Why are we crying? The complicated truth about the tears that we shed

Tears aren't just unique to humans — they're one of the few things that actually bind us all together. But why?


Michael Trimble
November 1, 2014 6:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted from “Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain.”

After the fall of Troy and the end of the Trojan War, Aeneas arrives at Carthage on his way to Italy to found a new city. At Juno’s temple he sees painted images of the fallen heroes of the war, and he weeps.

Crying as an emotional response, especially to sadness and bereavement, is portrayed in the earliest of Western literature, and there are many descriptions of it in Homer’s "Iliad" and "Odyssey." Great heroes weep. Odysseus sheds unconstrained tears as the sacred singer Demodocus sings songs about the Trojan wars; Achilles cries at the death of his friend Patroclus; and even the great Agamemnon breaks down in tears when embracing Odysseus, who visits him after his death in the underworld. As with Aeneas, these heroes weep for the tragedy of the loss of friends and companions during war. Odysseus blames the gods for the whole catastrophe, for weaving tragedy into men’s lives. Such suffering was commemorated in songs that formed the essence of Dionysian theatre: the communal song, the hymn, and the core of Tragedy.

Crying as an Emotional Response

There are many observations of animals that cry out, vocalize, and express distress, which seem to reflect the human equivalent of pain or bereavement, but crying seen as tearful sad sobbing seems to be a distinctly human attribute. This is not to say that animals do not feel what we may call sadness or sorrow, or even mourn in their own way. Emotional contagion and empathic responses have been well defined in several species, but tearing in such situations seems not to be within their experience. A singular problem with the observations is the anecdotal and anthropomorphized interpretations of the behaviours which are viewed by other scientists as insufficient evidence of the true nature and spectrum of animal emotions. This is compounded by the difficulties of defining human emotions adequately. However, the idea that animals do not have emotional experiences, or that the ones they have are in some sense not equivalent to human feelings, would seem to ignore the neuroanatomical fact that brain structures subserving emotion are found way down the evolutionary scale, and become well developed in mammals, as described in the next chapter.

Emotional weeping is not only uniquely human, but universal. Tom Lutz in his book Crying surveys the cultural aspects of tears, and comments on their centrality in works of art across the ages. He notes that the first recorded instance of tears is found in Canaanite clay tablets (14th century bc), in which there is an account of weeping at the news of the death of the ancient Semitic god Ba’al by his sister and lover Anat. In Egyptian mythology, Isis weeps for the dead Osiris, and in the early Mesopotamian epic "Gilgamesh," considered one of the first works of literary fiction, the hero-king Gilgamesh mourns for his companion Enkidu with tears that last seven nights.

The conflation of crying with religious themes is a part of this tradition. There are tearful lamentations in hymns (‘out of the deep I cry to thee: oh Lord God hear my crying’) and psalms (passing through the valley of tears): there are the bloody tears of the saints, and the religious statues dedicated to them. St Francis of Assisi went blind, probably as the result of a trachomatous infection of the eye, but this was, and is still by some, attributed to excessive crying—he is believed to have cried his eyes out. He reflected that he preferred purifying his spiritual vision with floods of tears to going blind, but seems to have succeeded at achieving both. Weeping at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem seems obligatory—such holy tears are seen to be stigmata of a true love of God.

Where and When

William Frey carried out an extensive study in the 1970s on the epidemiology of emotional crying, on 331 adults without psychiatric problems, from a variety of social settings, including a sample of twins. He observed that the average frequency of crying was 5.3 times a month for women, compared to 1.4 for men. The scatter was wide, between those who cried daily and those who were tearless. Six percent of the women but 45 percent of the men did not cry during the recorded month. Of considerable interest is that people reported feeling happier after crying. In this study, 85 percent of female and 73 percent of men reported feeling better after shedding tears; some reported that the act relieved tension, others commented on the cleansing action of crying—washing out bad feelings and similar sentiments. The subjective feelings, however, were dependent on the situation. Crying after a domestic dispute or after emotional traumas which threatened life and limb was not associated with such positive feelings, and the episode of crying was inclined to last a much longer period of time.

