Why humans like to cry


This is a random collection of thoughts that came after a talk organised by the Oxfordshire Branch of the British Science Association. It was titled ‘Why humans like to cry – tragedy, evolution, and the brain’ by Professor Michael Trimble.

Why even worry about this issue? Simple really. Animals have emotions and are capable of producing tears. But humans are unique in that they cry and produce tears emotionally rather than for biological reasons.

Women cry more than men at a ratio of about 5 to 1. This raises the question of whether this is for biological reasons (in terms of the way men develop or their brains are wired) or whether this is attributable to sociological reasons (such as societal views that make crying acceptable or unacceptable in particular circumstances or for people of different genders).
I think this is, for the most part, a social construct. That said, it may have arisen from perfectly defensible societal demands such as the fact that men in hunter-gatherer time had to continue hunting or growing crops even in the face of hard times and adversity, whereas women may have had more time to mourn and grieve so to speak.
What is more interesting, as was noted by Prof. Trimble, was the question of why the gender gap hasn’t been reduced if its source has been sociological. One would expect that societal views might change given the new circumstances. And yet, men are more likely to apologise for crying, more likely to cry quietly and in less discoverable places.

Undoubtedly, crying is very much a contextual activity. The perhaps obvious explanation for crying is that it is something triggered by emotions. Joy, sorry and bereavement can all be causes, in some instances injustice also triggers crying. More interestingly are instances where there is no prescribed or specific emotion that is easily identifiable, but rather the weight of a myriad of emotions that triggers crying.

If crying is purely contextual, then putting someone in a particular situation should naturally provoke crying.
However, take those instances where people cry in part because of the people around them and their expectations. It is socially acceptable to cry in church. And perhaps in funerals, there is almost an expectation that people cry, which I suspect increase the likelihood that people will actually cry rather than just sob. This suggest that crying isn’t merely a question of emotion, which would perhaps be the default answer when asked what triggers crying.

Unfortunately, Prof. Trimble’s focus was on crying in regards to art forms. To that extent, he noted that we are far more likely to cry in response to music than in response to poetry, paintings or sculptures. He attributes this to the movement involved in music, which makes it more dynamic as compared to the other forms which are static. Whilst it seems to be an intuitive conclusion, my problem is that I don’t fully understand why movement alone makes certain art forms more likely to trigger crying.
I guess one could say that such art forms trigger crying because they bring up a particular emotion within us. And to that extent, dynamic forms of art are more likely to create memories of real life situations that might be the root causes or memories of those sets of crying-inducing emotions. But that still seems a rather difficult chain of logic to take. This does however fit with the correlation between crying and higher levels of empathy.

One final interesting thought which was that crying makes us happier. Prof. Trimble was rather reluctant to suggest that crying always makes us happier, predicating this on happy contexts I guess (suggesting that crying at a funeral doesn’t make us happy). That’s true. But that doesn’t mean crying doesn’t make us happier. I would suggest that it makes us happier than we otherwise would be. Of course, if you start from being very very very unhappy, then it will make you just very very unhappy. But that is still an improvement of your mood in any instance. In some respects, I think that crying helps us release emotions and make them easier to deal with. This hypothesis is however problematic when we look at cases of crying that stem from emotions such as joy or relief. Releasing emotion would presumably make one less happy or joyful.

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One comment

  1. I found the article very intersting. Perhaps, the fault in the hypothesis is not that it is false but that you said it is releasing emotion rather than expressing. When you express emotions such as joy (through tears or otherwise) it builds up the ecstacy thus increasing happiness. I think the hypothesis is correct.

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