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Why the Urge to Kiss Someone Can Be So Overpowering

How paying attention to specific feelings can prompt meaningful self-reflection.

Key points

  • There is debate about what exactly emotions are, and how many of them people have.
  • Interrogating precise emotional states may offer clues about one's broader, more pervasive feelings.
  • Basorexia is the name given to the specific emotion of wanting to kiss someone.
Krakenimages com/Shutterstock
Source: Krakenimages com/Shutterstock

The worst thing about being an author is my terrible posture. I spend too long slumped at my desk, staring at a screen. My eyes are sore, and I’m pretty sure this numbness in my hand is the start of carpal tunnel syndrome. So I go for a walk in my local park.

Walking is an excellent strategy for overcoming writer’s block, too. The physical movement helps to dislodge inspiration from whatever stone in the brain it’s hiding beneath, sending it floating to the surface of one’s consciousness (I’m no neuroscientist but I’m fairly sure that’s how it works). Or else, on your walk, you notice something: Over by the tree, a young couple embraced in a passionate kiss. Naturally, I look away, not wishing to invade their privacy, but at the same moment, I’m all but overcome by a powerful sensation of basorexia. I walk home and argue with my wife.

Basorexia, I tell her, is the name given to the specific emotion of wanting to kiss someone. That’s exactly what I felt in the park. Not, I emphasise, an urge to join in with the kissing couple, but rather to be generally involved in some kissing. My wife doesn’t take umbrage at that. However, she objects that I describe this as a discrete emotion, rather than simply an extension of desire. There’s not a named emotion for a sudden urge to switch off a light, she points out, or to walk down the stairs. It’s a reasonable argument and one that I raise with Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian and expert on the history of human emotions.

"Hold up!" I hear you say. "Where did she come from? Did an expert on the history of human emotions just happen to be standing there in the kitchen while you argued with your wife about emotional taxonomy?" Well, no. But as is increasingly obligatory for authors, I’ve been recording a podcast. It’s called Why Do I Feel? In each episode, I explore different emotions by listening to true stories and speaking with world-leading experts and therapists. Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith is my expert for the first episode: A Taxonomy of Emotion. In fact, I wouldn’t have known the word "basorexia" had I not read her book, The Book of Human Emotions, which describes 156 distinct emotional states, from anger to wanderlust (with the heebie-jeebies and iktsuarpok thrown in along the way). Let’s go back a step:

What are emotions?

It’s a simple question but it doesn’t have a simple answer. "People have been debating this for thousands of years," Smith explains, "and they’re still debating it now. Despite all the extraordinary technologies that we have at our fingertips and the amazing ways of reading and calibrating our emotions, important questions remain over quite what an emotion is."

It’s a sentiment echoed by another of my podcast experts, Professor Thomas Dixon. "There is no definitive answer to what an emotion is," he tells me. "There’s a big theoretical debate among emotion scientists as to whether emotions are primarily these hardwired physical and neurological reflexes, or whether there’s a major social and cultural component with a lot of individual difference between cultures and between individuals."

Whatever view we might subscribe to—biochemical, socio-cultural, or, as is most likely, a complex interplay between the two—most people would still agree that we’re capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions and that our emotional landscape is ever-changing. Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith draws a parallel with the artist, John Constable, who would venture onto Hampstead Heath with his sketchpads and paintbrushes and try to capture the clouds. For him, she tells me, the sky was the great canvas of emotions. He’d make fast sketches, then take them home and try to order them in terms of a "taxonomy of clouds." For Tiffany, this is a useful way to think about emotions. Much like clouds, she tells me, our bodily states are drifting in and out of focus, melding together and pulling apart. Then in our conscious minds, we seek to put these sensations into categories. It’s at this point in which we order and name them, she suggests, that an experience becomes an emotion.

This brings us back to my so-called emotion of basorexia. Of course, my wife’s skepticism about it is fair. And yet, by striving to articulate the small nuances of our emotional lives, we might come to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the people around us. On my podcast, Tiffany describes the relief she felt when first hearing the term FOMO (fear of missing out). Before this entered the cultural lexicon, she hadn’t quite consolidated this familiar feeling in her mind or seen it as something worth taking seriously, and worth managing.

It may be helpful, then, to think of our more precise emotional states not as discrete experiences but as drifting clouds that can prompt meaningful self-reflection. And that they can offer clues about the causes of broader, pervasive feelings of unease or unhappiness. On that note, I’ve been hunched at this desk for too long. My neck hurts, my eyes are sore. Time to respond to this sudden urge to turn the light off, go downstairs, and—if I’m lucky—kiss my wife.

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