Why do people cry?

-- asks David from Internetland

[CREDIT: Jillian Balfour]
By | Posted October 23, 2006
Posted in: Ever Wondered?, Life Science
Tags: , ,

You’re watching the final scene in Thelma and Louise, and you’re on your third handkerchief. You turn your tear stained face to the side and look through blurred, saline-flooded vision at your cat, who is staring back at you witnessing the curious spectacle. Why is it that humans can be reduced to blubbering messes, while other members of the animal kingdom don’t seem to let out even a sniffle?

We have tear ducts to lubricate and protect our eyes from dust and other particles. The ducts are under the upper eyelids and produce a salty liquid—a tear-–-that gets spread throughout the eye after each blink. Animals too have the ability to produce tears, but not necessarily for the same reasons that we humans produce them.

Three types of tears are generated by the human eye. Basal tears protect the eye and keep it moist. Reflex tears flush out the eye when it becomes irritated. And emotional tears flow in response to sadness, distress, or physical pain.

Studies have shown that emotional tears contain more manganese, an element that affects temperament, and more prolactin, a hormone that regulates milk production. Sobbing out manganese and prolactin is thought to relieve tension by balancing the body’s stress levels and eliminating build ups of the chemicals, making the crier feel better.

But this minor physiological benefit aside, the most likely reason we produce emotional tears is because it’s a means of communication. Before babies can speak, they can cry. The only way for infants to express frustration, pain, fear, or need is to cry. Adults may use crying to bond with other humans. Expressing sadness can prompt comfort and support from peers. Different languages can provide barriers to spoken communication, but emotions are universal. There are also culturally acceptable reasons for crying that bring people together, such as at funerals or weddings.

Though there is a significant debate over whether animals have emotions and can express them, some animals do appear to cry for emotional reasons. Elephants seem to grieve when a family member dies and will guard the body and travel long distances to view it. Elephant experts at the London Zoo once told Charles Darwin that the animals do indeed mourn. Chimpanzees also appear to cry, but some scientists still insist that the tears released by these animals are strictly for cleaning the eye.

Whether or not animals shed tears for emotional reasons has yet to be scientifically proven. Humans, however, can and do dissolve into tears for any number of reasons. Cleansing the eye, relieving stress, conveying pain, communication, and societal assimilation can all lead to an empty tissue box. So weeping after that sappy movie might not mean that you are a total wuss after all. In fact, it may mean that you are behaving like a perfectly normal human being.

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  1. very nicely done I love your layout and your funny introductory congrats you have just been bookwormed by moi kiss kiss xoxoxoxoxoxox gossip girl

    penelopebook reviewer, April 30, 2013 at 8:38 pm
  2. this is weird

    chelsea, May 5, 2013 at 11:45 pm
  3. How are these tears produced?

    anu, May 16, 2013 at 8:36 am
  4. could you post the studies as well next time, just so it’s easy to get to…..?

    natasha, October 14, 2013 at 7:10 pm
  5. very insightful article.

    Chiradee Madel, October 15, 2013 at 1:21 am
  6. I was curious if you ever thought of changing the
    page layout of your website? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.

    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content
    so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or two images.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

    thepenisenlargementbiblereview.tumblr.com, March 12, 2014 at 12:17 am
  7. One thing is cultural. In many societies (especially the English speaking world) it is considered for only women the ‘freedom’ to cry and not men who are viewed as ‘macho’ and a ‘sissy’ or ‘wuss’ if allowed to weep. In Europe it is another story, there is more sensitivity that crying is healthy for all genders.

    Also in Japan it is more for women to be allowed to cry, though as simply being human no matter what societal culture one is from, men will cry as well.

    Now, I must say that especially just after this latest disaster over the Ukraine with that tragedy of flight MH-017 between the Netherlands and Malaysia being totally needlessly shot down by crazed seperatist extremists (backed by Putin) being part Dutch myself, I REALLY broked down and let it flow!

    I am indeed of the school that believes that the ability to cry must be never tampered with such as trying to suppress the urge (especially by men). I am Japanese/Dutch 24 year old, and yes if indeed I feel the need to, then I simply ‘huilen’ (cry)!

    Sato Tatsuhiro, July 27, 2014 at 4:35 am
  8. Crying is simply exercised in order to release pain, but too much of crying reduces ones life span. good article otherwise.

    Dj Smart, September 4, 2014 at 8:02 am
  9. I am a military man and crying is for ladies! However…I have had a complete change of thought as for as crying goes. The very reason I looked this topic up was because I have cried secretly for nearly 2 days. I looked it up because I seriously wonder how mant more tears could flow. They literally drip and run down my face. I’d like to give a message to ALL males: “Don’t think you are not allowed to cry. Let the tears flow”
    I have been through a very rough time and I believe tears has made my a better man. You will find yourself more caring to your wife, more thankful and grateful. Crying softens your heart. You’ll become a better lover and be a lot more lovable too. Allow crying to affect your thinking and oit will change you into something much better than what you think you can make yourself to be. BRAVE MEN CAN CRY!!

    Aussie Tough Man, September 18, 2014 at 8:41 am
  10. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?

    Many thanks!

    Jonnie E. Cambia, October 2, 2014 at 11:09 am
  11. Not one comment has addressed the physiological reason for crying: Yes, we may have a build up of stress related hormones etc etc, and we feel better when we excrete these by crying, but why crying? Why not sweating or urinating? When we have a build up of stress or fear, we DO sweat, but that doesn’t answer the physiological reason why we have to excrete these hormones etc in tears and not through any other route. I think we simply just don’t know. Period.

    stan, January 3, 2015 at 2:32 pm
  12. Great site you have got here.. It’s hard to find excellent writing like yours nowadays.
    I seriously appreciate people like you! Take care!!

    Elijah, January 30, 2015 at 6:30 am
  13. In response to comment #10, I am one of those people. Finding a photo from years ago brings me to rock bottom, border line suicidal. Missing that person, instantly regretting everything I did to remove them from my life. Seemingly feeling all of the pain I may have caused them, and more pain in general as I imagine their life playing out further

    Terry, March 7, 2015 at 8:18 pm
  14. i am 9 and very curious i always wanted to know this.

    rajesh, August 16, 2015 at 11:01 am
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