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What is Crying?

Updated on June 4, 2016
Rogier van der Weyden (1399/14001464) Detail from Descent from the Cross.
Rogier van der Weyden (1399/14001464) Detail from Descent from the Cross. | Source

Why Cry? What is Crying and Why Do We Cry?

Are you a cry baby? Do you shed a tear from time to time in happiness or misery? Of course you do - you're only human after all!

Chances are that you've taken tears and crying totally for granted, but once you take a moment or two to think about crying and why we cry, you'll realise that there are more questions that answers when it comes to tears.

Is it really true that only humans cry? Have you asked yourself the question 'what is crying'? Have you ever been told that "crying it out" is good for you and wondered if this is really true?

There's something shameful attached to crying - at school children who cry easily are taunted with the song of "cry baby cry". Crying seems to be seen as a sign of weakness and we really can't help shedding a tear or two - it's easier said than done to stop crying. Is this really true and do women really cry more than men?

This is a short exploration of what crying is, what makes us cry and why on earth do we do it.

Humans Love to Cry - Find out why the human race is made up of cry babies

Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain
Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain

Professor Michael Trimble was a Professor of Behavioural Neurology and Consultant Physician. He worked in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the National Hospital Queen Square in London UK. He has written several books including 'The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language, Art and Belief' and 'Why Humans Like to Cry'.


A definition of crying:

"A complex secretomotor phenomenon characterized by the shedding of tears from the lacrimal apparatus, without any irritation of the ocular structures".

(Patel, V. (1993). "Crying behavior and psychiatric disorder in adults: a review")

I Was Inspired to Write About Crying After Listening to 'The Crying Game' - A fascinating radio programme on BBC Radio 4

I love Radio 4 and it's diverse range of news, plays and stories, but this investigation by Geoff Watts into why we cry and the nature of tears was so basic and yet so little talked about that I just had to spread the word. Do listen to the programme if you can catch it, but for anyone who can't, some of the gist of it is set out here for you.

Where did the title come from? The Crying Game, 1992, is a film written and directed by Neil Jordan. Set in the Troubles in Ireland, the film takes a look at the problems of race and nationality, gender, and sexuality. It stars (Stephen Rea) as Fergus, Forest Whitaker) as Jody and Jaye Davidson as Dil.

Lacrymal gland
Lacrymal gland | Source

What is Crying? How Do We Cry?

How tears work

Why cry? You might well ask. This is more HOW cry - how crying works.

Tears are produced by the 'lacrimal system' consisting of a secretory system around the eyes which produces tears and a system to drain away the tears.

It's the lacrimal gland which is primarily responsible for tears shed in response to emotional feelings or reflexive tears - tears produced when our eyes are irritated or damaged.

Tears are produced and some will evaporate but the rest is drained away through the lacrimal punctum (you can see these little holes on the inside edge of your lower lid) and they will then be drained away through the nose. This is why your nose runs when you cry. If the tears are flowing too fast for the drainage system, they will fall as tears.

Crying can also e acompanied by sobbing. Sobbing involves the whole body: heart rate increases, the body shakes and heaves, blood vessels dilate - which is why we get a glowing red nose.

The Lacrimal System - The three types of tears

There are three types of tears: basal tears, reflexive tears, and psych tears, according to

(again) the BBC Radio 4 programme What is Crying? The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry

Basal tears

This is the constant flow of normal tears that keep the eye moist and healthy.

Reflexive tears

These are tears produced in response to irritants that might enter the eye - onions or other noxious fumes or specs of dirt or other 'foreign bodies'. These tears wash away any dirt in the eye.

Psych tears

Ah! Here we come to the interesting 'emotional' crying - the one we are most conscious of and most interested in. These tears are produced in response to pain and strong emotions. The emotions range from sadness and frustration to joy and happiness. These are the tears that scientists are struggling to explain.


Charles Darwin on crying

Charles Darwin tried to find out why we cry and, after carrying out experiments on his chileren, put his thoughts into his book, "The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals". He thought crying derived (at least in babies) from the crumpled facial expression of a howling child.

