[Tear] – Vartan Ghazarian

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Tearful, up looking eye with drop of tear.

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Dimensions:30 × 3 × 40 cm
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Why Do We Cry? Exploring the Psychology of Emotional Tears

A number of articles over the past few years have posed the question: Why do we cry? Reading through them, the short answer seems to be that there is no short answer. It’s complicated.

Several articles about crying in the lay press have come on the heels of two recent noteworthy books on the subject. The first, Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain (2012) is a relatively short volume by English neuropsychiatrist Michael Trimble. The second, Why Only Humans Weep: Unraveling the Mysteries of Tears (2013) is a somewhat more academic tome by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets.

Trimble is esteemed in his field, has probably has seen more than his share of cases involving pathological crying, and, after the publication of his book, was reportedly inundated with letters from people claiming to be pathological non-criers. But Vingerhoets, a psychology professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, gets the nod as more of an expert on normal crying (see his TEDx talk here), as evidenced by the numerous academic papers he and his frequent collaborators, Asmir Gračanin (at the University of Rijeka in Croatia) and Lauren Bylsma (at University of Pittsburgh), have written based on active research on the subject.

In this post, we’ll take a quick tour of what we know about crying, what new research has added to our state of knowledge, and what questions remain.

To begin with, emotionally crying appears to be a uniquely human behavior. Animals shed tears as part of normal ocular functioning, and there have been anecdotal reports of animals shedding the occasional emotional tear, but for the most part, only humans routinely cry out of sadness and other complex emotions. Interestingly, humans cry in the context of certain stereotypical emotions as well as their apparent opposite, or “counterpart.”1 For example, we might cry out of grief at a funeral for the death of a loved one, but also with elation at the birth of a newborn child. We’re likely to cry from heartache when a romantic relationship comes to an end, but we’re just as likely to cry at a wedding as we witness the forging of a new bond. The emotions we experience at these moments are difficult to put into words and often go beyond “happy” or “sad.” Perhaps crying helps us to communicate what we’re feeling in a way that language cannot.

Indeed, in trying to elucidate the purpose of crying, researchers like Vingerhoets have focused on both its “intrapersonal” functions (the effects of crying on the individual) and its “interpersonal” functions (the effects of crying on other people). It has been suggested that the interpersonal aspects of crying might in particular account for its uniqueness to human beings by virtue of its evolution within a range of social behaviors that have made us successful as a species. According to this view, crying is primarily a form of nonverbal social communication aimed at eliciting assistance, comfort, and social support from others. Research to date has shown that when people see others crying, they clearly recognize it as a reliable signal of sadness or distress (in a way that’s more convincing than words) and that typically results in feelings of connectedness and responses of sympathy and a willingness to help from others.

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Weight3 kg
Dimensions30 × 3 × 40 cm
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