Sadness was the primary emotion linked with tears in men and women, and crying induced by sadness was of longer duration than tears of joy. Also, the act of crying was reported as often being preceded by the feeling of a lump in the throat. These results have been in the main replicated by others, although later, more sophisticated studies have emphasized the cultural and contextual variability of crying: settings and companions modify the response, as does the gender of the person crying. Jeffrey Kotter reports that males are less likely to use tears manipulatively, and that they cry in more subtle ways compared to women. By this he means that they shed fewer tears and for a shorter duration, they are not inclined to explain why they cry, and they apologize more for the tears. He goes on to observe that men tend to cry in response to specific situations, and only two of these are equivalent to those in which women cry, namely at the death of a loved one, and in relation to a moving religious experience. Men, he argues, look more towards internal as opposed to external cues, and cry over feelings that relate to their core identity as providers and protectors, as fathers and fighters.

Ad Vingerhoets and his colleagues have explored the question as to when the effect of crying is reported as cathartic.

The word ‘cathartic’ has permeated the literature of Tragedy and crying for many years, and is discussed in more detail later, but it refers to a supposed relief of emotion that occurs in certain settings. The investigators carried out a survey in the 1990s of crying in 2,181 men and 2,915 women from 35 different countries. The study involved the use of assessment scales, such as the Adult Crying Inventory, but also investigated mood and physical changes, gathering data in relation to the most recent crying episode.

Feelings of loss were the most frequently reported antecedent. After crying, most respondents recorded an improvement in their mental and physical state, although this was not the case for some 10 percent, who felt worse mentally, and a greater percentage who were worse physically. There were no significant gender differences for the mental state improvements after crying, although men were less likely to report feeling physically worse.

The presence of others and the social context in which the crying occurred was important, and crying alone or in the presence of one other person led to the greatest ‘cathartic’ effect. The latter was also associated with the presence of social support, the resolution of any event that was associated with the crying, and an enhanced understanding of the circumstances that had led to the crying in the first place.

Although it is often reported as associated with prior feelings of loss, crying is generally viewed in a positive way, and any negative views, in Frey’s survey, were related to an association with ‘weakness’, especially in men. Odysseus, who cries on hearing the laments of Demodocus, weeps, as Homer put it, like a woman, and hides his head and face with his mantle, ashamed to be seen crying by the assembled Phaeacians.

The one-time myth that grown men don’t cry has been broken by the many recorded instances of public tears. Big boys as well as heroes cry. Theodore Roosevelt was seen to cry in public, and Jeffrey Kotter quotes other US presidents who have done the same, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and even George Bush, senior. The famous baseball player Babe Ruth cried when he announced that he had cancer, and the boxer Floyd Patterson did so after losing a fight to Muhammad Ali. Male watersheds in the movies include Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Tom Cruise in "Magnolia," Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," Leonardo DiCaprio in "Catch Me If You Can," George Lazenby in "On Her Majesty’s Secret Service," and the great heart-throb James Dean in "Rebel without a Cause," in his case with no apparent cause—just a troubled soul in an indifferent world. John Wayne is said to have jibed that he would cry for his horse, his dog, or a friend, but never for a woman. Male tears shed in public are perhaps more common nowadays than in previous generations.

Kotter refers to good and bad tears, depending on the circumstances of the crying and how the feeling settles after the crisis. Tears are a universal accompaniment of mourning, observed in all societies where it has been studied, and people cry openly in the theatre and the cinema. Kotter describes the tear ceremonies of the Bosavi people, observed by the anthropologist Edward Schieffelin. They systematically work up to weeping on certain occasions, for example, for the entertainment of important guests. There is dancing and singing, burning of the shoulders of the dancers, and howling and weeping through the night. Afterwards, the contented guests apparently pay compensation to the hosts for having made them cry. Kotter suggests this ceremony is about nostalgic Tragedies, likened to our own attendance at a play or opera. They are ‘institutionalised tear ceremonies . . . that help us to reflect on our feelings about our own existence, through the lives of others. Songs and dances tell stories of lost love, making us cry . . . nowhere is this more evident than during times of death.’ Such descriptions remind us of the way in which Tragic drama serves to release emotions in us, and the importance of crying in social interactions.

