An aroma fills the home that tells me that Mamma is in the kitchen, cooking dinner. I walk into the room to a sight I did not expect: tears are streaming down her face and when she catches sight of me, she sobs gently. “ Why?” she asks, with her lip pouted in a way that breaks my heart. “Why?!” She demands in a dramatic plea. Then with a sudden twinkle in her eye, she asks, “Why do these stinking onions always make me cry?” And that is when I notice the cutting board in front of her, with the big yellow onion that is wreaking havoc on her eyes and streaking her mascara down her cheeks.
Kinds of Tears
Despite the humor of the onion tears, all tears are not equal. Humans cry for more than one reason and the tears themselves have a different composition, depending on their function. Which makes sense really – Mamma wasn’t actually sad when she cried, the tears unintentionally brought about by the onion. Still, there is a difference to those tears as compared to tears shed if she had lost her best friend.
• Basal Tears
Basal tears are the KY Jelly of the ocular world. Humans produce up to 10 ounces of basal tears every day to prevent the eye from drying out like great prunes. Excessive basal tears are responsible for those “leaky eyes” we get when we are tired.
• Reflex Tears
Reflex tears are what made Mamma cry. We have no control over these wet fiends either. When an irritant “attacks” the eye, hormones are released. This sends a message to the brain to release the Kraken.. err.. the tears that is. Reflex tears are mostly made up of good ole’ H2O and the main purpose of these tears is to protect the eye from irritants like onions, but also from pollen, dust, eyelashes or a poke in the eye. Reflex tears rinse the surface of the eye clear from debris.
• Emotional Tears
Dr. Stephen Sideroff , a psychologist at UCLA and one of the practitioners at an addiction sanctuary in Santa Monica, California, explains that people usually cry in response to sadness or hurt, but that they also cry in response to beauty. He uses the word “melting” to describe the sensation of letting down one’s guard and becoming vulnerable. He poses that emotional tears allow a person to let go and simply experience the emotion.
Emotional tears have a high concentration of the stress hormones that range from pain relievers to anti-depressants. These hormones are released in a flood of tears when the brain is stimulated by events that are accompanied by the feelings of fear, joy or frustration, just to name a few.
Actors have all kinds of tricks to bring on the water works. They use onion juice, glycerin drops; and a handful of highly disciplined melodramatic divas can even focus their thoughts on sad or traumatic past experiences to trigger a tearful reaction much to the joy of the mighty silver screen.
Exclusively Human Response
Animals may yelp in frustration. They have lubricating basal tears and the protective reflex tears. In this way, animal tears are similar to human tears. Still, only human beings cry emotional tears. It is one of the few physiological traits that separate us from other mammals, even other primates. Humans are the only beings on earth that have regular emotional breakdowns that are accompanied by a wet sleeve, red eyes and a snotty face.
Why do you Cry?
So, the question that has both philosophers and scientists scratching their heads is “Why?” Why do we cry? What is it that makes it so impossible for many of us to watch a tragedy played out before us, or to witness an exquisite aria executed by an opera diva, without shedding a tear?
One theory is that crying eliminates stress. This point of view is attested by the fact that most people feel much better after a good cry. Stress levels even out and mood is elevated.
Personally, I’m not so sure that it matters why that is, but it is another question that probably needs answering by the experts. Unfortunately, there certainly hasn’t been enough research into what causes the presence of stress hormones in emotional tears.
Researchers are unsure if stress hormones in the tears are released because of the crying event, or if they just happened to flood the body because of the emotional response, and thus found in the tears as more of a byproduct. Either way, the research is not conclusive.
But what Causes Crying?
Some experts hypothesize that crying is a necessary biological response – a metaphoric safety release valve for pent-up frustrations. Many therapists believe that holding back the flood of emotions is dangerous and that it can cause actual physical trauma if people do not cry.
Debunk the Kettle
But in recent years, this theory has been under extreme scrutiny. The theory is called “steam-kettle thinking.” The problem is that you cannot quantify emotions or give them mass. The theory of tears exploding in a shrieking whistle if you don’t release them appropriately – like a tea kettle that gets too hot –is simply, biologically ridiculous.
A new and popular theory about crying is that it is an evolutionary response. It’s called a “white flag” social cue. Tears obstruct the vision, showing aggressors that the crier is not a threat. Alternately, the same teary eyes show allies that the crier is in distress.
One of the traits of crying is that it evokes an emotional response in those who witness the tears. Humans are unique in another trait, the ability to empathize. Empathy creates emotional bonds between humans. Therefore, the ability to cry with gusto could be considered evolutionarily advantageous – winning allies and warding off aggressors, as shown throughout history.
Nonetheless, to this date, no one really knows what causes humans to cry, or why some of us find it difficult to do so.
If you can cry, it essentially means one thing – you can connect with your soul.