Why Cry?

Originally Published: March 22, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 10, 2014
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Alice,

I have always been curious about crying and tears. It seems so strange that when you are sad about something, salty water starts pouring out of your eyes! Do you know why this happens? Is it because our body needs some kind of release from the pain and has to let something go?

—Cindy

Dear Cindy,

Now don't cry... people have been asking for a long time now why we get teary-eyed, but as of yet, there is no conclusive answer. Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin himself made one of the earliest serious inquiries into the reason behind crying in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal (1872); in his book, he concluded that sobbing served no purpose at all, that it is "an incidental result" of the pressure we put on our eyes when we contort our faces. Shedding tears when upset or angry is, for Darwin, the same as when we weep after we've been hit in the face — it's all about muscle contractions.

Darwin doesn't have the last word on this one, however, and theories — biological, chemical, social, and psychological — about crying abound. Some researchers believe that it actually releases chemicals that our bodies produce when we're stressed or upset. Researchers have analyzed the chemical difference between tears shed by people who were moved emotionally by a Hollywood tearjerker and tears brought about from cutting onions. They found a difference in the proteins between the two types of tears, and concluded that those produced by the weepy film were from hormones released by the body. So "crying it all out" could literally mean crying those hormones out of your body.

Another chemical theory is that crying helps to release endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are chemicals that act as mood-elevators and pain relievers. Both this and the above theory give chemical credence to the assertion that most people feel physically better after having a good sob.

Then there are the socio-psychological theories of crying. The most obvious one stems from what we know of newborns. Infants cry to resolve a negative situation: hunger, pain, a lack of attention. Perhaps we have held on to this tactic as we age, and we weep in order to receive social support, which in turn makes us feel better about whatever is bothering us.

Some researchers argue that crying is a form of emotional communication — it shows that our emotions are honest. It's notoriously difficult to fake sobbing, as many actors can tell you. Tears also help to convey emotions that we may find difficult to verbalize. In addition, tears emphasize that our facial expressions are trying to convey sadness or grief. In one study, researchers showed participants photographs of people weeping, some with the tears removed by a computer. Participants had difficulty identifying the emotion being expressed by faces that had been re-touched to remove the tears.

While not everyone agrees on the biological, chemical, social, or psychological factors that make us cry, most agree that crying is healthy for you and your sympathetic nervous system.

Crying is uniquely human. No other animal expresses its emotions by releasing tears, not even our closest relatives (Darwin again!), the apes. They cry vocally, much like screaming newborns, but they remain dry-eyed. Their tear ducts only kick into action when they've been physically injured. So while you may never get the definitive answer on why you cry, you can still enjoy this uniquely human and overall emotionally healthy and cathartic experience.

Alice