The Whys of Tears: Crying remains a great mystery to contemporary science
"He couldn't say anything else. He suddenly burst into sobs ... I took him in my arms and rocked him. I didn't quite know what to say ... I felt very clumsy. I didn't know how to reach him, where to find him ... The land of tears is so mysterious ... "Thus ends Chapter VII of 'The Little Prince'. And even the staunchest detractors of Saint-Exupéry will have to admit that he is absolutely right.
Crying, as we humans cry, is a mystery. Yes Yes. A mystery. It is true that we know the physiological, psychological and even social mechanisms behind tears, and yet, from a scientific point of view, crying (which we all understand by “crying”) is still largely a terrain full of unknowns.
Something we humans share ...
That's funny: we all cry and from a very young age. Babies cry when they feel hungry or in pain. Newborns crying seems to serve as a way to keep us linked to our mother, but it is something we keep throughout our lives: some of the most conscientious studies tell us that humans cry 2,500 and 5,000 times during our lives. adult.
And, in case someone is asking you, no, it is not something typical of our culture, it is a cultural universal. In recent decades anthropologists have been collecting more and more evidence that what we call "emotional crying" (to distinguish it from tears that hydrate the eye) is as universal a behavior as laughter. That is, it occurs in all cultures.
Furthermore, cross-cultural studies have discovered that it not only forms part of the basic repertoire of all human groups, but also plays an important role at the social level. A good example is the studies that dissect the ceremonies and rituals around our loved ones in the different known cultures: Except perhaps some local communities in Bali (where it is believed that tears can harm the deceased in his other life), all Cultures seem to have crying associated with mourning in one way or another.
... but only humans
And it is that crying seems to be an exclusively human trait. Darwin, who became quite obsessed with the subject and is said to have sent a friend to check the famous elephant tears, has already stated that crying is one of the "specific expressions of man".
As far as is known, no other species produces emotional tears. There are some reports, legends and rumors that speak of this type of tears in gorillas or elephants, but the evidence on it is insufficient. Even some of its great advocates (people like Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, authors of "When Elephants Cry") have ended up acknowledging that pachyderms probably don't cry like we do.
A fundamental difference (evolutionarily speaking) ...
What we do share with animals are the so-called basal tears, which are intended to nourish, protect and lubricate the cornea. It may seem like a somewhat forced division, but those two types of tears (three if we count the reflexes) are different chemically and physiologically. Apparently, although all tears have fatty acids, mucinous elements, and water, emotional tears have more protein and more hormones related to stress than irritating tears.
Most likely, at this point in the game, is that the origin of human emotional tears is the result of one of those evolutionary coincidences that, in short, have made us how we are. For some reason still to be determined, human beings began to cry over our emotions and, quickly, we found in it a very strong social function: tears began to serve to demonstrate to those around us that our grief was real. It became a reliable way to generate empathy.
... that feels great to us
Certainly, crying feels great to us. Research on the subject indicates that it is a great way of emotional discharge and stress reduction. Without falling into magical thinking, or pretending to be a solution to all our problems, sometimes it is highly recommended to put on a sad movie and uncork a box of tissue paper. Crying sometimes works as a kind of emotional reset.
However, beyond that, we still know too little. Partly because it is a complex and elusive subject. But, on the other hand, because the tears don't seem to get the researchers' attention. Or not too much: for every dozen books about laughter, there is only one about tears. And that, you will agree with me, yes it is sad