Why?

Over time there has been much speculation about the purpose served by emotional crying. A problem with these theories is that they remain largely theories, entangled with the complexities of the overdetermined nature of any individual act of crying. Ancient ideas that held that tears were one way to get rid of bad humours continue to surface. For example, Frey’s assessments of the chemical constituents of tears led him to the view that noxious chemicals, which build up as a result of stress, are removed from the body in crying, literally an excretory process: purgation by another means. This has some associations with the theory of catharsis, a view that is linked to purification and cleansing.

In a slightly different version of these ideas, it has been suggested that tears drain off excess emotional energy, restoring a homeostasis. This was a favoured theory of the early Freudian pre-psychoanalytic theories. In Freud’s collaborative work with Josef Breuer (1842–1925), the word ‘catharsis’ first appears in "Studies on Hysteria," where it is explained that an injured person’s reaction to a trauma is cathartic only if it is complete, such as in revengeful action. It is through language, as a substitute for action, that the effect can be modified when incomplete—these were ideas that were to lead from the cathartic to the psychoanalytic therapies. Kotter, a therapist himself, refers to crying as a ‘defence against other internal drives’; it is an act of regression and a retreat to the earliest preverbal stage of life.

While there is good evidence that crying makes people feel better, there is little evidence showing any cathartic effect of crying, if by that is meant some sort of peaceful relief from tension or another emotion. No cathartic effect of crying has been observed when people are asked to cry as opposed to suppressing their tears while watching sad events. James Gross and colleagues showed a sad film to 150 women and measured a number of physiological and behavioural indices noting differences between those who cried and those who did not. They were also able to compare measurements in the pre-cry phase with the actual crying spell. Crying, associated with self-reported experiences of sadness and pain was distinguished by increased heart rate, increased skin conductance, decreased breathing rate, and increased somatic activity.

They discussed the implications of their findings for two different theories of crying, the physiological recovery hypothesis, which implies a restoring of homeostasis akin to catharsis, and the physiological arousal hypothesis, which implies increased emotional activity. Their results favoured the arousal hypothesis, but they cautioned that the main effects of crying may not have been observable over the short time intervals of their study, and that the ‘catharsis’ may occur later.

Lutz reviewed all the evidence available to him, including psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic studies, and concluded that there was no hard evidence for a cathartic effect of tears, even for so-called cathartic therapy, in which patients are asked to recall as vividly as possible their traumatic experiences. Randolf Cornelius likewise concluded that, in contrast to a catharsis, ‘crying is associated with increases in arousal, tension and negative affect . . . Crying does also not appear to be necessarily beneficial to one’s health, as the cathartic model of crying would predict.’

If crying is not physiologically beneficial, what then is the purpose of emotionally aroused tears? Is it entirely psychological? Recurrent sociological interpretations emphasize the communicative value of crying. Crying, like a shout or a sneeze, attracts the immediate attention of others. Tears provoke an emotional response in the observer which, in the more sceptical views, not only elicits sympathy but acts as a manipulative tool. As Shakespeare put it:

And if the boy have not a woman’s gift To rain a shower of commanded tears, An onion will do well for such a shift.

Several surveys have confirmed that women cry more than men, but this difference is not observable in infants and it becomes apparent only around puberty. In babies, crying has been referred to as an acoustic umbilical cord: the instant appeal to a mother of a baby’s crying is obvious. This has been discussed in the psychoanalytic theories of John Bowlby, crying being a part of attachment behaviour; in a child it is a signal of the departure of his or her parents, especially the mother—essentially separation. Kotter also views crying as a means of bonding between individuals, but of all ages, and suggests it is a powerful way of obtaining help and emotional support.

