Monday, May 19, 2008

Hermits don't kiss

I was on the KLM flight over the Atlantic from Europe to the U.S., my bag stacked full with all the cool magazines I only buy when travelling and the 80GB iPod fully charged. I'm as close to Heaven this Atheist will ever be.

I always loved the radio - I don't even have a TV at home any more - but with odd working hours I usually only remember to listen to it while in the car. Podcasting has added a wonderful new dimension to my life! I can listen to or watch all my favourites when it suits me. In my pocket I got great stand up video casts from Comedy Central, fascinating science programs from The Naked Scientist and Verdt å vite, skeptical wisdom on Skepticality, mind-blowing talks from TEDTalks, ethical challenges from Verdibørsen and Norwegian linguistic fun on Språkteigen. And that's only a small sample of endless free entertaining and educational stuff I travel with. In my little precious pod I also have all my music which is able to trigger every chemical emotion my brain can induce. I can not conceive a life without it. Even got a few movies, sitcoms and photo albums on it. Oh, almost forgot the huge collection of great audio books! The only problem is finding time to enjoy it all! That's why I love transatlantic flights.

On the tourist class distant and tiny monitor, with the color red out of balance, they were showing a love flick. Obviousely not a classic as I can't remember which. By chance an article titled "Why We Kiss" in Scientific American Mind (vol. 19 no. 1) had just caught my interest. My first thought was that it must be a limited topic, but they had it as their feature article. Turns out new research has revealed a hidden complexity behind this exchange of bodily fluids. Kissing, the article explains, might have evolved from mouth-to-mouth feeding of primate infants by their mothers. It could then have morphed into a strategy for comforting hungry children in the absence of food - and later into a more general way of expressing affection.

I catch a glimpse of a screen-kiss in the end of the cabin. I'm reminded of my last transatlantic flight. I was on the aisle end of this 3-seater with a couple in their thirties on my window side. After the seatbelt sign was turned off the aisle was starting to fill up with children fully charged to explore this new and narrow universe. I always love to get eye contact with passing small children, and if they hold it I reward them with a slow wide smile. Probably sounds weird, but it feels like planting a little friendly seed in their developing memory banks - telling them in a non-verbal way that life and humans are nice and friendly too. For me it's like winning the lottery every time one of them return the gesture with a wholehearted smile. It can literally make my day.

The corner of my eye was distracted by the couple beside me, there was something going on that my subconscious couldn't quite decipher. In the middle of trying to steal a smile from a cute little kid crawling eagerly down the aisle, it was revealed by some improper sounds from my neighbours. Abruptly both needed to leave their seats. I was getting embarrassed like I'd seen something I shouldn't have. In the back of a plane in tourist class there are limited places to look away and I couldn't help noticing how they went from restroom to restroom. There seemed to be something wrong with all of them for the guy, while she was eager to enter any. Finally their negotiations were over and they settled on one. It's like saying "Don't think of an elephant" - are you able to think of anything else? I was wondering if they really thought nobody noticed, while my eyes shifted to the sky outside the window. Sharing smiles with kids suddenly felt improper.

The worst part wasn't over. When they eventually returned they were in the mood to talk with me for the rest of the flight. I'm a very liberal guy, but the situation just got a little too intimate and embarrassing to me.

The evolution of intimate kissing might have been sped by silent chemical messengers called pheromones. It's controversial if humans are able to sense pheromones, as specialized pheromone detectors hasn't been identified in humans, unlike in many animals. Some suggest we might be able to detect them through our nose or mouth. That could explain such curious findings as a tendency of the menstrual cycles of female dormitory mates to synchronize or the attraction of women to the scent of t-shirts worn by men whose immune systems are genetically compatible with theirs. I'm reading on as we pass over Island on the right.

Kissing supposedly unleashes a cocktail of chemicals that govern stress, motivation, social bonding and sexual stimulation. If pheromones do play a role in human courtship and procreation, the article continues, then kissing would be an extremely effective way to pass them from one person to another. Of the dozen cranial nerves that effect human cerebral functions, five are at work when we kiss, shuttling messages from our lips, tongue, cheeks and nose to a brain that snatches information about the temperature, taste, smell and movement of the entire affair. I find stuff like this fascinating at 30,000 feet. :)

Kissing and love boost the same brain chemicals associated with pleasure, euphoria and a motivation to connect with a certain someone. Researchers have found an unusual flurry of activity in two brain regions that govern pleasure, motivation and reward. Addictive drugs such as cocaine similarly stimulates these reward centres, through the release of dopamine. Love, it seems, is a kind of drug for us humans.

I am unwillingly being reminded of my lost love and that it must be over seven years since I kissed someone last. I wonder if the next 'happy pill' will be a pill that sends the same stimuli to the brain as a kiss does. A love or kissing pill maybe?

"The great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."
[Thomas Henry Huxley]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

but Kermits do, and some of them turn into princes'