Be Well, Marsha: 4/5/16

To cry or not to cry

By Marsha Bonhart

It happens every time. For a lot of people, it’s beautiful music. For me, it’s the art of great dance, seeing movement that expertly creates a story told by strong, disciplined bodies that defy gravity and the law of physics. When I see that, I lose it, which includes mascara, eyeliner and the glue that holds the lashes—all gone.

What makes us cry? When we’re sad, happy, angry, surprised, grumpy—so many different emotions that can motivate the tear ducts. Imagine not releasing how you feel through your tears. Behavioral neurologists tell us there are some people who just don’t cry.

“We don’t know anything about people who don’t cry,” says Michael Trimble, a world expert on crying, in a Time magazine article on the science of why humans shed or don’t shed tears. He gives information that Charles Darwin once said emotional tears have no purpose, and according to the article, releasing tears remains one of the human body’s greatest mysteries. How do we use tears? For instance, infants need to cry because it’s their only means
of communicating their needs. Adults cry generally to display strong emotions.

There are a lot of tedious facts about such a basic experience. Crying emotes so many different feelings; most researchers say they are only good for lubricating the eyes. Apparently, 1500 B. C. marked the time speculation turned to actual study. The article points to an old theory that sobbing starts in the heart. There is a concept, according to Dutch professor Ad Vingerhoets, that the Old Testament plays into describing tears being created when the heart weakens and turns into water. Another theory attributed the mind as the creator of tears. Or, emotions heating the heart that used water vapor to cool, which would rise, near the head and then become condensation. The thoughts go on and on. Finally, a 17th century scientist found a gland that gave the location of the origin of tears. By studying the lacrimal gland, Niels Stenson and his investigators began to unravel that the role of tears was to keep eyes moist.

The Stenson theory is not a popular one among researchers who look for the reason humans weep. Some of the 20th century reasons include the thought that humans evolve from aquatic apes and tears taught us to live in saltwater. Even without a lot of proof, in 1985 a biochemist said the enzymes, lipids, metabolites and electrolytes that are found in our crying remove toxins from the blood. Or this thought: tearing connects us more as humans.

“Crying signals to yourself and other people that there is some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope,” the article quotes Jonathan Rottenberg. He is an emotions researcher at the University of South Florida.

There is a difference in the tears you shed. For instance, the tears of anger carry more protein, which, according to research, makes emotional tears thick. That means they “stick to the skin and run down the face more slowly.” Tears can also show us as defenseless.

“The same neuronal areas of the brain are activated by seeing someone emotionally aroused as being emotionally aroused oneself,” Trimble says in his Times article. “There must have been in some point in time, evolutionarily when the tear became something that automatically set off empathy and compassion in another.” He states that being able to cry emotionally and being able to respond to that is a very important part of being human.

Then there is the less complimentary use of tears as manipulation. Rottenberg’s research shows crying as a powerful way to neutralize anger and what is learned from a small study in the journal, Science, tears from women contain a substance that inhibits the sexual arousal of men. That thought process has another angle, says Noam Sobel, who is a professor of neurobiology in Israel. He says the bigger story about tears is that they can reduce aggressive tendencies. It is now thought men’s tears may have the same effect. Sobel and his research crew are looking at the 160 plus molecules in tears to see if there is one to blame.

But if you are not a crier, researchers want to know if you are not quite socially connected, since tears are apparently important to mankind and its hominal connection. In a clinical study, German psychologist Cord Benecke discovered people who do not cry were different than those who did. Time magazine quotes him as discovering non-crying people had a tendency to withdraw and were less connected in their relationships and they experienced more negative aggressive feelings than people who cried. Some testers push a myth that crying is a way to emotionally and physically detox—as if it were a workout for your body. Another idea that science is debunking is the expectation that relief comes after a good cry.

“But the work that is being done on this indicates that if anything, we don’t feel good after we cry,” the article quotes Randy Cornelius, psychology professor at Vassar College.

So the crying research that’s being done in the latter 20th and now 21st centuries is still taking baby steps, despite the evidence that looking at its theory is far more important than once thought.  Crying, says scientific investigator Vingerhoets, is extremely critical for human nature, proving, he says that Darwin was absolutely wrong.

Be well,


Marsha Bonhart is a freelance writer and public relations/marketing consultant in the Dayton area. She can be reached at

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