Around the age of three to four months, the relationship between an infant and the surrounding environment takes on a more organized communicative role, with greater self-regulation, and crying becomes tailored, with more specific interpersonal purposes. There are few studies of the neurological accompaniments of tearing in infants, but around this time the electroencephalogram shows distinct changes, with increased synchronous activity. Brain imaging studies have shown the activation of certain brain areas linked with emotion (to be discussed later) in mothers hearing infant crying compared to simple noise. The meaning of these activations is unclear, but they imply a cerebral interplay between infants and mothers in relation to crying.

Crying in a baby leads the mother to pick it up and offer the breast or some other means of pacification. This theme was put into an evolutionary perspective by Paul MacLean, whose work on the organization of emotion in the brain was stimulated in the 1950s by clinical observations of emotional changes in some people with epilepsy. As a comparative anatomist, MacLean viewed animal behaviours as evolutionary adaptations of the brain. He was one of the pioneers of understanding the circuits in the brain which are involved in emotions and expression, a theme taken up in the next chapter. In his original descriptions of the limbic system—the brain structures linked to emotion—MacLean noted an organization stretching back to our reptilian past. He used the expression ‘the triune brain’ to explore three different major components of the mammalian brain, which he referred to as the proto-reptilian, the limbic, and the neocortical. In his scheme, the limbic system evolved alongside the developing social complexity of the mammals.

He attributed to the limbic structures (which will be described in greater detail in the next chapter) three key mammalian behaviours: nursing and maternal care; audio-vocal communications, vital for maintaining maternal-offspring contact; and play. Key to MacLean’s ideas was that ‘the history of the evolution of the limbic system is the history of the evolution of the mammals, while the history of the evolution of the mammals is the history of the evolution of the family’. In other words, the development of the limbic system was an essential prerequisite for the development of certain characteristic mammalian behaviours. A characteristic of a young mammal is its need for the presence of its mother, and everything that involves. A reptile hatching from an egg must not cry out for its mother, or else it will be readily detected by predators and eaten. In contrast, a mammalian infant depends on the separation cry for succour and security. If there is no cry, the infant will not survive. The development of family, sibling, and later peer-relevant behaviours, including emotional and interpersonal bonding, correlates with and is related to the evolutionary development of these limbic structures.

Other ideas about crying fluctuate between the sociological and the biological. Darwin noted that the main expressive movements during crying (and other actions such as laughing or blowing the nose) lead to a rise of pressure in the chest and abdomen, which leads to increased blood pressure in the eyes. In order to prevent damage to the eyes, the muscles around them contract. Darwin considered that this protective contraction ‘was a fundamental element in several of our most important expressions’. In infancy, screaming leads to engorgement of the blood vessels in the eyes, and the latter leads to contraction of muscles around the eyes, to protect them from the resulting increased pressure. Tears were a reflex response of the lachrymal glands to these events. The act of contraction of the muscles around the eyes caused alterations in the activity of several facial muscles around the mouth, increasing the expression of the gesture. Darwin observed that young infants before the age of two to four months cry out violently, and have their eyelids firmly closed, but even though their eyes become suffused with tears they do not shed them. Supporting a view that the primary function of tears is to lubricate the eyes and nostrils (to aid smell), and that irritation of the eyes leads to stimulation of the lachrymal glands, Darwin suggested that with evolutionary time, the slight irritation became enough to lead to the free secretion of tears. In the human, by later childhood, these reflexes become habitual, being evoked by lesser circumstances than those that arouse the infant: the habits associated with screaming in children become linked to suffering and the relief of suffering. For Darwin, habitual actions can become hereditary and he reasoned that, in comparison to many other emotional gestures, ‘weeping probably came on rather late in the line of our descent; and this conclusion agrees with the fact that our nearest allies, the anthropomorphous apes, do not weep’. He concluded, with regards to the pleasure of crying, that ‘by as much as the weeping is more violent or hysterical, by so much will the relief be greater—on the same principle that the writhing of the whole body, the grinding of the teeth, and the uttering of piercing shrieks, all give relief under an agony of pain’.

