As tears go by

Researchers collect tears, asking, "Why do we cry?"

Published May 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When my mother was a weepy child in West Virginia who cried every morning when her hair was combed ("She was tender-headed"), and cried when she was tormented by her brother (which happened fairly often) and cried when she detected injustice in the world (which happened constantly), my grandmother would sometimes get fed up.

As tears poured down her child's face, Granny would snatch up a little bottle. "Save the tears!" she'd say. "Save the tears. I'm gonna get you a little bowl and get you a little salt-water fish."

"It made me so mad," my mother recalls. "I would start laughing. And that made me madder than Whaley, because I was trying to present the dignified and sorrowful spectacle of whatever it was." (Note: she doesn't know who Whaley is. Apparently he was really mad.) But she would hold the bottle up to her eye, because she also hoped to get the salt-water fish.

Her tears instantly stopped flowing.

My grandmother was not the first great thinker who schemed to capture the tear and thwart or harness its power. Ancient Greek and Roman tombs contain narrow-necked vessels called lachrymatories, which are thought by some to have contained the tears of mourners. (No signs of salt-water fish have been found in these tombs, to my knowledge.)

Nor is this noble tradition dead. There are glass-blowers who will craft a lachrymatory for your own use. You can, for example, mingle your tears with a friend's and store the resulting fluid in your new lachrymatory. One web page offers "Send me your tears ... or I will use a saline solution permanently sealed in a glass teardrop."

How different are tears from that saline solution? What's in tears anyway? How comfortable would that fish be?

Tears, it turns out, are jam-packed with extra ingredients. They contain immunoglobins and enzymes that protect your eye from infection. They contain interesting proteins such as the hormone prolactin and the pituitary hormone ACTH, both of which are released in response to stress, and they contain considerable amounts of manganese. They contain oils and mucus so that a thin film protects the surface of the eye.

Maybe we should go for a brackish-water fish, something really tough.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have made the fish experiment. In fact, little is known about tears, especially tears of emotion. One of the world's few tear researchers, William Frey, is a biochemist at the St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis. He principally works on brain biochemistry, particularly in Alzheimer's patients, but studies tears on the side, and has been for the last couple of decades. Funding is limited, since no one cries themselves to death, and since the market for lachrymatories is relatively small.

There's plenty of scope, however. Frey notes, "I have found an incredible absence of scientific research on psychogenic lacrimations and its physiological role in our lives."

Psychogenic lacrimations (or lachrymations, in the British spelling) are tears of rage, grief and joy. Emotional tears. These are distinguished from continuous tears (also called basal tears), which keep your eyes from drying up; and from reflex tears (or irritant tears), which spring to your eyes in response to smoke, onion vapors, or foreign bodies. Continuous tears and reflex tears are fairly well understood, and occur in other animals. Emotional tears are far more mysterious, and emotional tears are what Frey hopes to understand.

He studied frequency of crying, and was surprised to find that identical twins didn't show more similarity than fraternal twins; that depressed people didn't cry much more than control groups; and that women's crying didn't correlate with their hormone levels, although women did cry more than men. Some adults never cry, and this falls within the normal range, while other people cry almost daily. (The word for crying continuously, by the way, is epiphora. Use that in your next fight.)

But Frey also wanted to analyze the actual tears. He began by trying to figure out how to get his hands on them. Reflex tears were easy: just hurl onions in a blender and take a sniff. But, he found, "No one could think of any discreet way to elicit emotional tears in the lab." The idea of telling people that their dogs had died, collecting their tears and then confessing the lies in the name of science was rejected. The idea of hanging around emergency rooms looking for unhappy people and rushing at them with a lachrymatory was rejected. Nor did they have access to St. Ignatius Loyola, who reportedly cried four times a day.

Eventually they hit on the scheme of showing sad movies to volunteers. Even then, there were problems. At first they planned to have staff members sit next to the weeping viewers with a test tube and harvest the tears. That turned out to be too much like my grandmother's trick: having people lunge at you with a test tube dries you up as quickly as coveting a fish. Then they designed a set of tear-gathering goggles, but those didn't work unless they were custom-fitted, and funding wouldn't stretch that far. Ultimately, they just issued people test tubes and gave them the responsibility for collecting their own tears.

The average contributor coughed up -- no, make that contributed -- three tears, though one empathetic person produced 50. Nearly a third couldn't cry at all. To get the best results, Frey's team found, the theater had to be very dark, and people needed not to be seated side by side, for the maximum illusion of privacy.

