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?