decreased, blah blah blah... wasn't as interesting as this bit of student center-related info:
Alas, the article did not include a picture of this academic love nest with its "electric candles." Not that I think that setting is really all that important. I base this sweeping assessment on the fact that I received my best, most sublime kisses ever in an attic bedroom in Ann Arbor, Michigan, atop a set of bed sheets festooned with pictures of The Flintstones. (There was also a giant tapestry over his bed featuring Aries the ram, but in my memory, I choose to edit that detail out.) I didn't care about any of the decor though because, god, that guy could kiss. Sweet, melty, insanely wonderful kisses. I would live inside his kisses if I could. As the night grew later and later, I told him I should probably go home. "You could," he whispered, while placing the most delightfully soft kisses on my chin and nose, "Or you could stay here and kiss me all night." In a typically bad decision of that era (I was drunk, natch, as was my wont in those days), I inexplicably chose to go home. Dumb moves such as that, plus--okay, fine--my delightful habit of drunkenly calling him at all hours, ended things quickly thereafter.
Which was too bad, because, damn, our young would have been symmetrical as hell.