Hilary Boden unravels the science behind tears


Crying is complicated. We cry at our emotional extremes: when we are utterly devastated, and when we are entirely elated. There are times when we want to cry, and others when we resolutely refuse to. Society’s views towards crying are just as confounded: is crying a sign of emotional maturity, vulnerability, indulgent self-pity or dishonest manipulation? Crying men are weak, but crying women are worse?

Crying like this is a uniquely human attribute. Despite the common saying, no crocodiles have ever been involved. Contemporary science has categorised crying into three types, firstly there are basal tears. These tears are achieved by all animals; their function is entirely biological, helping to keep the eyeball cleansed and lubricated and the nostrils damp. Darwin regarded crying as purely evolutional, helping to keep the sense of smell alert in order to survive. Secondly, there are reflex tears, prompted by a source of physical pain, and the irritant molecules in things such as onions and tear gas. Of course, the most interesting of tears are the psychic ones.

Psychologists at the University of South Florida investigated the physical effects of emotional crying on test subjects. Laboratory studies found that criers exhibited calming effects like slower breathing, but also experienced stress, increased heart rate and sweating. Interestingly, the calming effects lasted longer than the unpleasant effects, which may indicate why people tend to remember crying as a cathartic experience. Furthermore, when we are under stress, our bodies produce a hormone called adrenocorticotrophin (ACTH). Biochemical analysis of tears reveals that this hormone is significantly present in tears: they act as a release valve, effectively removing psychological stress. But can crying really be so simply described as a mere chemical audit?

Tears can be our voice when words fail us; crying is a highly articulate method of non-verbal communication. Analysis carried out by Dr Oren Hasson of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology revealed that tears function as an evolutionary mechanism to bring people closer together. “Crying is a highly evolved behaviour,” explains Dr. Hasson. “Tears give clues and reliable information about submission, needs and social attachments between one another.” He argues that by blurring vision, tears reliably indicate vulnerability and that you love someone, a good evolutionary strategy to emotionally bind people closer to you. “Too often, those who cry feel ashamed, silly or weak, when in reality they are simply connected with their feelings, and want sympathy and hugs from their partners.”

So perhaps, we really should cry more because it is healthy for our relationships. But girls, be warned if the damsel in distress style is yours: tears of sadness send a chemical signal to men close enough to sniff them, and it turns them off. A study was carried out where men were given women’s photographs to rate, while smelling tears or a saline solution. The results indicated that the men found the women less sexually attractive when smelling the real tears, and further saliva tests revealed a dip in their testosterone levels. Even less encouraging, the researchers observed that sniffing the actual tears did not make the men any more empathetic. It’s bad news for men too: they suspect the results will be the same for male criers, and research is currently being carried out on male participants.

Realistically however, a reluctance to cry generally isn’t produced by an awareness of chemicals released in tears. Rather, it is society’s wide ranging and not infrequently unsympathetic reaction to criers which produces such a stigma. Research in the 1980s at the University of Minnesota revealed that men cried once every month, whilst women generally cried five times as much. It’s still not an uncommon view today that men who cry are emasculated. But personally, the social perception of criers as weak is not what makes me sometimes reluctant to cry: genuine tears show honest vulnerability, but insincere tears undermine the ‘honest’ act of crying for everyone.

In 1977, Richard Nixon having been taught by his drama coach to cry, said to David Frost “I never cry…except in public”. So crying can be a manipulative tool, preying on the initial association of tears with emotional sensitivity. How can you judge someone’s tears to be genuine? Is it unfair to treat someone crying with cynicism, or is it smart to? It’s unsurprising we can be so reluctant to cry: there is not only the potential to appear weak, but paradoxically manipulative too.

The French satirist and playwright Pierre de Beumarchais wrote, “Je me press de rire de tout, de peur d’être obligé d’en pleurer.”

I force myself to laugh at everything, for fear of having to cry.


Hilary Boden

Image credit – TimOve