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The Magical Biology of Kissing

“Kisses are a better fate than wisdom.” –E.E. Cummings

Days are becoming balmy, daylight is lasting into the evening, and flowering trees are now awash in color. If ever there was a moment that the kiss was invented, somehow I am sure it was when the world awoke to springtime. It’s hard to imagine a world in which we didn’t kiss. No wonder that the earliest recorded kisses date back to the very beginning of recorded time.

It is no accident that you can’t imagine kissing someone who smells offensive to you. How our own unique scent blends with a potential mate speaks volumes about our genetic compatibility or lack of it. Sexual attraction identified through scent attraction may seem primitive, but it is also the most reliable for identifying mates with whom we could produce healthy offspring. While there is no fix for scent incompatibility, thanks to the kiss, we have a litmus test of which potential partner can really be a mate.

Why Is a Good Kiss So Unforgettable?

It isn’t just in biological compatibility that the kiss is so deeply instructive. Sexual attraction translated through a kiss is rooted in our deepest neurological responses.

  • The moment our lips meet, a cascade of neural messages and chemicals are releasedthat transmit messages of intimate connection, sexual potential, and even euphoria.
  • When we kiss, our hearts beat faster and our breathing becomes deep and irregular, mimicking the response of intense exercise.
  • It is also exercise – while a little smooch only requires two facial muscles, when we truly engage in kissing it is a full-on acrobatic workout for your face that requires significant muscular coordination; a total of 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles are used while we kiss. 
  • Kissing is one of the most healing activities we can engage in because it unleashes a cocktail of chemicals that govern human stress, motivation, social bonding, and sexual stimulation. Kissing both boosts oxytocin levels, a primary hormone that is involved in social bonding, and reduces cortisol levels, which can help manage stress.

It would be easy to argue that the human body was designed to be a lover first – of the 12 primary cranial nerves that affect cerebral function, five are at work when we kiss, shuttling messages from our lips, tongue, cheeks, and nose to the brain that is adapting to the temperature, taste, smell and movements of the entire affair. And of all body parts, none are equipped to connect as our lips. Not only are our lips the slimmest layer of skin on the human body, but they are also among the most densely populated with sensory neurons.

A good kiss is unforgettable because the intimate neurological data that comes from our lips arrives in the somatosensory cortex, a swath of tissue on the surface of the brain that represents tactile information in the map of the body. In that map, the lips loom large because the size of each represented body region is proportional to the density of its nerve endings.

So, do as the birds and bees as spring rolls in: re-discover the joys of a kiss and notice how we are hardwired to the renewing power of loving.

When Did We First Start Kissing?

Many historians believe that the kiss originated from prehistoric behaviors of mothers transferring pre-chewed foods to their infants. In several languages, the word for kissing is synonymous with pre-mastication, and the word “sweet” is the epithet most commonly applied to kisses. Sigmund Freud believed that our desire to kiss is a subconscious drive to the suckling at a mother’s breast. Certainly, the first and most loving kissing experience that most humans log in their memory banks is the kiss of the mother. Really who doesn’t want more of that pure and unconditional love flowing to us?

Yet the study of history through recorded time is a checkered one. A historian dated the first recorded kiss to India around 1500 BC where early Vedic scriptures describe lovers “setting mouth to mouth.” From there, it spread westward when Alexander the Great conquered Punjab in 326 BC. Like all things sexual, its use to connote oneness could attempt to summarize this evolution by saying that the use of the kiss as a ceremonial means of expressing and cementing social, personal and political relationships has, during the past 800 years, tended to diminish, whereas its erotic significance has been increasingly emphasized.

The Romans were inveterate kissers, and along with the Latin language, the kiss became one of their chief exports. Not long after, early Christians invented the notion of the ritualistic "holy kiss" and incorporated it into the Eucharist ceremony. According to some cultural historians, it is only within the last 800 years, with the advent of effective dentistry and the triumph over halitosis, that the lips were freed to become an erogenous zone.

If kissing is not universal, then someone must have invented it. Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M, has traced the first recorded kiss back to India, somewhere around 1500 B.C., when early Vedic scriptures start to mention people “sniffing” with their mouths, and later texts describe lovers “setting mouth to mouth.” From there, he hypothesizes, the kiss spread westward when Alexander the Great conquered Punjab in 326 B.C.

In fact, up to 10 percent of humanity does not touch lips, according to human ethology pioneer Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, now head of the Max-Planck-Society Film Archive of Human Ethology in Andechs, Germany, writing in his 1970 book, Love and Hate: The Natural History of Behavior Patterns. Their findings suggest that some 650 million members of the human species have not mastered the art of osculation, the scientific term for kissing; that is more than the population of any nation on earth except for China and India.

Why Is Kissing Good for Your Health?

Kissing boosts levels of oxytocin, which influences social recognition, male and female orgasm, and childbirth. They expected this effect to be particularly pronounced in the study’s females, who reported higher levels of intimacy in their relationships.

When we kiss, these neurons, along with those in the tongue and mouth, rocket messages to the brain and body setting off delightful sensations, intense emotions, and physical reactions.

Yet many historians and philematologists believe that the beginnings of kissing were driven by our biological drive to reproduce and survive as a species. Even in cultures where mouth kissing did not come to dominate, the act of brushing noses and smelling potential mates exists. Try to imagine kissing someone who smells offensive to you. How our unique scent blends with a potential mate tells volumes about our genetic compatibility or lack of it. Our attraction through our nose may be our most primitive, but it is also the most primary in finding out who are worthy partners.

Since kissing evolved, the act seems to have become addictive. Visceral marching orders boost pulse and blood pressure. The pupils dilate, breathing deepens and rational thought retreats, as desire suppresses both prudence and self-consciousness.

For their part, the participants are probably too enthralled to care. As poet E. E. Cummings once observed: “Kisses are a better fate / than wisdom.”