We know what triggers it: Kate Winslet in Titanic, vowing, “I’ll never let go.” The vet intoning, “It’s time to put Whiskers down.” The boss saying, “I’m very disappointed in your work lately.” But why do we weep? What purpose does it serve?
It’s a question that has baffled scientists for centuries. Even Charles Darwin wrote that crying may be “incidental” in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals ($8, amazon.com). Part of the reason that crying remains so mysterious is that it’s so difficult to monitor. Researchers can try to induce tears with sad movies and attempt to assess the brain and the heart with electrodes, but most crying arrives unannounced, unforced, and in private. How the crier feels about her tears, and what benefits she thinks she reaps from them, can be muddled (or enhanced) by the passage of time.
Still, researchers have made inroads in the last decade. Far from irrelevant, crying helps us not only to process particular situations but perhaps even to benefit from them. Homo sapiens are the only creatures on earth who cry, emotional tears and all. (Even the bonobos and the chimpanzees—apes that communicate vocally and laugh, like humans—don’t shed tears.) The human capacity to cry emotionally may signify our unique ability to show compassion and empathy, says Michael Trimble, M.D., a professor emeritus of behavioral neurology at the Institute of Neurology, in London, and the author of Why Humans Like to Cry ($30, amazon.com). Here’s the truth about what your tears say about you and how they can help and heal you.
What Makes Us Cry
Newborn infants don’t cry per se. They wail, like other mammals, without tears and simply to make others aware of primitive needs: They’re hungry; they’re uncomfortable; they’re in pain. Only as they grow to be a few weeks old do the waterworks start to accompany some cries, and perhaps not coincidentally, these cries start to occur for more familiarly human reasons: because children want to be held, because they want attention, or because they’re frustrated.
Any intense emotion—whether it’s overwhelming happiness or ferocious anger or devastating grief—can trigger tears at any age from then on. But as we become adults, the reasons for crying evolve, helping to reveal what moves us. “As we grow older, we are less apt to cry in pain and more apt to cry as a result of loss, separation, and powerlessness and to experience empathetic crying,” says Ad Vinger-hoets, Ph.D., a psychologist at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, and the author of the recent book Why Only Humans Weep ($65, amazon.com). Crying is associated with important changes in how we respond to stimuli over a lifetime.
But just because tear-jerking emotions are strong doesn’t mean that they’re straightforward. “Tears also often tend to come when people are experiencing mixed emotions,” says Tom Lutz, the author of Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears ($23, amazon.com). For instance, the relief and joy of a newly minted graduate; a spurned lover’s grief, anger, and regret; the happiness and sweet sorrow of a bride’s mother as she lets her daughter go. It’s unclear why this is the case, says Lutz, “but certain forms of grief, such as losing a loved one, are, for some, perhaps too singular to produce weeping.” Feel like you cry too much? Here are tips on how to stop crying.