Crying is one of the most powerful forms of human expression, allowing us to demonstrate our sadness or happiness to other human beings. Although we have all experienced tears running down our faces, have you ever thought about how and why it happens?
Sit back, grab a tissue, and find out all you need to know about the science of weeping tears.
How Do We Cry?
The crying process originates in the emotional part of the brain known as the Limbic system. Having evolved over millions of years (it’s the oldest part of the brain), it deals with fear, love, sadness and happiness.
Messages are sent via neurotransmitters to our Lacrimal system, which is situated next to the eyeballs. In response to an emotional state, the Lacrimal system produces tears and helps to drain them away. This is achieved by internal drainage through the nose, and external drainage down our faces when the internal system becomes overwhelmed.
The more emotional we become, the more visible our tears will be to other people. Aside from our amazing visual capabilities, our eyes also act as a significant communication signal with other humans.
Crying Or Sobbing?
Crying stimulated by our emotions is exclusive to humans – no other species possesses this ability. These tears are known as psychic tears in order to differentiate them from tears produced by other causes (such as those that remove debris, and keep the eye clean).
Surprisingly, although many people would class crying and sobbing as the same thing, science has a different definition. While both have side effects such as an unsteady voice, runny nose, and quivering lips, sobbing has some additional features that make it a more extreme version of crying:
- shortness of breath
- erratic breathing
- muscle tremors
Psychic tears also contain a natural painkiller called leucine enkephalin, helping us feel relieved and comfortable after a crying session.
The Purpose Of Crying
Primarily a form of communication with other humans, crying visibly expresses our deep feelings about a subject, and is surprisingly common. According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, the average woman cries between 30 and 64 times per year, and the average man an average of 6 and 17 times a year.
Research shows that seeing a person crying and visibly upset elicits help from other people and induces empathy. In addition, it has been demonstrated that tears have a self-soothing effect, helping to regulate our mood and refocus the mind.
Learnt in childhood, crying continues throughout our adult life and is largely used in situations where there is a need to display despair or protest. In short, it is an appeal to another person for them to show care-giving behaviour.
Benefits Of Crying
Some scientists believe that crying is a much-needed physical detoxification process that controls stress levels and maintains a good standard of health. Indeed, emotional tears contain stress hormones that get excreted as they drain away.
The act of crying also often results in an increased level of social bonding, creating a support system that is beneficial to our general well-being and mental health – once the emotional state has passed, our heart rate is reduced and breathing normalises, allowing us to focus more clearly on the issues we face.
Think of tears as the safety valve our bodies need. Without it, chronic levels of stress could build up, causing both physiological and psychological harm.