Of course we’ve all done it – but the mechanisms behind crying are a mystery to many.
1. Tears are like protein shakes (almost)
Before we get to the obvious facts about tears – the emotions – let’s first talk about the hard facts: Science distinguishes between emotional, basal and reflex tears. The latter arise from external stimuli. Cutting onions or wind, for example. Basal tears, on the other hand, moisten the eye and protect it with cleansing properties.
The composition of the three types of tears is the same: electrolytes, water and proteins. The concentration is different: emotional tears contain more proteins than reflex tears, and more prolactin, manganese and potassium. But does a big sip help build muscle? Hardly likely.
2. There are five categories of tears
In a study published in August 2022, psychologists from the Universities of Ulm and Sussex divided the reasons for tears into five categories: loneliness, powerlessness, overwhelm, harmony and media consumption.
More about the study
The researchers explain that the division into these categories is based on the idea that emotional tears always occur when basic psychological needs are either not met or are satisfied very intensively.
Loneliness, for example, is caused by an unfulfilled need for closeness – and can lead to tears: “Similar to basic biological needs such as sleep or food, it is assumed that the frustration or satisfaction of these psychological factors affects our subjective well-being influence,” explains first author Michael Barthelmäs in the study.
According to the researchers, tears of joy, on the other hand, occur after the need for harmony has been intensively satisfied – for example at a wedding. As an example of tears due to powerlessness, they cite the reaction to news of a death.
Media consumption is about the tears that come when we sob along to Titanic for about the tenth time.
3. Women cry more – and these are the reasons
Ad Vingerhoets is a professor of clinical psychology at Tilburg University and a wine expert: according to his research, women cry 30 to 64 times a year, men only 6 to 17 times a year. Or at least they say they are crying. Much of this research is self-reported, meaning men may be under-reporting how often they cry.
Vingerhoets also examined the average duration of a crying attack: women say they cry for an average of six minutes at a time, men cry for two to three minutes. “We suspect that social influence has a major influence here.” For most people, “crying still doesn’t fit into the image of stereotypical masculinity,” said the researcher in the study abstract.
In fact, men are also biologically predisposed to shed fewer tears: “Studies show that men have larger tear ducts. This makes it less likely that the tears will rise to the point where they flow over the eyelid onto the cheek,” Vingerhoets told “The Cut.”
4. Crying is not necessarily liberating
Whether crying reduces stress is controversial. This theory has its origins in the discovery that emotional tears contain more stress hormones than reflex tears. But experiments show that your mood doesn’t necessarily improve after crying. When researchers showed test subjects a sad film and then asked about their mood, those who cried were in a worse mood than those who didn’t cry.
A widely cited study published in the journal Science suggests that women’s tears contain a substance that inhibits men’s sexual arousal.
“I don’t want to pretend that I was surprised that the study made false headlines,” said Noam Sobel, one of the study’s authors and professor of neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, to “Spiegel”.
The fact is: tears could reduce sexual arousal, but they don’t have to. And: Men’s tears could have the same effect. This is still being investigated.
5. Dogs also shed tears of joy
For a long time, researchers believed that humans were the only creatures who cried for emotional reasons. In August 2022, researchers from Japan were able to show that dogs can also shed tears of joy when they see their owners again. The cuddle hormone oxytocin may play a crucial role in this.
The hormone plays a major role during birth and for human coexistence: it initiates labor, stimulates milk production, strengthens the bond between mother and child and can also support the bond between lovers.
From previous observations, the researchers led by study leader Takefumi Kikusui knew that oxytocin is released during interactions in both dogs and their owners. Now all that was left to do was find out whether dogs cry when they are reunited with their owners. That was exactly the case – unlike a person they didn’t know.