The Art & Science of Kissing

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry's Refuges album

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry’s Refuges album

“A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” ― Ingrid Bergman

The first kiss, like a job interview, can be a thoroughly nerve-racking experience. This curious way of passing approx. 80 million bacteria from our lips to someone else’s generates so many anxieties and uncertainties that the internet is flooded with articles dedicated to dispelling fears surrounding it. A blogger, calling himself Dr Nerdlove, writes that  “Outside of “How do I meet girls?”, “when should you kiss her” is easily the most common dating question I get.” But when you’re in a relationship, kissing quickly becomes one of the elements of your everyday physical connection with your partner. Enjoyable, for sure, but no longer as weird, exciting and terrifying as it was before we crossed that physical barrier with someone. Having recently experienced the excitement of a first kiss with a new romantic partner (who is sadly no longer my partner), I had a chance to take a fresh look at kissing, and examine the phenomenon through the eyes of an alien visitor to our planet Earth. A visitor who, as Alain de Botton points out in a great essay on his Book of Life blog, would most likely have a hard time understanding it:

Mutual desire is normally signalled by a pretty weird act; two organs otherwise used for eating and speaking are rubbed and pressed against one another with increasing force, accompanied by the secretion of saliva. A tongue normally precisely manipulated to articulate vowel sounds, or to push mashed potato or broccoli to the rear of the palate now moves forward to meet its counterpart, whose tip it might touch in repeated staccato movements. One would have to carefully explain to an alien visitor from Kepler 9b what is going on.

Why do we kiss? From the biological point of view, the activity stems from our need to identify whether someone might be a good mate for us or not. Contrary to animals, which can detect smell at a distance, our sense of smell is exceptionally poor, so for us kissing is a “culturally acceptable way to get close enough to another person to detect their pheromones.” But not all humans adhere to these methods of analysing chemicals. A recent study which examined 168 cultures from around the world, discovered that as little as 46% of them practice the romantic–sexual kiss, and its frequency is correlated to the society’s relative social complexity. According to anthropologists from the University of Nevada, certain hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Brazilian Mehinaku tribe, consider kissing deeply revolting, while the Oceanic inhabitants pass open mouths over each other, without having actual contact. In order to learn more about each other, they might, instead of kissing, smell their partner’s face, which they are likely to consider more sexual. The Pacific Islanders and The Maori of New Zealand also practice “Eskimo kisses”, i.e. rubbing noses together. And some cultures don’t kiss at all—like Somalis, the Lepcha of Sikkim or the Sirono of Bolivia.

Max Ernst, 'The Kiss' (1927)

Max Ernst, ‘The Kiss’ (1927)

In many countries, especially Muslim ones, kissing in public is considered offensive and often illegal. It is ironic that India, a country where the Kama Sutra originated, is so opposed to kissing and Indian conservatives go as far as charging couples kissing in secluded seaside spots with obscene behaviour, and attacking shops which sell Valentine’s Day cards, as Emily Wax reports for The Washington Post. In the ancient Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts dating back to 3,500 years ago, kissing was described as “inhaling each other’s soul”, while now it is perceived as a symbol of Western invasion, posing a threat to Indian values. But half of the world does kiss. And we do it for several reasons. Aside of being a way of detecting pheromones, kissing lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, kissing can access any one of three primary brain systems used for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, romantic love and long-term attachment. Also, as Alain de Botton points out, it has other important psychological merits: showing acceptance and willingness to take a risk with someone.

The huge meaning of kissing is something we’ve built up by social agreement and its fundamental definition is: I accept you – accept you so much that I will take a big risk with you. (…) Ordinarily it would be utterly nauseating to have a stranger poke their tongue into your face; the idea of their saliva lubricating your lips is horrendous. So to allow someone to do these things signals a huge level of acceptance.

