Science Questions

Why do we get relief from crying?

Mon, 18th May 2015

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Maria Guimares asked:

I'm wondering what crying is, from the neurophysiological standpoint. What is happening when one is anguished or sad, and really feels like crying? Is that different from when we just cry, without the option of holding back? Why does it feel like a relief? There are several reasons for tears to pop out from the eyes: sadness, frustration, physical pain, emotion (which could be positive, really happy)... I assume that completely different parts of the brain are active in each of these situations. Is the same process going on, leading to crying?


We put Maria's question to Max Sanderson...Crying Toddler

Max - Well, yes. Itís really interesting actually. Crying as itís found in humans is actually exclusively only found in humans. So, thatís crying with what are known as emotional tears. Other animals have functional tears that lubricate the eye and stuff, but in humans, it has evolved sort of exclusively as far as we know. Itís sort of a communication thing when we began to form societies. Without language, it was hard to sort of express your inner emotions. You only need to look at a crying baby or an infant to see the power of crying and in that communicative sense. So, it sort of attracts aid whether emotional, physical or medical. I think itís become more than that now. Itís not just about sort of pain or anything, Itís deep seated with our emotions. So, whether or not you can sort of hold it back I think is more to do with how sort of strong the emotion is as to a natural sort of neurophysiological thing but somewhere along the way, our sort of limbic system has gained control over our tear glands, the lacrimal glands. And so, now that you have this sort of Ė when one can activate the other. But I think the important part of the question is the relief aspect.

Kat - Yeah. Why does a good cry feel so good?

Max -   I mean, weíve known for centuries the sort of benefits of a good cry. There wasnít much I could find on this. There was our very own study that talked about the excretion of cortisol through tears but that since been discredited.

Kat - Yeah, itís a bit ropy I reckon.

Chris - Is there evidence that you can manipulate your partnerís mood through things being exuded in tears? There was a study on ladyís tears manipulating menís moods.

Max - Yeah, so it was basically thatÖ

Kat - I just cry and they just buy me things.

Max - Well, itís actually the opposite. That study was actually the opposite and it showed the men were found to be less attracted to women when they had womenís tears. I think it was women in photos and they were given that tears and they found them less attractive.

Chris - Just think what they buy you if you didnít cry.

Max - Exactly, but I think thatís sort of why Ė obviously now, standard answer as generally in neuroscience is sort of hypothesis. So, I've come up with one of my own and thatís from an unlikely source as to why we might feel relief from crying. Itís from laughter. Itís a similar thing to sort of laughter. Again, laughter is unique in humans. Itís marvellously effective at communicating our inner sort of emotions and also, acting as a social lubricant. A really fascinating paper by Professor Robin Dunbar, he showed that laughing could actually increase our pain threshold and he talked about endorphins which are our sort of bodyís own pain killers and he talked about how the act of laughing which in itself is quite physical strenuous could lead to the release of these endorphins sort of similar to after exercising and thus, make us feel good. I think crying in some sense, it could be applied to that as well Ė the release of these endorphins. That sort of got me thinking about when weíre younger, when weíre children and infants, we cry because of pain.

Kat - And it might be making us feel better you reckon?

Max - Yeah and so, because weíve sort of conditioned this crying to be associated with pain, generally, when our body is in pain, we up our endorphin release. And so, maybe into adult life when one would hope that crying from pain is less so that maybe thatís sort of a conditioned response.

Kat - Ahhh the Max Sanderson theory... we should do some research.



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