Life Science

Why do people cry?

-- asks David from Internetland

October 23, 2006
[CREDIT: Jillian Balfour]
[CREDIT: Jillian Balfour]

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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Discussion

168 Comments

christina says:

Great article…thanks =D

jay buddy fan says:

Jay buddy… I like your ability to analyze your thoughts and emotions. If I were younger, I’d be your girlfriend.

steve says:

i am a male i am mot ashamed to let the tears flow in public. in church the tears are streaming down my face every week. i cry alot in movies sad or if it has a real happy ending doesnt matter i sit ther and bawl. if a friend cries i join right in and start crying too. i know i feel alot better after a good cry.

crybaby says:

Ok. I read the article and all of your posts. It’s good to know there are so many people out there who cry. I think a good cry now and then is great, but I have a real dilema and I need some GOOD advice here. I work with young women (ages 11 -19) in a treatment facility for girls who have been severely abused (sexually, emotionally, verbally, etc.) I feel very strongly in the power of women and the ability we have to protect ourselves, love ourselves, and be a source for good to those around us. As I work with these young women I try to help them see the strength within themselves. My problem is I will often start to cry when I’m talking to them and telling them how wonderful they are. I think my crying is embarrassing to them and to me. How do I learn to control the crying? I want to stay calm so the conversation can continue. I think often the girl I’m working with will shut down, back away, when she sees me start to cry. This is not good. I really, really need help to stop the cry thing. Any advice?

Chaotic_Flowers says:

@crybaby:
A friend of mine is a physiotherapist with the same problem. She starts Whenever something bad happens or has happened to one of her patients, but for some people it can actually help because they feel less vunerable if the other person is willing to let down their ‘barriers’.

One thing that always helps for me is trying to think logically rather then emotionally. It can be very hard if you are naturally an emotional person, but try count to ten and think about how to treat your patient instead of how much they have been through.

Best of luck!

Mr.Dan(Fem.) says:

I think cry can let me relaxed when im in pressure. And when i feel sad,i ofen cry alone,then i would feel better.

dogs eat grass. that, right there is the question! they do so because it reminds them of good old home. dogs were founded in Yemen, a medium size country located next to the United Arab of Emerates, below Saudi Arabia. Gandi lived there in his young age, he really had no friends so he would look for dogs. It took many years to find some, when he found a pack he was so happy that he made out with them all. the dogs spoke around the world to other dogs and told them his lips tasted like grass. other dogs really liked grass, they tried to find Gandi but never could because they wanted the taste of it. so they just started eating grass!

people cry because chuck norris tells them to!

lola says:

heyy :) iam lola i think that it makes me cry
sometimes i feel like i have a taco in my chest and its stuck

Dr.Murdock says:

its ok to cry but it depends why you cry mabey cause you hurt and have to let your expretion out and have a feeling that you are hurt on the inside.

lala Girl says:

I too was just crying and as a biology major was curious to why exactly people cry due to emotions. My ex and i just recently broke up. We had to end our rel`p for non typical reasons (its extremely complicated .. Something youll see in a movie). But anyways at first i found myself wanting to cry because i felt so sorry for myself. As bad as it sounds i wanted to suffer in sadnness but then i realized that behaving in such a way would only lead to depression. Today i cried but for healthier reasons. Lately i have felt a deeper connection to life and it brings tears to my eyes. My point is that there are healthy and unhealthy reasons to cry. For instance crying because i feel pity for myself is not good. Times like those its best to stay strong and keep moving forward. Thats my opinion.

poo poo says:

Tears of a chimp are not proven? Yah, sounds typical. We can’t observe that a chimp lost their baby and see tears, we are projecting human emotion, and therefore its not fact. UGH… Science is so strict about proof. The dogma, “Its anecdotal evidence, so further study has to prove it.” – Boring!

S says:

Thia was very interesting. The question ‘ why do we cry ‘ just popped into my head and I didn’t have the answer. Now I do. Thanks.

bob says:

why do people cry or the most retardest things? crying in the rain is good bc no one knows that you are crying.

Azalea says:

This is certainly the best written article on the subject I’ve found so far, but I was hoping for a more detailed biological account of it. Specifically, why are there the additional symptoms of runny/stuffy nose, blotchy and flushed skin, and others which seem to be histamine-related? Is it possible that a build-up of stress (from both positive and negative stressors) related hormones which climaxes with the emotional response of tears is akin to an allergic reaction? This whole topic is very fascinating to me, and I hope more research becomes available on it.

Azalea says:

Additionally, regarding comment 112, crying is a behavior and as such falls under the “social sciences” category where nothing can really be proven. There will always be those who deviate from the norm, and to perform social experiments care must be taken not only to remain unbiased (as you’ve said avoid “projecting human emotions”) but also to include naturalistic observation, since a change of setting could affect the outcome. Someone would thus have to spend years observing chimps in their own habitat until they witness several of them losing babies and can catch these moments and the mothers’ responses with a camera. That is of course assuming that the ones observed are the type to cry in that situation and don’t have other ways of coping. In the end, nothing can really be “proven” which is why there are so many “theories” (tested, but not definitive answers) unfortunately. It is the being, not the science, that is flawed.