Reinier Lucassen 'De Kus'

Reinier Lucassen ‘De Kus’

There are also other merits. A 10-year study conducted in Germany in the 1980s found that men who kiss their wives before leaving for work live approx. 5 years longer, earn 20-30% more and get into fewer car accidents than married men who don’t. Aside of still being a perplexing phenomenon (why, for example, kissing increases the level of oxytocin in men, but decreases it in women?!) and a subject of continuous study, kissing has also been a subject of numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and all sorts of art works. I have gathered a number of kissing-depicting images, some by my favourite artists, and some by artists I have only just discovered, which I have scattered around this post. I do not intend to analyse them, for I believe they should be left to interpretation and contemplation by a reader. If I can say one thing, it would be that what makes these works so strong is their ability to escape the clichéd, the kitsch and the obvious. Having researched imagery for this post, I have seen an infinite number of realistic depictions of kissing, which were devoid of any sort of magic, atmosphere and emotion. The paintings I’m showing here are very different.

Obviously, kissing is not only depicted in masterfully executed oil paintings, but it seems to appear absolutely everywhere, from telecom ads, such as Vodafone’s The Kiss, to cigarette ads (see the infamous Don’t Be a Maybe campaign by Marlboro), to giant Benetton billboards, presenting world leaders in passionate lip-locks with their enemies. “What’s more personal than a kiss?”, asks Mark Glaser (Marketing at Google) when explaining the inspiration behind the Mulberry Kisses campaign, aimed at bringing the romantic view of the brand into the internet. So kissing is everywhere and yet we don’t seem to tire of it. An example of just how much excitement kissing can evoke, is First Kiss, a 2014 video directed by   Tatia Pilieva, which had 3 times more traffic than President Obama’s appearance on the popular online comedy show, Between Two Ferns, posted online the same day. The low-budget video was commissioned by fashion label Wren to showcase their clothing line’s fall collection for Style.com’s Video Fashion Week. It featured several couples, straight and gay, kissing in front of the camera, and proved an instant hit on the internet—it was viewed about 42 million times on YouTube. John Koblin in his article for the New York Times quotes Pilieva, who attributes the popularity to the sincerity of the video: “They shed all these layers in front of our eyes and in front of the cameras and that sweetness and kindness resonated with people.”

Another example of is Kiss Me Now, Meet Me Later, a social experiment, in which Toronto-based cinematographer Jordan Oram asked 8 blindfolded strangers to kiss each other after a brief introduction. Unlike similar videos, which focus on merely presenting the act of kissing, Oram’s film is trying to make us ask some questions. The film-maker said: “there had been nothing that really showed the reason why people were kissing… The reason behind the kiss: what if you meet the person you fell in love with from the first kiss? What if it was like your first kiss? What if you met someone, you kissed them, and then you introduced yourself? And then you built chemistry from that.”

Kissing can be truly magical. And it’s worth waiting for the right person to come along to share the magic with.

Marc Chagall, 'Birthday' (1915)

Marc Chagall, ‘The Birthday’ (1915)

Faith, Delusions & Woody Allen

'Magic in the Moonlight' movie still

‘Magic in the Moonlight’ by Woody Allen, movie still

In the time of emotional turbulences in my life, I tend to become a bit of a film addict. I often turn to my favourite directors and re-watch old movies. Recently, it was Woody Allen, who I have been a fan of ever since I was old enough to watch “adult” films.

The two films I chose to re-watch, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014), explore a very similar topic: faith vs. rationality. This was a purely accidental choice, though it strangely coincided with some events in my personal life. A close friend of mine had recently been prescribed anti-depressants. That friend is a devoted believer and a very spiritual person, who has always seen significance in everything that a non-religious person would consider random. Her recent breakdown, which I found very upsetting, made me think a lot about the common notion of religious people being sheltered from depression.

In Magic in the Moonlight, which takes place in the 1920s—time of exquisite fashion, jazz and an interest in séances—we have Stanley aka Wei Ling Soo, a celebrity illusionist who is on a mission to expose the trickstery behind the work of Sophie, a young woman who claims to be a medium. His long-held atheistic and rational views of the world and unmoderated condescension towards anyone who thinks otherwise are challenged when it becomes clear that Sophie does indeed have magic powers to predict the future. The discovery that “there is something more to our life than we see” turns bitter and cold Stanley into a much happier person. But as he is on the verge of starting to believe in God and prayer, his rational mind begins to rebel and Sophie does in fact turn out to be charlatan.

