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Crying: The Human Way of Purging Emotions

Crying is an important part of human life. Although we don’t see many species around us crying, we humans cry remarkably well. In fact, some of us choose to watch tear-jerking movies to experience heart full of relief. In some, crying helps relieve pain and in some crying helps resolving conflicts and bonding. Studies show that we identify people with emotional tears as those being sad and in need of social support. May be crying is one extraordinary quality, which distinguish us from many other living beings in this world, writes Prof. Prabhakar Putheti.

(Above): The cartoon shows a doctor crying at her patient’s medical condition, which scares the patient. A senior doctor explains that she cannot control her emotions. [Illustrated by: Prof. Prabhakar Putheti]

Recently, I attended a farewell luncheon of my colleague. We all sat around a big table. Although I am not a big fan of round table lunch, where everyone has an eye on your appetite, I quietly ate my bland pasta. It was time for a farewell speech of the celebrant. She stood up as we all looked up to her in anticipation of cheerful and sincere thanks. Instead, she started thanking with a stoic composure. Having known her as an amiable person, this came as a surprise to me. It took a while for me to realize that she was in fact controlling her emotions. When she shared how kind her supervisor was to her, her voice choked, and she cried her heart out. Although her supervisor is a tall and hefty man, he couldn’t help sobbing along. The two women sitting next to the celebrant, probably were wrestling with their own demons, seized the opportunity and cried along. It almost felt rude of me to eat my pasta while the people around me cried; I stopped eating.

At that moment, I wondered why humans cry. Although I never came across any species crying, humans strikingly cry well. It is the first thing a newborn baby does, and it is medically concerning if a newborn doesn’t cry. Cry becomes a mode of communication for a baby to mother for milk, for entertainment, and for Woodward’s gripe water. An Australian mother discovered that newborns cry in five different ways for five different reasons. I, an Indian father, was concerned when my newborns cried, was annoyed when the same as toddlers cried, and was embarrassed when they as preschoolers hysterically cried in shopping malls for toys, for chocolates, or for both.

Unlike baby’s cry, psychology behind an adult’s cry is rather well dissected, understood, and recorded in literature. Crying from deep sorrow is a human characteristic. Crying from happiness is something we routinely witness at every Oscar or Miss Universe ceremony. Crying to deceive others is also human, although commonly known as crocodile tears, which we sometimes witness from a receiving end. Crying from medical reasons such as in Bogorad’s syndrome, where paralysis of facial nerve causes tearing while eating or drinking, is also known. And finally, someone crying at our success on our back is distinctive from all of the above cries—we never get to see that.

Once, in our laboratory, in the midst of experiments, my colleague burst into tears. I knew for sure that my experiments were neither so overwhelmingly joyful nor so terrible. Before I could panic and become defensive, she confessed experiencing hormonal imbalance from delivering a baby. Her maternity doctor alerted her that she might often cry for no reason, which is commonly called as ‘Baby Blues.’ I was relieved to hear that. However, realizing her cry was not genuine, whether to console her or not was my conundrum. For few weeks following that incident, I had my guard up and worked in a group while she was around.

Crying is an important aspect used by modern instruments to measure depression. In 1986, Professor Randolph Cornelius summarized important publications on crying from 1848 to 1985 and reported that women were assumed to cry more often than men. The phrase or belief that ‘Big boys don’t cry’ is more of a curse to men than pride inducing.  Men cannot get over their sorrow by crying. They cannot use crying as a medium to express or connect to people. Being an Indian, you are exposed to even more phrases like ‘Never trust a crying man!‘ There were times, I thought were apt for me to cry; but in spite of trying hard, I was unable to cry. My friend, who is a medical doctor, said it is one of the features of a medical condition called Dysphoria. Thereafter, I never got into further details with him about my inability to cry.  Anyways, I decided that I am better-off not crying. I realized that in an attempt to cry, I distracted myself from the circumstances.

Tears function as a lubricant and as a substitute to blood by transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide to the ocular surface and conjunctiva. Tears contain proteins, lipids, and glycoproteins that function in wetting eyes as well as delaying evaporation. Balsters et al. published an article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology (Feb 2013) that experimented how people perceive faces with emotional tears. When participants were shown pictures of neutral faces (with no tears) or of sad faces with digitally added tears, participants identified the sad faces faster. When the same participants were shown pictures of sad faces (with no tears) or of neutral faces with digitally added tears, participants identified the latter as the ones in need of support. In either experiments, faces with emotional tears facilitated identification of sadness and the need of social support.

If you have a friend who cries often from personal problems and you wish to take your friend to psychotherapy, do not be surprised to meet a crying therapist. Blume-Marcovici et al. reported in the journal Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill) that their survey of 684 U.S. psychologists and trainees revealed that 72% of therapists reported having cried in their role as therapist despite lower crying frequency in daily life. The study reported that therapists prefer to experience such emotions with patients in their sessions.

Time reported about a blog ‘NYC crying guide’ dedicated for ‘The Best/Worst places to cry in New York City.’ This blog tracks best places to cry in New York City and suggests a list of places like vitamins aisle in a particular pharmacy, dressing room of a clothing store, and a subway train. I am sure, soon or later, we will notice coin operated Cry-booths in NYC.

Bollywood makes tons of movies. But, only those that successfully make you cry, like Devdas, Anand, Ek Dujhe Ke Liye, Sadma, Black, and Baghban, remain the memorable movies (please note that Devdas was made twice). Many remember Sholay for the climax scene where Amitabh dies. Studies show that women are more likely than men to deliberately choose tear-inducing movies. A study even used an anti-depressant drug called Paroxetin in healthy, young females watching emotional movies and identified that this drug reduces crying in the women. My mother cherishes the movies that made her cry well. After she watches any tragedy movie, she proudly tells me that she cried a lot at a particular scene. I am sure that even if I succeed to cry one day, I wouldn’t be so proud to reveal it.

To close, I believe crying has become the most important part of human life. For some it helps ease the pain and for some it helps register the incident and how they overcame. Some relate their crying to bettering their health and some cry to resolve their conflicts and bond. Some cry from helplessness, whereas some choose to cry by watching tear-jerking movies. May be crying is a blessing that humans have and many other species don’t. Evolutionary theories suggest that species with improved abilities to survive evolve; I believe, crying is one of the important traits that humans must have needed to survive and evolve.

Prabhakar Putheti is an assistant professor at Department of Medicine, Weill-Cornell Medical Center, New York.
Dr. Putheti has a PhD from Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.
He did his postdoctoral research in Transplantation Immunology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA. He has published several articles in reputed scientific journals and wrote textbook chapters. Writing, photography, and drawing cartoons are his hobbies.


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Flouting the Fourth Estate:
PM Modi Delivers, Quietly

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Diplomatic Talks Cancelled: As Pak Woos Kashmiri Separatists
India needs to review its Pakistan policy even further, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.

Crying: The Human Way of Purging Emotions
Crying is an important part of human life. It is one extraordinary quality, which distinguish us from many other living beings in this world, writes Prof. Prabhakar Putheti.

EDITORIAL: Flouting the Fourth Estate
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