Why Do We Cry?
Our species have been evolving for millions of years yet we are still susceptible to falling into despair and hopelessness. Regardless of how much brainpower we have on our shoulders, we cannot intellectualize ourselves out of feeling emotions. After all, we are still equipped with the same reptilian brain coiled underneath the neocortex.
Emotions serve an important purpose in our lives. As psychologist Susan David brilliantly explains in her book Emotional Agility, emotions act as signposts, helping us to identify our needs so that we can go in the direction of our desires.
Certainly, it is not always easy to sit with our emotions, especially when they are painful and uncomfortable. Though it makes us vulnerable, crying is how we cope with the uncomfortable burden of difficult emotional experiences sometimes.
It turns out that emotional crying is unique to our species. Although there is some evidence to suggest that animals like horses and dogs – even crocodiles – weep, the evidence remains anecdotal at best.
Studies conducted by Tilburg University professor Ad Vingerhoets and colleagues suggest that tears help us communicate our needs to the people around us.
The main function of tears
On a purely practical level, tears lubricate and protect the eyes. If you suffer from dry eyes, you know that eye drops are your best friend.
We also have what experts call, “reflex tears” that essentially protect our eyes from a variety of irritants in the environment like wind or dust. Tears are produced by the lacrimal gland which is just above the eye. The formation of the tear film by the lacrimal gland provides a barrier for the surface of the eye and helps to remove debris.
The lacrimal gland is also responsible for the production of emotional tears – or just plain old crying. Emotional tears are different from reflex tears in that they contain more protein in addition to the enzymes, fats, and electrolytes found in any kind of tear. Arguably, the higher protein content makes emotional tears more sticky, allowing others plenty of time to see them running down our faces.
Why do we cry?
Contrary to popular belief, sadness does not necessarily trigger crying. Studies done by Vingerhoets and colleagues show that crying is triggered by a variety of feelings like helplessness, grief, and homesickness. Let’s not forget about celebrational crying at graduation ceremonies and weddings.
Surprisingly, physical pain is not a big trigger for crying as we get older. According to Vingerhoets’ research, among others, we are most likely to cry in times when we feel like we do not have adequate resources to cope with our problems. Feeling helpless in the face of uncertainty and loss might very well turn on the waterworks – 2020 anyone?
What this all means is that crying lets the person next to us know that we feel incapable in some way and that we seek help. According to researchers like Michael Trimble, a professor emeritus at University College London, our vulnerabilities connect us to each other as human beings.
Evolutionarily speaking, seeing someone cry might increase feelings of empathy and compassion in us, thus, promoting social bonding. Therefore, we are more likely to tend to another person’s pain if we feel empathy towards them. Moreover, Vingerhoets also suggests that the cathartic quality inherent in crying could be the result of comforting gestures of friends and family. In other words, having a “good cry” does not make us feel better, it is the loving response we get from the people around us that helps.
Take home message
Crying is a unique part of human nature and we may cry due to a lot of different reasons besides feeling sad. Also, we may not always have a word to express how we are feeling, and tears help us communicate with people in our lives in a deep and heart-warming way.
- 1. Bylsma, L. M., Gračanin, A., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2019). The neurobiology of human crying. Clinical Autonomic Research, 29, 63-73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10286-018-0526-y
- 2. Gračanin, A., Bylsma, L. M., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2018). Why only humans shed emotional tears. Human Nature, 29, 104-133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-018-9312-8
- 3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532914/
- 4. https://time.com/4254089/science-crying/
- 5. David, Susan., Duygusal Çeviklik (2018).