In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, we have a group of characters, who, typically for Allen, get their lives complicated in various, both dramatic and comical, ways, and mostly end up unhappy. This includes Roy, a one-book writer who ends up destroying his marriage and career. He lives off the financial support of Helena, his mother-in-law, whose spirituality he viciously mocks. Yet the recently divorced Helena, who takes advice from a fortune-teller, and her new friend Jonathan, a widower, who runs an occultist shop and tried to contact his departed wife, are the only characters who are genuinely happy.

By making the rational Stanley grim and unhappy, and the rational Roy a self-destroying loser, Woody Allen makes a very strong point about atheists being unable to find true happiness. At the press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, asked to share his views on the subject of Helena and Jonathan, Woody Allen said:

“This is my perspective, and has always been my perspective on life. I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it, I always have since I was a little boy, it hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies, and deceive yourself. And I’m not the first person to say this or the most articulate person, it was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O’Neill: one must have one’s delusions to live, if you look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise. So I feel that those people are the only two people that are happy, they are capable of deluding themselves. If I saw them at a party in real life I would think that they were foolish people and dumb, and silly, and I would laugh at them, but they would be happier than me.”

'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' movie still

‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’ by Woody Allen, movie still

If we disregard Allen’s dry and sarcastic sense of humour, his perception of faith as the happiness-bringing factor was until recently a common belief among psychiatrists. It was believed that religion and spirituality can provide shelter from depression. But a recent study, analysed by Dr Raj Persaud in an article for the Huffington Post, has demonstrated that “there is an opposite relationship between religious belief and depression. Religion, and even more, spirituality not tied to formal religion, appears to be unhelpful in terms of protecting you from low mood, and could even be linked with more depression.”

When reality does not meet our expectations, we are likely to feel bitter, sad and hopeless. The problem with religion is that it creates unrealistic expectations: unanswered prayers are likely to deepen our frustration. If we then add a sense of guilt on top of that (prayers haven’t been unanswered because we don’t deserve kindness etc.), the result can be crushing. Accepting the randomness of life takes away a big chunk of the frustration that comes from futile attempts at examining the reasons behind everything that happen to us. To quote Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” (Androcles and the Lion, Preface, 1916)

Of course, what religion can bring to one’s life is a very strong sense of purpose and meaning. According to Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who conducted his research in concentration camps as well as at a private clinic after the war, these two things—purpose and meaning—are crucial for individuals to survive and thrive in life. Frankl, mentioned by Gleb Tsipursky in his article for The Richard Dawkins Foundation, called them a “will-to-meaning.” Tsipursky mentions also Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, whose research “demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

But religion is not the only path to gain a sense of life meaning and purpose. Having discovered that Sophie doesn’t possess any magic powers and that most likely there is nothing more to our life than we see, Stanley from Magic in the Moonlight doesn’t go back to bitterness and grimness. He falls in love with Sophie and this new love gives his life a whole new meaning.

Naturally, love is not guaranteed to happen to everyone, so it’s best to look for purpose in things that are within our reach and ability. Self-development, working on emotional intelligence, getting better at interacting with people and forming relationships, making a contribution towards the society, making use of our skills and the time we have, learning and sharing our knowledge, being a great partner/parent, becoming a sportsman, a musician, a politician, a scientist —there is an infinite number of things, big and small, one can choose as their purpose. On a website dedicated to lifting the prejudice many feel towards nonbelievers, we can read how various atheists define their purpose and meaning in life:  “What makes me happy is the ability, freedom, and courage to follow my dream.”, “I find my happiness in watching my children and grandchildren grow and mature.”, “Whether I’m in the lab investigating cellular respiration, or on stage making your feet move, my happiness is passionate and personal. I live on a big, beautiful planet with the health and freedom to explore it any way I choose. Add to that a world full of diverse altruistic humans who make every day unique and valuable.”, says Mark D. Hatcher, CFI–Washington, DC.

These ultra-positive testimonials clash with Woody Allen’s grim views on life. Given his speech at the conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, I would imagine him laugh at the “beautiful planet” sentiment. Still, however cynical he might be, he has his own purpose: telling stories. His relentlessness to make films with the regularity that doesn’t cease to amaze critics and audience makes it obvious that to him, film-making is the “delusion” he considers crucial to make life more bearable. Films, theatre, literature, any sort of storytelling can provide a great deal of healthy escapism—both for the creators and the audience—that is healthy precisely because we don’t question its fictitiousness.