The Latest Thinking About Crying

Scientists have been investigating the phenomena of tears

Why did the human evolution lead to crying in response to strong emotion? What evolutionary advantage could we gain from this physical signal of the way we are feeling?

Not much is known about the origin of crying but one idea that has been put forward is that it might be something to do with honesty. Crying is a way of showing others our genuine emotion and so show that we are not trying to deceive them. It is difficult to cry on command so tears are hard to falsify.

So how did it come about that this honesty of emotion became linked to the fluid that is used to wash our eyes? After all it could be fluids from the nose or mouth. It has been thought that red eyes point to illness and so this watering of the eye might elicit aid from others. Claudia Hammond, author of 'Emotional Rollercoaster', suggests that the purpose of crying is communication - to evoke pity or empathy.

This idea is strengthened by research led by Kazushige Touharaon on mouse tears which have been shown to contain a feramone which affect other mice. Do human tears also contain such powerful chemical signals?

Noam Sobel concluded that while human tears don't have a noticeable odour but they do contain a chemosignal. He found that sexual arousal in general and particularly testosterone, was reduced when people smelled tears as opposed to saliva. This led him to conclude that tears could be a signal to reduce aggression, especially in men.

We have seen how we cry and perhaps why, as humans, we have evolved to cry, but what is the history of crying? "History of crying?" you might ask. But do we cry more or less now than we used toin the past? Public crying is so often seen on TV - and not only in dramas. In sport and politics we see people crying. Just look at Andy Murray or George Bush.

What do we know about the shedding of tears in the past? Crying became popular in late Baroque early Romantic. Racine wrote crying into the text of his plays. During this time it was thought that if you couldn't make audience cry your play simply wasn't good enough.

Tears are a marker of sadness

It's the tears that make a face look sad. Would a face without the tears look as sad? Or could it look thoughtful, pensive even? In studies carried out pictures of a crying face had the tears removed and were then shown to people who were asked to comment on the emotions present. Without the tears, that great signal of emotion, the face was not considered to be as sad or even sad at all. Tears are the markers of sorrow.

What Makes Us Cry?

Crying is individual, social and cultural

As crying is involuntary, it's difficult to study crying in an artificial situation - being a subject in a laboratory is not the same as feeling strong emotions of grief or happiness in real life.

When you ask people what they cry about they will report that they cry if they've had a bereavement or loss or that a sad film will make the tears flow, but then change the question a little and ask what was the last thing they cried about it was feeling left out or excluded. So what does make us cry?

Different things make different people sad. The dog's near death in Lassie will certainly set me off - but others - my husband for one - will remain impervious. Well there are cultural, sex and geographical differences but there are some universal things that trigger the tears. Top of this list is music followed by poetry. We are much less susceptible to the images in paintings and sculptures.

So why does music make us so tearful? It is thought that the link between the first musical instrument - the human voice and our unique human reaction to music of rhythmic dancing makes us especially prone to find music so moving.

Men Crying? Who Really Does Cry Most?

Do women cry more than men?

Yes. Crying varies from male to female and from culture to culture. America is at the top of the crying list for both men and women, while Bulgarian men and Icelandic and Romanian women cry least.

And women really do cry more than men. Baby boys and girls cry the same amount but things start to change around the age of ten or eleven. At this age girls start to cry more than boys (or they report that they cry more.) The question is why. Is it biology or culture?

Do Elephants Cry? - Get to the bottom of the emotions of crying in animals and humans

Is it true that only humans weep? animals eyes might water, but is this an emotional response? Many people will tell you that their animal cry when feeling sadness, but is this really true? Here are three books that tell you more about human crying and the emotional life of animals.

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals
When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals

It's said that elephants cry out of sorrow. Is this true? Charles Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that the keepers of Indian elephants in the London Zoo told him that their elephans wept when they felt sad. Take a look at the book below to decide for yourself if animals cry.


Music can move us to tears

"Lacrimosa Dies Illa" from Mozart's Requiem Mass

Mozart will move you to tears with the beauty of this music.

