Why do we get relief from crying?

19 May 2015

Question

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?

Answer

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

Max - Well, yes. It's really interesting actually. Crying as it's found in humans is actually exclusively only found in humans. So, that's 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. It's 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 it's become more than that now. It's not just about sort of pain or anything, It's 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 - 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, we've known for centuries the sort of benefits of a good cry. There wasn't 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, it's a bit ropy I reckon.

Chris - Is there evidence that you can manipulate your partner's mood through things being exuded in tears? There was a study on lady's tears manipulating men's moods.

Max - Yeah, so it was basically that.

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

Max - Well, it's 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 women's 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 didn't cry.

Max - Exactly, but I think that's sort of why - obviously now, standard answer as generally in neuroscience is sort of hypothesis. So, I've come up with one of my own and that's from an unlikely source as to why we might feel relief from crying. It's from laughter. It's a similar thing to sort of laughter. Again, laughter is unique in humans. It's 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 body's 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 - the release of these endorphins. That sort of got me thinking about when we're younger, when we're children and infants, we cry because of pain.

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

Max - Yeah and so, because we've 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 that's sort of a conditioned response.

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

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