BIOLOGICAL ROLE OF EMOTIONAL TEARS EMERGES THROUGH RECENT STUDIES
By JANE E. BRODY
Published: August 31, 1982
New York Times
St. Paul, MN
While the eyes of all mammals are moistened and soothed by tears, only human beings shed tears in response to emotional stress. Although this fact has been known for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, science has until recently shed little light on the reasons for this uniquely human behavior. In fact, notes Dr. William H. Frey, until last week no study had ever been reported of how often and under what circumstances adults cry.
Dr. Frey, a self-appointed student of ''psychogenic lacrimation,'' as he calls emotionally induced tears, decided several years ago that it was time to find out why people cry. His theory, for which there is now some indirect evidence, is that tears help to relieve stress by ridding the body of potentially harmful stress-induced chemicals. Dr. Frey, a biochemist, is director of the Psychiatry Research Laboratories at St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center here.
Thus far he has shown that emotionally induced tears have a higher protein content than tears produced in response to eye irritation, such as that caused by a cut onion. And while he has not yet been able to do the costly analyses needed to determine the identity and levels of stress-related chemicals in human tears, at least one new report suggests that people with stress-related illnesses cry less than their healthy counterparts.
Dr. Margaret Crepeau of Marquette University College of Nursing studied 100 men and women with stress-related disorders - 50 with ulcers, 50 with colitis, an inflammation of the colon. She compared them to 50 healthy persons of similar age and life circumstances. As she reported to the American Psychological Association meeting last week in Washington, those with the two stress-related disorders were more likely than the healthy people to regard crying as a sign of weakness or loss of control. And, according to their own reports, those who were ill were less likely to cry in a variety of situations.
''What now needs to be done is a study of the actual crying behavior of people with stress-related illnesses,'' Dr. Frey remarked. ''People say they feel better after crying, and our data show this is so,'' he continued. He also noted that children with a rare inherited disease called familial dysautonomia show two characteristics that may be related: They cry without tears and they have a highly exaggerated reaction to mild stress.
''Crying is an exocrine process,'' Dr. Frey explained, ''that is, a process in which a substance comes out of the body. Other exocrine processes, like exhaling, urinating, defecating and sweating, release toxic substances from the body. There's every reason to think crying does the same, releasing chemicals that the body produces in response to stress.''
Dr. Frey sees such research as a route to understanding the biochemical basis of emotion and changes in emotional states. He said, ''If we can measure the body's specific excretion in response to stress, it may be a clue to the biochemical changes involved in sadness and joy. By measuring what comes out of the body in response to emotion, we may find out what is happening in the brain.''
Although Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, thought the crying process itself relieved suffering, he regarded emotional tears as an incidental and purposeless secretion. ''This is not an easy view for me to accept,'' Dr. Frey said in an interview here. ''Darwin himself showed that evolution doesn't favor purposeless processes.''
The only other theory of emotional crying, offered by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, saw tears as a means of lubricating upper respiratory passages that would otherwise be dried out by sobbing. Yet, Dr. Frey pointed out, ''Most crying episodes are not associated with sobbing, and sobbing, when it occurs, doesn't always come before the tears. Also, people who exercise vigorously breathe a lot but without crying.''
Understanding why people cry, Dr. Frey said, is especially important because ''in our society men in particular are discouraged from crying. If crying reduced the effect of stress, by suppressing tears we may be increasing our susceptibility to stress-related disorders.''
To gain a better understanding of the role crying plays in human life, Dr. Frey studied ''normal'' crying behavior in adult men and women. The several hundred emotionally healthy volunteers were asked to keep a complete record of any tears they shed over the course of a month. As might be predicted, the women in the study reported crying on an average five times more often than the men - five times a month versus approximately once a month. Furthermore, a much higher percentage of men than women did not cry at all in the course of the month. Forty-five percent of the men, but only 6 percent of the women, shed no emotional tears in the 30-day study.
There was also a wide range in crying frequency. Some women did not cry at all and other women cried nearly every day. ''These were all normal people without any psychological problems,'' Dr. Frey said. Women reported feeling a ''lump in their throat'' when they cried much more often than men did. Women shed flowing tears in about half their crying episodes, but in only 29 percent of the male episodes did tears actually flow. In the rest, the eyes welled up with tears but the tears were not shed.
''Not only do men cry less often than women but their crying is also less obvious,'' Dr. Frey remarked. Sobbing occurred in only 14 percent of the women's crying episodes and 10 percent of the men's. More men than women said they were able to stop themselves from crying, and many women said they could make themselves cry without an external cause by thinking sad thoughts.
Although men cry less often than women, when they do cry, the crying episodes last as long as a woman's - about six minutes on the average, Dr. Frey's study showed.
Dr. Frey also explored the relationship between personality and crying behavior and, to his surprise, found absolutely no correlation between various personality characteristics and the frequency of crying. For example, no higher crying frequency was found among people who scored high on scales of stress, alienation, impulsiveness, social distance and social impotence. On average, those who showed some evidence of current depression cried more often, but other depressed people did not cry at all.
Nor was any genetic factor revealed in studies of crying behavior among identical and fraternal twins. ''This tells us crying frequency is environmentally determined,'' Dr. Frey concluded.
The most frequent triggers of crying episodes were interpersonal relations - such as arguments - and watching a movie or television. Accordingly, Dr. Frey said, the peak time for crying was between 7 and 10 P.M. ''when people are most likely to be with their significant others and to watch TV or a movie.''
Sadness was the emotion most often associated with crying episodes, accounting for nearly half the total. One in five crying episodes was provoked by happiness, one in 10 by anger, one in 15 by sympathy, one in 20 by anxiety and one in 30 by fear. Eighty-five percent of the women and 73 percent of the men said they felt better after crying.
If Dr. Frey's theory about the purpose of emotional tears is substantiated by further studies, he said, it bodes ill for societal admonitions like ''big boys don't cry'' and such comforting words as ''now, now, don't cry.''
''We should comfort people without telling them to stop crying,'' Dr. Frey observed. ''They do stop crying when they're comforted.''
Note from Clarity Center: We have learned that listening while someone cries is the 'comfort' we need as humans and allows for healing.