There are two kinds of people in the world: those who cry at movies and those who don’t. I freely admit I’m one of the former. I even cry during TV sitcoms. Heck, sometimes I even cry during commercials (only the really good ones, though).

Just why some people cry more easily than others isn’t well understood. In fact, why we cry at all isn’t well understood, especially since, so far as we know, only human beings exhibit this particular response to strong emotion.

Of course, we produce some tears all the time, which is a good thing, because we’d go blind if our eyes dried out. Spread out over your eyeball, tears have three layers: an inner layer of mucus, a middle layer of salt water (90 percent of the total) and an outer layer of oils, which helps keep the tears from constantly spilling down your cheeks.

All this comes from glands at the outer upper corners of the eyes. Every blink sucks tears out and spreads them around. They eventually empty into the nasal cavity through ducts at the inner corners of the eyes, which is why your nose gets runny when you cry.

Anything that irritates or dries out the eyes, such as dust, wind or bright sunlight, increases tear production, as you’d expect. The fact that strong emotions also increase tear production is less easily explained, though many have tried.

Charles Darwin thought strong emotion caused muscles around the eyes to contract, stimulating the tear glands. Others think emotional tears are left over from our infant days, when crying was the our only means of communication. Some think crying helps protect the upper respiratory tract from infection by increasing the flow of tears, with their anti-bacterial properties, into the nasal cavity, although I don’t quite understand why your body should react to strong emotion by beefing up your protection against sinusitis.

The most recent theory, from Dr. William Frey of Minnesota, suggests that crying makes people feel better because the copious tears help rid the body of chemicals that build up as a result of stress. Irritant tears (which Frey produced in his subjects with onion vapors) are chemically different from emotional tears (which he produced by showing sad movies). The latter come in greater volume and contain at least four different hormones that help modulate our reaction to stress, including one called prolactin, which may help stimulate tears: drugs that reduce prolactin levels in the blood have been able to reduce or excessive crying caused by neurological disease.

Frey’s theory sounds good, but it obviously needs some fine-tuning, because other studies have shown that crying at a sad movie actually raises the heart rate — hardly a form of stress reduction — and some people who cry a lot have higher levels of tension, fatigue and hostility than less-frequent criers exposed to the same amount of stress.

How well crying relieves stress, then, apparently depends on the individual and the situation. Crying every time you’re criticized is probably not a healthy response; but crying when there is nothing you can do (such as after the death of a loved one) may indicate acceptance, the first step toward recovering emotional equilibrium.

Frey also determined how often people cry. “Crying diaries” kept by more than 300 healthy adults showed that crying frequency for women ranges from never to almost daily, averaging 5.3 times a month, while crying frequency for men ranges from never to twice a week, averaging 1.4 times a month. So, women really do cry more than men.

Part of the reason is probably sociological: it’s still less socially acceptable for men to cry than women. However, there may be a physiological reason, too: women have more prolactin in their blood than men do (it plays a role in milk production and in regulating the menstrual cycle). This notion is supported by the fact that there’s no difference in crying patterns between boys and girls before puberty, when female prolactin levels rise.

Now that we’re in a supposedly new age of being in touch with our feelings, it will be interesting to see if the “normal” frequency of male crying increases. Frey himself found that most of his subjects held positive attitudes toward crying, both their own and others’.

The feeling that crying is “unmanly,” however, is still out there: one magazine article I read mentioned a New York editor who burst into tears on receiving a phone call, and told his concerned fellow workers his mother had died. They responded with flowers, only to find out later what he’d been ashamed to tell them: it had actually been his cat.

Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1993/04/tears/

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