Sunday, May 20, 2007

Why Do We Cry in Movies?

We had gone to watch a movie on Friday with a friend and his family and as always show me a sad scene in a movie and the waterworks start. The strangest thing is that I don’t cry easily regarding personal stuff [I hate anyone seeing me cry, hubby is the only exception]. At the end of the movie he asked me why do we cry at movies. Is it because in daily life we suppress our emotions and they get released like this or is it that there is something in the movie we are identifying with. I was intrigued so I thought I’d do some research on the psychology of crying.

Why do we cry? Here are some things I discovered.

Crying is a complicated process not as easy as the trickle of spontaneity that happens at times. First of all, there are really three different types of tears. Basal tears keep our eyes lubricated constantly. Reflex tears are produced when our eyes get irritated, like with onions or when something gets into our eyes. The third kind of tear is produced when the body reacts emotionally to something, emotional tears. Each type of tear contains different amounts of chemical proteins and hormones.

Scientists have discovered that the emotional tears contain higher levels of manganese and the hormone prolactin, and this contributes in a reduction of both of these in the body; thus helping to keep depression away. Many people have found that crying actually calms them after being upset, and this is in part due to the chemicals and hormones that are released in the tears.

In The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin listed three reasons for the secretion of tears: “The primary function of the secretion of tears, with some mucus, is to lubricate the surface of the eye, and a secondary one, as some believe, is to keep the nostrils damp, so that the inhaled air may be moist, and likewise to favour the power of smelling. But another, and at least equally important function of tears is to wash out particles of dust or other minute objects which may get into the eyes” (Darwin, 1872: 169). In Darwin’s view, the excretion of emotional tears was related to the first function.

The philosopher William James, following Darwin, considered emotions to be little different from reflexes, occurring without prior rational thought. Only after experiencing the bodily sensations of, say, anger or fear, James argued, do we cognitively recognize the emotions.

But this does not explain why the bodily sensations arise in the first place. How does it happen? Why do we start crying? What emotional response triggers it?

An emotional response to stimuli acts as a trigger. These responses could have a lot of sources, pain or loss of a loved one, an internal response that is triggered when we feel hurt, when someone is mean to us or insults us, rage causes tears, feelings of helplessness makes us cry in frustration. When emotions affect us, the nervous system stimulates the cranial nerve, in the brain and this sends signals to the neurotransmitters to the tear glands. And so the first tear trickles down.

There are many culturally acceptable reasons to cry in society. The first accepted reason to cry is probably death. Grieving includes crying and often times it was believed that if someone did not cry, they would suffer physically because they did not release their pain. Experiences in life and love are other reasons society allows us to cry. Women have been allowed to cry more than men traditionally, but the benefits of crying seem to suggest that men need to cry more. Cultures around the world have crying out of obligation, for show, and for grief and pain. Each culture defines where and when it is acceptable to cry. Cultures, in some parts of the world, sometimes determine the length of crying and mourning. For example, in the Zuni culture, a chief allows the mourners of the dead to cry for four days after which the chief says that the death occurred four years ago, and now the mourning may end.

Crying and tears may be favored by natural selection because they bring about helping behavior by the spectator. This helping behavior is explained by the assumption that crying and tears “imitate” some of the perceivable characteristics of a baby that has just been born (e.g., wet face, facial expressions, respiratory sounds). If human parents and people in general are “programmed” by evolution to feel the need to help and protect when they see (and hear) newborns, then when non-neonates are in need, the appearance and the behavior that together show resemblance to the neonate may have survival value at some essential points during phylogeny and, thus, may spread in the human species.

But none of this research still answered my original question – our brain knows when we are watching a movie it is fiction then why do we cry?

Perhaps you can help me answer? Why do we cry at movies?


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article, RM. In my case, if we're talking about movies (and I'm just like you, I don't usually cry but I'm very sensitive with sad films), I think I cry because I've experienced something similar to what I see or I'd like to or in the last case... just because the scene is so sad I don't care if it's fiction, I get involved with the characters.
Let's see what other people have to say about it ^^.

tigergirl said...

I agree with wonder. I rarely used to cry in movies, it seems the older I get the more readily they make me cry. I put it down to the fact that the older we get, the more experiences we have had and it's more likely that we can relate one of our experiences to a situation in a movie or imagine ourselves more easily in the same position. In other words, we're not necessarily crying just because of the movie but because we've been transported back to that time in our life or are empathising with the character.

I-Banking dreamer said...

Thought provoking...Uve got me thinkin..cant come up with a good explanation though...its just one or two movies that have made me cry till i guess cant reason out that feeling

paisley said...

i am so glad you brought this up... i am a hard ass,, i never cry,, you cant hurt me,,, all that bullshit,,, and the last two months,, i have been crying at the drop of a hat... i know for me at least it is attached to the mourning process,,and i will not allow him to be washed from me with tears... so i cry about other stupid stuff..... thank you for making me think about it... it makes it all seem more normal,,, and not like i am losing it....

insanity-suits-me said...

hmmm...I used to be a big baby while watching movies and now I rarely cry at all. But when I do cry I usually put it down to "hormones". Not a very good answer I know. The article was quite interesting though - at least now I know why I feel so much better after a big bawl!

