Science Behind Your Tears


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You can feel them building up and you know when it's about to happen; you can't blink, talk, or even move for fear of an explosion. Tears. We have all cried, whether in public or alone; for reasons of joy or pain; controlled or uncontrolled. But why do our eyes involuntarily release salty water when triggered by a certain emotion? Why doesn't colorful air emerge from our ears instead? Here is to attempting an explanation.

It is claimed that humans are the only animals on earth that cry emotional tears. It really is instinctive; however, when you think about it: we were all born screeching and screaming with tears streaming down our wrinkly, baby faces, after all. And since that day of birth we've cried for reasons that have grown from trivial to tragic: because we were hungry, needed our diaper changed, fell and cut ourselves on the playground, broke up with our boyfriend/girlfriend, lost a loved one, missed home. But why has it become that we express these emotions from our eyes? I mean, throwing things in anger or feeling sad making sense, but involuntary bodily fluid emerging from your eyes...why?

There is in fact, as with most things, a scientific explanation to such a common phenomenon that you have all probably accepted as perfectly normal until reading the above two paragraphs.

Tears are in fact a biological necessity in all animals. There are different types of tears in humans, emotional being the hardest to explain. For example, reflex tears (that arise from peeling onions or getting something in your eye) are a pure result of direct contact with the eye. In other words, this kind of crying is a natural reflex that occurs when the sensitivity of the eye is disturbed. Basal tears are a natural kind of tear that the body creates in order to lubricate the eyes.

Emotional tears, while cannot be explained in depth, do have a somewhat acceptable explanation, which Jayne Keedle elucidates most clearly in her article, "Emotional tears differ from other tears on a chemical level. Not only do emotional tears have more protein than basal or reflex tears, they also contain manganese and the hormone prolactin -- both chemicals that the body produces in response to stress."

So, while tears do have a cathartic effect psychologically, they also have a biological purpose. Therefore, crying essentially helps to eject what we can consider stress-inducing toxins from our bodies through salty water secretion, aka tears.

But how the body knows to make such tears when emotionally aroused (whether via anger, sadness, or joy) is my next question. The answer is long and scientific but goes a little something like this: the limbic system, which is involved in the production of emotions also controls the autonomic nervous system which controls the parasympathetic nervous system which controls the lacrimal glands which produces tears. In other words, through the transitive property, the system within your brain that ultimately controls emotions is connected to the eye gland that produces tears and triggers the production of emotional tears, whether you like it or not. Essentially, the controller of your emotions connects to the controller of your tears to alert your eyes to cry. Otherwise, the stress chemicals would not be released via tears and stress in your body would build up. 

So, next time you find yourself fighting back public tears in fear that someone will see you, just let it rain. Not only is it therapeutic to cry, but it is also biologically beneficial. Your body will love you for it...your dignity, maybe not so much.

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1 Comment

As embarrassing as this is to admit, I'm a cryer. Give me a sad movie, an adorable proposal, or really anything that could make someone cry and you'll see me right there with a tissue in hand. I'm not sure why, but I've always been a cryer. When I'm happy, sad, or even just stressed. However, i have found that like you mentioned I almost always feel better after I'm finished crying, especially when it's due to stress. Now that I know it's a stress reliever to cry, I'm definitely not as embarrassed that it happens to me. I've obviously always known that it's normal to cry, but it's very interesting to hear that it is legitimately good for you and can alleviate stress and pain. Why is it that crying when your sad though doesn't seem to make you feel as good? Is that just because being sad is such a different emotion than all the others?

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