A scientific look at why we cry


Crying forms part of our emotional makeup, and whether we cry because we are sad or happy, there is a scientific process behind it.

Regardless of whether you are crying because you are emotional, or your eyes are simply full of tears, the mechanism behind it is the same. To explain how it all works, we will make use of a classic case when tears pop into one’s eyes – the relationship break-up.

When your partner breaks the bad news to you, you may not immediately burst into tears, but chances are that it will appear at some point. This is completely dependent on your lacrimal system, which is located next to the eyeball. It acts as both a secretory system, which produces tears, and an excretory system, which drains the tears.

The lacrimal gland is positioned between your eyelid and eyeball, and once a tear is produced from it, it is a natural reaction to blink, which spreads the tear across your eye as a film. At this point, there are two options for that tear. It may drain down the lacrimal punctum into your nose, which is why your nose often runs when you cry.

If you are really sobbing, the lacrimal draining system will be unable to cope with the volume of tears, which results in the extra liquid falling over your eyelids and running down your cheeks.

The human body produces three types of tears. Basal tears generally act like the ‘workers’ because they keep the cornea lubricated and nourished to prevent your eyes from drying out.

Reflex tears are the ones that help with expelling foreign particles or vapours, such as onion aroma, from your eyes.

Finally, there are the common tears that everyone knows about, the ‘crying’ or psychic tears. These tears appear in response to strong emotions, such as sadness, anger, pleasure, physical pain, or stress. This type of tear contains a natural painkiller which may be the reason why you feel so much better after having a good bout of crying.

There is a connection between your emotions and this built-in tear system. An area of your brain which handles emotions, the limbic system, is connected to the part of your nervous system which you cannot control. One of the neurotransmitters in this system, acetylcholine, controls the lacrimal system. The emotions you experience trigger the nervous system, which activates the tear-production system.

Crying does not only produce liquid. There are other aspects to it, such as sweating, slower breathing, a lump in your throat and an increased heart rate. This is a reaction from your nervous system once again, in reaction to your emotions.

Tears represent who you are and your connection to the world around you. This is evident when it comes to babies. They use crying as a method of communicating with others around them. They do not always shed a tear when they cry, but they do ‘cry’ loudly enough to elicit a response from an adult.

Image Credit: binu kumar


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