Loz said...

I cried watching Life as a House on Saturday night. Third time I've seen it, third time I've cried. The first time was the week my father died in August 2004 so that probably has something to do with it.

Sandra Eileen - Artisan Jewelry For Your Good Life said...

I just watched Million Dollar Baby again on TV tonight and found myself crying before certain scenes even happened, I was really choked up, and I agree with Tigergirl, we are transported to another place, time, within ourselves and that stored emotion comes out.

Love your blog by the way.

Blur Ting said...

I'm a cry baby when it comes to movies. Just looking at sad people and kids will make my tears roll. sigh.

Michelle said...

I think we cry because we connect. We get so involved with the story or character that it doesn't matter what our head thinks.. we start thinking from the heart instead.

Maybe that's also how you can tell a bad movie script from a good one? The false and stupid movies I've never cried watching.

Great topic, BTW. :-)

Random Magus said...

Wow - great answers from all. Like you all said i think its probably a combination of good writing, making us connect to the characters, or us being transported to some emotion, or maybe we need a release for some sadness and a scene in a movie provides that without us having to rationalize why we cried.

Jeff said...

Wow, you sucked me in. Your post reminded me of an episode of
"Everybody Loves Raymond" where Debra (the wife) makes a point of scheduling days to make hereself cry because it made her feel better. Of course, Raymond thinks she is unhappy in the marriage, blah blah blah. Not a bad show to study human behavior, actually.

I had a pretty sizeable response to this, but decided it was too long. So instead, I stole it and wrote a blog entry about it! ;)

Check it out if you are so inclined.

QUASAR9 said...

"The first accepted reason to cry is probably death. Grieving includes crying and often times it was believed that if someone did not cry, they would suffer physically because they did not release their pain. Experiences in life and love are other reasons society allows us to cry."

Hi Random Magus,
not wanting to be contrary
but the Chinese used to have a song and dance. I once asked my father - "What's the celebration, wy the party" - he replied,
"Son, someone has died, and the Chinese believe the 'dead' go and join their ancestors in a 'better' place"

The Irish, they hold a wake - well any excuse for a piss-up. And no disrespect, but here's a drink to the dead - to their health? - lol!

But babies cry if they are hungry
Babies cry if they are cold
Babies learn to cry if they want attention
Children cry if they are hirt or scolded - or if they can't have their way (some of us never grow up)

I CRY if I'm denied
I CRY if I'm told I can't have my way. Well not literally, but you know what I mean.

But I tell you what really brings tears to my eyes, a hit on the nose, a knock on the shins, and a hard kick anywhere in between

sage said...

this is a nice essay... I wonder if people are more likely to cry watching a movie in a dark theater than say watching one on TV at home--since its easier to get engulfed into the film?

HollyGL said...

Excellent post, Random!

You know, I'm a pretty soft touch when it comes other people's plights. Seriously, I could be existing in my own little personal hell, and be unable to cry. But, show me something or someone in pain or suffering, and I cannot hold back the tears.

I do agree that movies tend to transport us back to situations in our lives - or remind us of current situations - that are/were painful, and our defenses are down because we're focused on the movie, so we are more able to respond with the natural emotional release of crying.

Mark said...

Good research. To answer your question, when we watch a movie we suspend disbelief, that is, even though logic tells us that what we are watching is not real, our mind suspends disbelief and allows us to become deeply involved in the movie as if it were real. Therefore when something funny happens we laugh, when something sad happens we cry. If you are in a movie theater, you are in the dark and have the illusion that you are safe, no one can see or judge you and the emotions come to the surface.

zakman said...

I don't think movie crying is associated with sadness. When you're sad, you're like depressed
and sulk, or maybe angry and get drunk, or maybe go on a shopping spree or just yell at someone.

I think crying is jut a means of releasing our inhibitions.

Let's say you're watching a movie, and you're crying. Then the telephone rings. You answer it,
come back to the movie. Are you gonna continue crying from where you left off? I wouldn't think
so. So you're not really sad.

It was just that you lost your facade during the movie, and the telephone call broke the chain.

I also think that just like water finds its own level, and any force follows the path of least resistance, crying is a phenomenon to prevent further damage that we
could do ourelves.

Well, as for me, I've long since stopped watching movies with people around.

Anonymous said...

Very Well Said; Very interesting article. I would like to say here that i am one of them who cry easily. I am quite senstive guy. I think you cry while watching sad movie or when you see any incident or here any sad thing when you involve yourself deeply in it and start thinking yourself as victim of the whole situation.
I think its a good thing; atleast you can feel his pain... which in practical life is very important.