Francisco, Angelen H. says:

very interesting! nice article.

Frank says:

Enlightening…

At least I know why I cry so damn much…

Sorry for unnecessary anger & uncensored language… Just a little mad is all…

katie says:

can all humans cry

allison says:

this was interesting but i dont like crying in any way n it cud be worse ive spent my whole life crying and its pain ful but it can suck majorly bad but i guess u live throo it

Jev says:

haha i said my name was jev. this i, wierd.

aKnEiWaLh says:

very insightful…. Loved it!

mrd says:

Did not answer the question. So why do people cry? Why?

poiluk says:

i agree with number 125 what is it really not animals HUMANS

Singaporerox says:

Great information!

Singaporerox says:

But,is it answering my question?NO!:(

Sheri says:

What is wrong with me? I have wrote to Dear Abby twice to ask this question but she won’t answer, My problem is I can’t cry. I haven’t cried in almost 20 years. I try but I can’t. Could someone please answer this?

emily says:

if a human cry is an act of communication then what about when someone is crying alone with no one around by themselves. Then what is it its obvioulsly no more than a release of pain. so i would never imagine it to be as communication thats stupid.

Mexxx says:

well,it’s a rlly great article.Yet,I wanted to mention some points.
Actually,not all people are the same..
Some people Might cry for no reason..and those who cry for a reason..that’s because they strongly believe that what happened to them is real.I mean,sometimes..things that are extremely sad and horrible happen to me,yet ..my tears don’t fall unless I let it sink in,that what’s happening to me is real.That is how some actors and actresses cry in movies,although they’re just acting,but they DO cry while filming,because they make themselves believe / they pretend that it’s true ,or something in the movie can relate to them.

Jeena G. says:

every single human being cried…
on the very first day of each one’s life….
U can’t deny that…
No one is feelingless…
Except those who murder each other…
In …some …countries…don’t wanna mention the names….
Sorry went too out of topic…just rlly mad…

Writergirl60 says:

Charlotte T, how can you not cry in your life? THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!!!! THINK! When you were a baby, you don’t know if you cried or not, so I wouldn’t go around like the toughest nut on the planet.

Everybody else: I cry when I’m sad. Sometimes I get mood swings and am really sad for two secs, then I’m fine. It’s odd.

Writergirl60 says:

yesterday i cried all day. I was so sad

Savanna says:

Whenever I sing the chorus to breakaway tears come to my eyes. It starts to sting then whhhhhoooossshhh my eyes are flowing like Niagara Falls. I don’t know if it is emotional or sadness crying?Please could you answer my question

Nicole says:

This is very helpful to the speech I am giving on tears and why humans cry thank you. You prodvided alot of information

Jeremy says:

If you cry in front of people you get locked up in a mental asylum and medicated for the rest of your life until you cease being yourself and become a hollow shell, completely numb to everything and anything around you or inside you. I’m trying to decide whether I should give up and become like that or just continue my current path, experiencing life, taking the good with the bad, crying to deal with it all at the same time and subsequently being rejected by all family, friends and any relationship partners I might have in the future. I have a problem where I keep saying things like “I wish I lived in a world where….” but this is the world I live in and I can’t just “accept it” so I rely on crying to “deal with it”.

Petar says:

A very nice article.

sirgarycoleman says:

do animals cry? yes. humans are animals.

You cry becuse a serton emotion hits you somewhere.

mesfin says:

I’m a men, when I tell good story or happing good thing for same one or for me I cride at the same time I cride when I sad or when I talk to people who has big problem or even when I see them I cride I 40 years old I feel very shame.

Ralph says:

My dearly loved daughter Miriam died last June at the age of 25. For months, I cried every day. In the past month I haven’t been crying as often, but now that June of 2012 is almost here, I am starting to weep again.

Crying might make me feel a bit better emotionally — I don’t know for sure — but it definitely makes me feel worse physically. I get a headache whenever I cry more than a drop or two. That headache has become an incentive for me to control my tears.

Miriam, I love you.

ink drop says:

crying is cool dude

Anon says:

I’d always been curiou about tears, and the causes of crying. To those many people who asked why some people cry for no reason, the article DOES state that tears remove many hormones and toxins from the body. In other words, if your body has a large buildup of these hormones and toxins, you will let loose sooner or later.
Also, Amber, you spelled “Losers” wrong. Spelling important. Fool.

Carol G says:

This is a very interenting, informative and helpful article. I’ve always been curious about tears and the causes of crying. I’ve been to all sorts of the websites but this is the most helpful yet.

Thanks a lot for the information!!!

thanks used it for a research project :)

jodie says:

people who cry a lot why do they do it

Parikshit says:

I real understand know wy people cry and wahat casues ite

ShoeG says:

To whoever it may consern,

I just want to say thank you. This article answered many questions of mine in many ways.

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