When was the last time you had a good cry?
And what sort of cry was it? Were you weeping, blubbering, sobbing, howling, bawling, snivelling or whimpering? Each crying experience is different; each is as individual as you are.
We can cry when we are sad, happy, hurt, humiliated, lonely, relieved, exhausted, exasperated, angered or just plain drunk.
But why do we humans cry at all?
In fact, we are the only species that do cry. Many pet lovers will maintain that their cute little pussy cat or even their big butch wolfhound can and do cry and, certainly, all animals have the physiological ability to produce tears that lubricate their eyes but there is a difference between producing tears and actually crying. Some animals appear to cry simply because of a reflex action to pain or irritation.
And just think of the dozens – hundreds, and possibly thousands – of songs about crying. I recall from my sentimental youth such classics as “Crying (Over You)” Roy Orbison, 1961, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” The Four Seasons, 1962, “Crying in the Chapel” Elvis Presley, 1965 and “Cry Me a River” Joe Cocker, 1970. And all were about sad, broken love affairs. And there are just as many songs imploring somebody not to cry, and usually for the same reason.
As Noel Coward’s character Amanda remarked in his 1931 play “Private Lives”, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”.
One 1982 study showed that women cry, on average, 5.3 times a month, while men only give way 1.3 times a month. On average when a woman cries, it’s likely to be five or six minutes while a manly weep lasts only two or three minutes. More recent studies have shown this gap to be narrowing, presumably as men nowadays are less stiff-upper-lipped and more willing to show their emotional side.
One researcher believes testosterone inhibits men’s crying and he cites prostate cancer patients who are being treated with drugs that lower testosterone levels cry more than other men. Then again, it could be argued that having cancer makes these men more emotionally fragile.
All studies have shown that the reason we cry changes as we age.
Crying in babies is believed to be “an acoustic indicator of parental need”, which is hardly news to any parent, and it is gender neutral. There is a theory that as we age, we have, generally speaking, more empathy with others and are therefore more likely to cry when, for example, a friend or relative suffers some terribly upsetting event.
And did you know there are different sorts of tears?
Emotional tears have been shown to be chemically different to tears shed while chopping onions. In addition to the enzymes, lipids, metabolites and electrolytes that make up all tears, emotional tears contain more protein. One hypothesis is that this high protein content makes emotional tears more viscous, so they stick to the skin more strongly and run down the face more slowly thus making them more likely to be seen by others.
Tears also show others that we are vulnerable and vulnerability is critical to human connection. Tears automatically set off empathy and compassion in others, although there are those who can turn the waterworks on and off at will just to manipulate others. 3ears can neutralise anger very quickly so can be exploited in arguments between warring lovers. If one is feeling guilty and wants forgiveness, a good cry is a very useful strategy.
And then there are those cold, unemotional and heartless bastards of both genders who don’t cry at all. Little is known about why this happens in some, and one theory is that they are less socially connected.
There is a myth that crying is some sort of emotional and physical detox. There is simply no evidence to suggest that crying has a positive effect on health, yet people seem to overwhelmingly believe that crying is good for the mind, the body and even the soul, and that holding back would result in the opposite.
There have been theories since around 1500 BC as to why humans cry. Once it was thought that tears originated in the heart – the Old Testament describes tears as the by-product of when the heart’s material weakens and turns into water. In Hippocrates’ time, it was thought that the mind triggered tears, and by the 1600s it was believed that emotions – especially love – heated the heart which generated water vapour in order to cool itself down – the heat vapour would then rise to the head, condense near the eyes and escape as tears. It wasn’t until 1662 that a Danish scientist, Niels Stenson, discovered that the lachrymal gland was the proper origin of tears.
I once sympathetically inquired of a lady friend why she was crying and wondered out loud if it was because of her hairstyle.
Her reaction, oddly enough, made me cry, and it wasn’t because of empathy.
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