The Atheist Bus Campaign, image by LeoLondon (CC)

The Atheist Bus Campaign, image by LeoLondon (CC)

The approach atheists take towards the nonexistence of God, varies greatly. Allen’s is a cynical yet charming mockery with the acknowledgment that religion does have some merits: “To me … there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful”, he said in an interview for The New York Times. Darwinist Richard Dawkins, one of the most vocal and active anti-religion warriors, and the author of The God Delusion bestseller, certainly wouldn’t share Allen’s lenient attitude. Dawkins considers religion as a whole “a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality”, and compares it to a kind of mental illness. Likewise, Steve Pavlina, famous American self-help author and entrepreneur, bluntly rejects all aspects of religion, and is not afraid to ridicule them in his blog post titled 10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion. Pavlina says:

“For reasonably intelligent people who aren’t suffering from major issues with low self-esteem, religion is ridiculously consciousness-lowering. While some religious beliefs can be empowering, on the whole the decision to formally participate in a religion will merely burden your mind with a hefty load of false notions. (…) Religion is spiritual immaturity. It’s entirely possible to enjoy your life without spending so much of it bent over in submission. Pull your head out of your rear, and look around with your own two eyes. If you need something to worship, then feel grateful for your own conscious mind.”

But writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has recently protested against dismissing religion as a whole, and came up with what he calls Atheism 2.0, which can take inspiration and positive elements from religions without the belief in God, deities or supernatural spirits. In a very popular TED talk, de Botton says that “there is something to learn from the example of religion—even if you don’t believe any of it. If you’re involved in anything that’s communal, that involves lots of people getting together, there are things for you in religion. If you’re involved, say, in a travel industry in any way, look at pilgrimage. (…) If you’re in the art world, look at the example of what religions are doing with art. And if you’re an educator in any way, again, look at how religions are spreading ideas. You may not agree with the ideas, but my goodness, they’re highly effective mechanisms for doing so.” Asked about what Atheism 2.0 can offer in place for spiritual experience, de Botton says that one can find the “so-called spiritual moments” in science and observation, without believing in the spirit. “I, like many of you, meet people who say things like, “But isn’t there something bigger than us, something else?” And I say, “Of course.” And they say, “So aren’t you sort of religious?” And I go, “No.” Why does that sense of mystery, that sense of the dizzying scale of the universe, need to be accompanied by a mystical feeling? Science and just observation gives us that feeling without it, so I don’t feel the need. The universe is large and we are tiny, without the need for further religious superstructure.”

Alain de Botton at TED

Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0 at TED

Alain de Botton has been widely criticised in the atheist community, but I am much more sympathetic to his ideas than the hard-headed atheists. As an ex-believer brought up in an ultra-Catholic country, I am very aware of the dangers of an organized religion, and the way it hampers the development of conscience. At the same time, I can see the benefits of some of its elements: the community, the rituals, the routine (I’ve written about the merits of routine in the past). I agree with Alain de Botton when he says that “The people in (…) the secular world, who are interested in matters of the spirit, in matters of the mind, in higher soul-like concerns, tend to be isolated individuals. They’re poets, they’re philosophers, they’re photographers, they’re filmmakers. And they tend to be on their own.” As much as I love science and data, I would happily share with fellow atheists and agnostics not just facts and figures, but the experience of, for lack of better word, soul-searching, mindfulness, meditation—and the dizziness I feel when I look at NASA’s photo of Andromeda galaxy.

I do believe that turning into one’s own mind for answers and recognizing that the ability to be happy lies in our own hands, not someone else’s, is incredibly powerful and positive. As charming and funny as I find Helena’s character in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, my sympathy goes to her daughter Sally who deals with things as they are and decides to follow her dream of opening an art gallery. But at the end of the day, religion is a choice, and everyone is free to identify their own sources of happiness and comfort—even if they are a complete delusion.

To quote Woody Allen: Whatever Works.