Ashley Montague observed that in infants who cry without tears, the mucous membranes of the nasopharynx quickly desiccate, an effect which is harmful to the delicate cilia and secretary cells of the nasal passages, which would increase the chance of infection. Since tears run from the eye into the nasolacrymal ducts, he suggested that they serve as an adaptive trait counteracting the damaging effect of tearless infant crying. Crying evolved in humans as opposed to other primates because of the prolonged period of postnatal development, and, in view of the antiviral and antibacterial constituents of tears, the more the youngster cries the healthier he or she is. Taking his theory further, he observed that men have larger nasal passages than women, hence the greater amount of overflow down the female face: males blow their noses while females blub.

From crying with tears comes weeping in sympathy, a social response which, as will be argued later, is conditioned or underpinned by a neurobiological basis linked to empathy.

Crying as an emotional response is evoked in many settings. Some people cry at the slightest emotional wave, while for others a storm is needed before the flood. Some personality styles seem more prone to instant tearing than others; the hysterical can be contrasted with the obsessional. The impressionistic hysteric, responding to the immediacy of every situation, characteristically emotionally labile, and easily perturbed by the slightest emotional breeze, seems the opposite of the highly obsessional, whose intense control over the release of feelings is bounded by emotional and muscular rigidity.

In one study of personality and crying, the circumstances of crying in the previous year were rated, and personality questionnaires filled out by 70 male and 70 female volunteers. The death of a friend and breaking up rated highest in terms of occasions. Women cried more frequently and intensely than men, and in both sexes crying positively correlated with personality variables related to empathy. In men, but not women, neuroticism was positively correlated and masculinity negatively correlated with crying. In an unpublished study quoted by Vingerhoets and Cornelius, in which empathy was measured in nearly 500 adolescents, proneness to crying and empathy were strongly correlated in both boys and girls, while in another study empathy was associated with crying but only in females. Reviewing the available literature on personality and crying, Vingerhoets and colleagues concluded that positive associations could be claimed between crying proneness and neuroticism, extroversion, and empathy. As will become clear later, the link between crying and empathy, confirmed by other investigators, is important in understanding human emotional responses, and is echoed by an underlying neuroanatomy.

Koestler referred to the ‘logic of the moist eye’ in "The Act of Creation." He noted different situations in which weeping occurred. Rapture was self-transcending, which led to quiescence, tranquillity, and catharsis. No specific voluntary action could consummate the moment; as he pointed out, you cannot take a stunning visual panorama home with you—as every photographer knows. He equated this response with altered activity of the autonomic nervous system (an anatomical concept to be discussed in Chapter 3). When weeping in sympathy with another, or on viewing a tragic film, he suggested that two psychological processes occur: identification, which he equated with introjection or empathy, and vicarious emotions.

Thus, catharsis, in a physiological sense, has been difficult to substantiate, but the results are by no means conclusive. More work on the delayed responses to crying, in which the aftermath of the tearing is evaluated in comparison with the states before, needs to be carried out, and more sophisticated studies using, for example, the newer methods of brain imaging could be rewarding. However, the surveys reveal that with some occasions of crying people experience what they call a cathartic experience, and that the feeling is usually positive.

Some people feel so much grief that they simply cannot cry. In the play Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare explores a grief that exceeds tears. In "The Tin Drum," Gunter Grass describes the Onion Cellar, a bar in postwar Germany where the guests are given only onions and knives. The seven skins of the onions are peeled away, the onions are then chopped, and people no longer see anything because their eyes overflow with tears. People go to the cellar just to share painful memories and cry. The protagonist reflects how ‘the juice’ brought forth what the world and the world’s suffering could not: ‘a round human  tear . . . the rains came, the dew fell . . . the tragedy of human existence was spread fully before [them]’.

Excerpted from “Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain” by Michael Trimble. Copyright © 2014 by Michael Trimble. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.


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