Then they faced the question of which movies would elicit the most tangible grief. Tastes vary, after all. Another group of researchers screened "Steel Magnolias" for 150 women, and found that only 20 percent cried. Others not only didn't cry but, as monitored by cardiac, respiratory, and somatic symptoms, apparently found the film inauthentic, tawdry and ineptly manipulative.

Frey got good results with "The Champ," "Brian's Song," and an obscure film called "All Mine to Give," the top tearjerker. "All Mine to Give" is "the true saga of a Scottish immigrant couple who die and leave their 12-year-old son struggling to find homes for his five younger brothers and sisters." Frey describes the harrowing plot line with asperity, perhaps having seen it a few times too many, and notes that the audience cries when the characters cry and "the cast must have shed gallons."

Frey screens the movie four times a month, and has had a team from CBS filming this tear-extraction process, since while it's hard to get funding for emotional-tear research, it's easy to get media attention. "I kind of charge for interviews," Frey told me at one point.

(If you're trying this at home and you can't find "All Mine to Give," you could fall back on music. British psychologist John Sloboda found that among the top mournful musical passages are Beethoven's "Fidelio," Puccini's "La Boheme," Bach's "B minor Mass" and most of all, Rachmaninoff's "Symphony #2," particularly the first six bars of the third movement. Listen for reductions of melody, in which the tone one note below is embellished, and for descending harmony.)

Through films and onions, Frey has acquired many (frozen) samples of emotional and reflex tears and has compared them. Both contain high levels of manganese, about thirty times as much as found in serum. No one is sure why. In the normal course of events, reflex tears, which are produced by tiny glands on the underside of your upper eyelid, drain through a nasolacrimal duct into your nose, where they -- what? "The tears are probably reabsorbed," according to Frey. When tears run down your face, it is because there are too many of them to drain through the nasolacrimal ducts. On the other hand, emotional tears have 21 percent more protein than reflex tears. It isn't yet clear which proteins these are, and certainly not why they are more abundant in emotional tears.

What emotional tears are for is entirely unclear. Animals either don't shed emotional tears or do so much more rarely than humans, and perhaps this is one reason why it's okay to talk about tears at the dinner table -- they're special to our dainty and refined species.

Some marine animals, like seals, shed tears to get rid of excess salt. Saltwater crocodiles shed tears, not, as explorer Sir John Hawkins allegedly reported in the 15th century, to lure sympathetic prey items within reach ("and then he snatcheth at them"), but to get rid of salt. Freshwater crocodiles don't need to do this and so they present a more stoic appearance. These marine tears, among other anomalies, have led Elaine Morgan to speculate in "The Descent of Woman" that human evolution included a period when our predecessors dwelt in shallow seas. In this theory tears, like hairlessness, bipedalism, and other human oddities, is a response to saltwater living.

Personally, whenever I consider Morgan's theory, I imagine myself wading in shallow water, and feel about as well-evolved for that as I do for flitting through the tops of elm trees by moonlight snapping up night-flying moths, or crouching at a vent at the bottom of the sea ingesting sulfur and attracting mates with my fetching bioluminescence. More to the point, it's not at all clear that human tears do function to get rid of excess salt. Nor does that explain why grief, anger or joy causes tears. Seals shed tears all the time, not just when plucky little kids are orphaned.

Tears have a strong communicative power. Psychologist Jeffrey Kottler, author of "The Language of Tears," is a big tear buff. He taught himself to cry again as an adult, and has witnessed rivers of tears in the course of his therapeutic work. But even after all this, Kottler writes, "I am still not entirely comfortable with people who are crying." (If you, too, wish to revive lost crying powers, Frey suggests jump-starting the process with onion fumes.)

Many people cry only when they're alone, when there's no one to communicate with, so if their value is in acting as a signal, they are an involuntary signal. Many theories about emotional tears focus on crying babies, sometimes not bothering to distinguish between the acts of making crying sounds and shedding tears, either of which can happen without the other. Any theory that relates emotional tears to infant crying must deal with two facts. Many infant primates make various crying sounds without shedding tears and are perfectly able to get parental attention. Human infants also manage to get parental attention by crying without shedding tears -- most babies do not actually shed tears when they cry for several weeks or months after they are born.

My own favorite tear mystery is a case reported from Australia of "alternating unilateral lachrymation." In the case the patient, referred to as Eloise, wept copiously from one eye at a time. If she thought of her mother, tears fell from her right eye, and if she thought of her father, tears fell from her left eye. Her therapists became fascinated with this phenomenon, and after some years of therapy, managed to get her to cry from both eyes when she was upset about anything other than her parents.

Emotional tears remain deeply mysterious. Researchers: If you can just get the funding, the field is wide open. And if you figure it out, I'll give you a salt-water fish.

By Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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