by Rachel Ansplach
Psychology in the news, Feb. 9, 2010
Crying is often the result of feelings of sadness and frustration, but after crying many people experience a feeling of release and catharsis (Byslma, 2008). Humans are the only species that shed tears emotionally. Crying is something that all people of all ages and cultures do (Hendriks, 2008).
Since crying is a trait that has evolved solely in humans, there must be some sort of evolutionary advantage to emotional crying. Many studies have been done which examine the effect that crying has on the body, and most of them have actually found that crying actually has a negative impact physiologically (Hendriks, 2008). However, many people including psychologists have always believed that crying is good for you (Hendriks, 2008).
Perhaps crying developed evolutionarily for a non-physiological reason. “Attachment Theory” suggests that crying is a behavior that is natural to humans from birth. As an infant, babies learn that crying will result in comforting, which creates a relationship bond. This behavior is continued to create attachments in life (Hendriks, 2008).
Dr. Oren Hasson, a professor at Tel Aviv University, recently conducted a study in which he studied different types of crying and the benefits of crying. He speculated that the evolutionary advantage of crying comes from crying with your peers. When you cry, you show vulnerability because your vision is blurred. This allows someone who cares about you to take care of you while you are in a weakened state. According to Hasson, this is beneficial to both the caretaker and receiver because it creates a stronger relationship bond. This means that a positive comes out of the negative situation which caused the crying in the first place.
A group of professors at the University of South Florida collected over 3000 personal accounts of crying episodes. These accounts were memories of crying that did not occur in a controlled laboratory setting. The survey found that about two thirds of the people felt better after crying than they had before. The people who had been comforted while crying were usually the ones who reported that crying gave them this feeling of relief. The study also found that testing the affects of crying in a laboratory setting does not produce the same affects. Cornelius also found that when subjects cried in a formal experiment they often reported feeling worse afterward (Bylsma, 2008). However, this can be explained by the lab setting. If crying is induced, it will not be accompanied by the same emotional release that it would in real life. Also, even if the person crying is comforted, it will not have the same value and bonding affect because it is not as genuine.
To understand the effects of crying, it is helpful to understand what happens in our bodies when we cry. The part of the body that produces tears is called the lacrimal system (Vingerhoets, Cornelius, Van Heck, & Becht, 2000). The lacrimal system is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Together these make up the autonomic nervous system. The lacrimal nucleus is located in the brain stem, and it has connections to many parts of the brain. One of these is the hypothalamus, which is connected to many emotional systems in the body. When the lacrimal nucleus is stimulated through one of these connections, it leads to crying (Vinherhoets, et al., 2000). While the actual crying is going on, the psychologists at University of South Florida report that lab subjects do not experience a feeling of release. However, if they are comforted, the emotional benefit of this bonding will create the more positive feeling reported by so many after crying.
So, if you are feeling upset and stressed out, the best thing to do may be to find a friend’s shoulder to have a good cry on.
Association for Psychological Science (2008, December 19). Cry Me a River: The Psychology of Crying. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 11, 2009, fromhttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081217123831.htm
Tel Aviv University (2009, Sept. 7). Why Cry? Evolutionary Biologists Show Crying Can Strengthen Relationships. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 11, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090824141045.htm
Vingerhoets, J. J. M., Cornelius, R. R., Van Heck, and Becht. Adult Crying: A Model and Review of the Literature. Review of General Psychology 4.4 354-77.
Bylsma, L., Vingerhoets, A., & Rottenberg, J.. (2008). When is crying cathartic? An international study. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(10), 1165-1187.
Hendriks, M. C. P., Nelson, J. K., Cornelius, R. R. & Vingerhoets, J. J. M. (2008). Why crying improves our well-being: An attachment-theory perspective on the functions of adult crying. In Emotion Regulation, pp. 87-97. Boston: Springer.
Glasgow, B. (2006) “Lacrimal Excretory System- Human.” Anatomy of the Eye. Mission for Vision, 13.
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