Written by Ashima Seth
It is a relatively unknown fact that Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, was at a loss when it came to explaining why humans cry when emotional. Animals are known to cry when in physical pain or distress (for example, shedding tears in response to an irritant); however, humans are the only species that shed tears in response to emotional stimulation, such as witnessing the birth of an infant or the death of someone dear to them . So what actually happens when we cry, and why do we do it?
Emotional tears are produced in response to a variety of situations such as experiencing overwhelming joy or sadness, frustration, anger, and stress . When first encountering such a scenario, the amygdala (an almond-shaped region in the brain closely connected to emotions) sends a signal to the hypothalamus (closely connected to the balance of hormones in the body), which responds by firing signals to the autonomic nervous system, the functioning of which is largely outside of our control. The sympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic system that is responsible for activating the fight-or-flight response, responds by attempting to prohibit mucus from clogging the laryngeal cavity; and, as a result, causes the glottis (the vocal cords and the slit between them) to swell, resulting in the characteristic “lump in the throat” that one associates with being emotionally overwhelmed, as well as other symptoms associated with adrenaline, such as a shaky voice and the quivering of the lips. Finally, in response to the elevated levels of adrenaline in the body, the hypothalamus produces a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine (the purpose of which is to counteract the effects of adrenaline) which signals to the lachrymal glands--located near the eyes--to start producing tears .
Understanding the biological mechanisms behind the act is important, but even more crucial is understanding its intended purpose. Crying serves two primary objectives: personal and social. With regards to the personal objective, it has been found that in response to shedding tears, one’s brain produces endorphins, a group of hormones that are known to have an analgesic effect. However, several studies have also found that not all people feel relieved simply by crying, which brings us to the next point — the social objective, which is to strengthen bonds . The purpose of crying, as well as crying patterns, change as we grow from infants to adults. As infants, the purpose of crying is to direct attention towards a source of discomfort, and accordingly, the cries are loud and shrill--composed more of noise than actual tears. As children, we begin to associate crying with both physical and emotional pain on an individual level. Most importantly, by the time we develop into young adults, we have developed deep social bonds with our community, and tend to cry not only out of sympathy for ourselves, but also out of empathy for others.
Showing empathy is an attribute that lies at the core of humanity, and in today’s slowly gender-depolarizing societies, males face less stigma associated with crying --a progress that should be encouraged as it is yet another factor in bringing equality to the world community.