When was the last time you cried? Has that animal cruelty commercial with the Sarah McLachlan song been getting to you?
Humans aren’t the only animals that cry—many infant birds and mammals cry as a form of communication. But while animals have been observed crying in reaction to a sad event, we are the only ones who cry to express emotion with any frequency.
Silvia H. Cardoso and Renato M.E. Sabbatini explored the neuroscience of crying in their 2002 Cerebrum article, “The Animal That Weeps.” They write, “The phenomenon [of emotional crying], if it exists at all, is so uncommon in animals that we are driven to seek an explanation for its centrality and universality in humans.”
But why do we express emotion with tears? What benefits does crying have?
According to the article, the jury is out on whether crying can make you feel better. In one study reported by Cardoso and Sabbatini, the majority of surveyed adults—85 percent of women and 73 percent of men—reported that crying brought relief. But other evidence points to crying as “a state of physiological arousal,” during which heart rate and sweating increase. The authors conclude, “Perhaps during crying we are emotionally aroused in response to particular thoughts or emotions, but, shortly afterward, our crying becomes a rebound or relief phenomenon.” Crying might bring relief over time, perhaps due to outside sympathy and support or the clarity it can encourage.
Crying may also affect those around you. New research on why women cry, published last year in Science and summarized in a Harvard Health Newsletter, indicates that when men smelled women’s tears, their testosterone levels fell and areas of the brain associated with arousal became less active. A woman crying might temporarily decrease a man’s aggression.
Another article published last year in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences suggests that adults who are more prone to crying have lower levels of the molecules that make up the hormone and chemical messenger noradrenaline, involved in the fight-or-flight stress response, and perhaps also mood, learning, and memory. More women than men in the study showed lower levels of these molecules.
Perhaps, then, there’s a biological factor in the stronger cultural acceptance of women’s tears. Cardoso and Sabbatini write, “In all cultures. . .there is strong polarization by sex, epitomized in the phrase ‘big boys don’t cry.’ This shows how important learning is to the emotional inhibition of men. Generally, women are far less socially controlled in expressing grief and pain by crying and are encouraged to do so in many social situations, such as funerals.”
Cardoso and Sabbatini also try to explain what’s going on in the brain when we cry to express emotion. They cite one researcher, Vikram Patel of London’s Maudsley Hospital, who studied pathological criers, people who cry as a result of a brain disorder. He thinks that crying links the evolutionarily old and new parts of the human brain, a network of “the higher cortical and subcortical structures that mediate mood and the cranial nerve nuclei in the lower brain stem.” The limbic system, a center of emotion and fear, may also be involved.
It seems that Free to Be You and Me song was right—It’s alright to cry. It might make you feel better.