Why do movies make us cry?

We all love a good weepie don't we? What about the moment in the film, The Railway Children, when the father returns home at the end? Is Les Miserables the Weepiest Film Ever?

I clearly remember watching the Lassie films as a child at home and can still picture my father walking in on three howling children when Lassie comes to some near-death crisis or other towards the end of each film.

Many of us enjoy crying - but why? Is crying good for us?

Weeping Madonnas - religion and crying

Weeping in religious art and the bible

The Bible mentions weeping and tears many times, and weeping is shown often in images drawn from the bible - especially in depictions of Mary Magdalen at the Deposition, where Christ is taken down from the cross, The Pieta, which shows Mary holding the body of her dead son, and the discovery of the risen Christ.

(I don't know much about other religions, so please feel free to leave comments about weeping in your religion in the comments box below).

The Virgin Mary is Renown for Crying - There are many crying madonnas

The Seton Miracles : Weeping Statues and other Wonders
The Seton Miracles : Weeping Statues and other Wonders

'Madonna delle Lacrime' - The weeping madonna is a recurrent theme throughout history and this is an account of the the weeping statues at Seton in which hundreds of statues and crucifixes appeared to be weeping tears and tears of blood. This happened in front of thousands of people who bore witness. Why and how?


Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime-Syracuse

Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime-Syracuse GNU Free Documentation License.
Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime-Syracuse GNU Free Documentation License. | Source

Is crying good for us?

Is Crying Good for Us?

Does 'crying it out' really work?

We are often told either not to be a cry-baby, or, on the other hand to use crying as a way to let out all that pent-up emotion - "crying it out". So which is right? Should we stop crying or should we cry it out?

Well, the studies have shown that this depends on whether we cry and then get help - in which case crying is useful, or whether we cry alone. Sobbing your heart out by yourself in your bedroom hasn't been shown to be as cathartic as it was once thought.

Dr. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Netherlands does go along with the feel good factor that arrives after a good cry. H thinks that the mechanism for this cathartic feeling could be that crying releases certain chemicals oxytosis in the brain, and perhaps other chemicals, which have a positive effect on mood.This might suggest that crying also effects our perception of pain.

Of course tears might not be useful as a way to let out our emotions, but they might be vital as a signal to others.

Enjoy a few tear-jerking songs

Who's Crying Now? - Crying lyrics - they love to sing about crying

So many artists have sung about crying - the list of them all would be very long indeed. They just love this emotional response to sorrow and, of course, crying is the perfect flip side to the happiness when the path of true love is going more smoothly. Shed a tear or two over these crying lyrics.

Who's crying now by Journey

I love K D Lan's version of Crying. She and Roy Orbison also sant this together

Don McLean is crying too.

Rihanna loves to cry

They're telling you not to cry - but is is it so easy to stop crying?

Cry baby Bunting,

Daddy's gone a-hunting,

Gone to get a rabbit skin

To wrap his baby Bunting in.

— Traditional

Cry Baby Cry - Are You a Cry Baby?

How often do you cry?

See results

© 2013 Barbara Walton

Do you Have a Favourite Sob Story? - I'd love to hear from you

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    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      5 years ago from France

      @Davidfstillwagon: Well, David, must give credit to Radio 4, but I did find the programme fascinating and it raised so many other issues about crying - do those elephants cry and what about mouse tears? So much more to learn.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      5 years ago from France

      @Ruthi: Aw, a real cry-baby, Ruthie. I must admit the Little House On The Prairie would do it for me! what about The Horse Whisperer too. Crying is a great release I think - I'll have to try the cry+cuss recipe.

    • Davidfstillwagon profile image


      5 years ago

      What an interesting idea for a lens!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I cry at the drop of a hat. For instance, I still cry when I watch reruns of Little House On The Prairie. I suppose, though, that my favorite sob story would be a warning I have given many - If you hear me cussing you know I am mad; if you see me crying while cussing you know I have reached my boiling point and you better get out of my way!


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