Here Is Why We Cry: The Science Behind Tears

Crying is a universal human behavior that is observed in every culture worldwide. Yet, it remains one of the least understood aspects of human physiology. We cry in response to a range of stimuli, from physical pain to emotional upheaval. But why? What purpose does it serve?

This article examines the science behind tears and the various theories explaining why we cry.

The Biology of Tears

Tears, primarily composed of water, also contain electrolytes, glucose, and a variety of proteins and enzymes. There are three types of tears: basal tears, reflex tears, and emotional tears.

Basal tears are in our eyes all the time, forming a protective layer that keeps them from drying out and guards against dust and other foreign bodies.

Reflex tears are produced when the eye comes into contact with irritants, such as onions, smoke, or a stray eyelash. The sensory nerves in your cornea communicate this irritation to your brain, which in turn sends signals to the lacrimal glands to produce tears, flushing out the irritant.

Emotional tears are what we produce during emotional responses, like crying when we're happy, sad, in pain, or even just very moved.

Theories Behind Emotional Crying

While the function of basal and reflex tears is quite straightforward— they protect the eyes— the purpose of emotional tears is less clear. Here are some major theories:

  1. Self-soothing Theory: Some researchers propose that crying helps to restore emotional equilibrium. When we're in a highly charged emotional state, crying can help bring us back to our baseline. This theory is supported by the common observation that people often feel "better" or "lighter" after a good cry.
  2. Attachment Theory: This theory suggests that crying serves to elicit help and support from others. By showing vulnerability, it can strengthen social bonds by compelling others to provide comfort.
  3. Pain and Stress Release Theory: Biochemically, emotional tears are different from basal or reflex tears. They contain higher levels of certain hormones like prolactin and elements like potassium and manganese. Some researchers believe that crying could release these excess substances linked to stress, essentially 'detoxifying' the body.
  4. Communication Theory: Crying may be a non-verbal way of communicating intense feelings or signaling a need for comfort or help, especially when words fall short.

The Psychology of Crying

Crying is not just about biology. It's deeply intertwined with our psychological state. It's considered a natural response to a wide range of emotions - sadness, frustration, happiness, relief, or even exhaustion. Additionally, personal factors, including gender, personality, and cultural background, can influence crying habits.

Impact of Crying on Health

Research shows that crying, specifically shedding emotional tears, might have several health benefits, ranging from lifting mood to relieving stress. It can stimulate the production of endorphins, our body's natural painkiller and 'feel-good' hormones. Moreover, it can also activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), helping your body rest and digest.

The Enigma of Tears

Even as we continue to cry from the day we are born until our later years, the mystery of why we cry remains partially unsolved. It's an intricate interplay of biochemistry, psychology, and sociology. Crying seems to serve multiple purposes - from the simple act of keeping our eyes lubricated to the complex task of communicating emotions and relieving emotional stress. While much about this behavior remains to be explored, what is clear is that it's a critical part of the human experience, a testament to our capacity for deep feeling and connection.