Every once in a while on my journey through the years, I stumble over something that is so commonplace it is invisible -well, not invisible maybe, but at least so common we ask the wrong questions about it, if we ask at all. Crying, for example; why do we cry? Is it a way of diverting our own attention? A catharsis? Or, to be crass, a manipulative device? Whatever the reason, it’s sufficiently universal, that I would have thought we would have discovered whether or not it serves some physiological purpose by now.
Not that everything is attended by a purpose, of course, but we do feel better when we find one… Okay, I feel better when I think something is doing it to keep me healthy, or at least has an evolutionary explanation, however atavistic. So it was with great expectations that I jumped into an essay in the Conversation by Leah Sharman, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Queensland (Australia). She, I hoped, was going to answer a question I never thought to ask before: why do we cry? https://theconversation.com/no-crying-doesnt-release-toxins-though-it-might-make-you-feel-better-if-thats-what-you-believe-106860
I mean what would prompt me to ask? I laugh, I cry -I seem to know why it happens, but do I? Or am I just extrapolating from the circumstances when it occurs -making the all too easy assumption that association is the same as cause? I entered the article with my hat in my hand and my breathing held in reverent abeyance as I might on entering a grand cathedral. Unfortunately, I heard no organ playing, and whatever echoes reverberated through the nave, were produced by disparate voices, not the stirring lower registers of majestic pipes.
For example, the rather banal observation that, ‘Studies show, on average, adult women tend to cry two to three times in a given month, and men only once. Although research is limited, it suggests crying frequency is highly influenced by social and cultural factors, our beliefs about the value of crying and how it is evaluated.’ Followed by ‘This is particularly exaggerated in many Western countries, where women report crying more often than those from non-Western countries. And in non-Western countries the difference in crying frequency between men and women is smaller. In some instances, it’s non-existent.’ Imagine that.
Then, a hint of teleology: ‘Scientists have long speculated why we cry and what happens in our bodies when we’re doing it. Some have suggested crying may be expelling chemicals that are built up during feelings of distress, or that crying causes a chemical change in the body that reduces stress or increases positive feelings.’ But again, a hush: ‘But we don’t actually know that much about crying and most of the studies out there are based on self-reporting.’
‘The most pervasive idea about crying is that we do it because it’s helpful in some way; perhaps it provides relief or catharsis. But the research on this is mixed, with crying sometimes showing an improvement in mood and sometimes a worsening… Despite the overwhelming perception crying is useful at a personal level, most research suggests crying is more of a social phenomenon. Crying is an extremely effective signal to others that something is wrong and that you may be in need of help and comfort.’ Not terribly surprising, I suppose, but it seemed to be getting into more of the meat of the process.
That is, until I read further: ‘But before you go crying in front of others for support, just remember other studies show doing so may actually lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment.’ Okay, then, pick your study…
But in fairness, the article did get better -did attempt some evaluative science. ‘Crying seems, at best, to do not much at all, and, at worst, to increase our physiological arousal.’ For example, in the author’s lab, they ‘attempted to test whether crying reduces or interferes with the levels of the stress hormone (cortisol), and whether it may be able provide some other physical benefit, such as numbing, which could explain why we cry when we are in either emotional and physical pain. We found crying had no effect on stress levels and people weren’t able to withstand pain more readily than those who did not cry. But those who cried were more in control of their breathing rate. This suggests people may hold their breath during crying in a bid to calm themselves down, and perhaps use the crying behaviour to initiate the calming strategy.’
For the most part, though, it strikes me that the article merely ran through a checklist of unremarkable sociological parameters that left me no further ahead than I would have been had I confined myself to the confirmation biases on my Facebook. As an example, she says, ‘Crying is a personal process. Whether you cry, and how often, may be related to your culture, gender, and emotional expressiveness.’ Uhmm… well, yes I suppose so, eh?
Now that Sharman has raised the subject, however, I would still be interested to know if other mammals -primates, say- do, or even can cry. In other words, is crying an evolutionarily derived mechanism to serve some purpose, or is it an exaptation of something else, now exclusive to homo? Sadly, I did not find out, despite my suddenly piqued interest.
Fortunately, there is Google, and after scouring -sort of- the entries on crying, I did find a naively non-academic one that seemed to cover most of the bases -a 2013 article by Amanda Smith in The Body Sphere: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/bodysphere/features/4837824 It’s titled ‘Why are humans the only animals that cry?’ I’m not sure it even answers its own question, but at any rate, it did attempt some interesting explanations of why humans cry that I hadn’t heard before. It included this rather innocent and dewy-eyed one: ‘Darwin’s own theory of tears claimed that ‘in our evolutionary past, babies would close their eyes very tightly to protect their eyes when they were screaming for their mothers,’ says Dr Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. ‘The closing of the eyes very tightly would squeeze the lachrymal glands and bring out the tears,’ he says. By a process of association thereafter, any kind of pain or suffering became connected with tears.’
I know, I know, it’s a sort of kludgey explanation, but in a touching way, it’s kind of uplifting, don’t you think? Soothing, almost…