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Why We Cry: The Science of Sobbing and Emotional Tearing

Why it’s easier to prevent a crying spell than to stop one already underway.

The human body is an extraordinary machine, and our behavior an incessant source of fascination. In Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond (public library), psychology and neuroscience professor Robert R. Provine undertakes an “analysis and celebration of undervalued, informative, and sometimes disreputable human behavior” by applying the lens of anthropologically-inspired, observational “Small Science” — “small because it does not require fancy equipment and a big budget, not because it’s trivial” — to a wealth of clinical research into the biology, physiology, and neuropsychology of our bodily behaviors.

Take, for instance, the science of what we call “crying,” a uniquely human capacity — a grab-bag term that consists of “vocal crying,” or sobbing, and “emotional tearing,” our quiet waterworks. Provine explains:

As an adult, you cry much less than when young, and your crying is more often subdued, teary weeping than the demonstrative, vocal sobbing of childhood. . . [T]he trauma that causes your crying is now more often emotional than physical. However, whether intentional or not, as adult or child, you cry to solicit assistance, whether physical aid or emotional solace. Paradoxically, your adult cry for help is more private than the noisy, promiscuous pronouncement of childhood, often occurring at home, where it finds a select audience. The developmental shift from vocal crying to visual tearing favors the face-to-face encounters of an intimate setting. The maturation of inhibitory control gives adults the ability to select where and when crying occurs, or to inhibit it altogether, options less available to children.

To better illustrate the physiology of crying, Provine contrasts it with that of laughing, pointing out that the two are complementary behaviors and understanding one helps understand the other.

Specialists may argue whether there is a typical cry or laugh, but enough is known about these vocalizations to provide vivid contrasts. A cry is a sustained, voiced utterance, usually of around one second or more (reports vary), the duration of an outward breath. Think of a baby’s ‘waaa.’ . . . Cries repeat at intervals of about one second, roughly the duration of one respiratory cycle . . . A laugh, in contrast, is a chopped (not sustained), usually voiced exhalation, as in ‘ha-ha-ha,’ in which each syllable (‘ha’) lasts about 1/15 second and repeats every 1/5 second.

One curious feature crying and laughing have in common, which any human being with a beating heart can attest to:

Crying and laughing both show strong perseveration, the tendency to maintain a behavior once it has started. These acts don’t have an on-off switch, a trait responsible for some quirks of human behavior. Whether baby or adult, it’s easier to prevent a bout of crying than to stop it once under way. Crying causes more crying. Likewise, laughter causes more laughter, a reason why headliners at comedy clubs want other performers to warm up the audience, and why you may be immobilized by a laughing fit that can’t be quelled by heroic attempts at self-control. In fact, voluntary control has little to do with starting or stopping most crying or laughing.

So, if vocal crying evolved to attract help, what’s the evolutionary purpose of quiet tears? For one, they contain lysozyme, the body’s own antiseptic, which sanitizes and lubricates the eye. But, Provine argues, there might be something much more interesting and neurobiologically profound at work:

Several lines of evidence suggest that the NGF [nerve growth factor] in tears has medicinal functions. The NGF concentration in tears, cornea, and lacrimal glands increases after corneal wounding, suggesting that NGF plays a part in healing. More directly, the topical application of NGF promotes the healing of corneal ulcers and may increase tear production in dry eye . . . Although more of a scientific long shot, I suggest that tears bearing NGF have an anti-depressive effect that may modulate as well as signal mood.

Non-emotional, healing tears may have originally signaled trauma to the eyes, eliciting caregiving by tribe members or inhibiting physical aggression by adversaries. This primal signal may have later evolved through ritualization to become a sign of emotional as well as physical distress. In this evolutionary scenario, the visual and possibly chemical signals of emotional tears may be secondary consequences of lacrimal secretions that originally evolved in the service of ocular maintenance and healing.

If anything, Provine points to this as a direction of curiosity for future research:

Emotional tearing is a uniquely human and relatively modern evolutionary innovation that may have left fresh biological tracks of its genesis. The contrast of the human lacrimal system with that of our tearless primate relatives may reveal a path to emotional tearfulness that involves NGF. NGF may be both a healing agent found in tears and a neurotrophin that plays a central role in shaping the neurologic circuitry essential for emotional tearing during development and evolution. A lesson of NGF research is that pursuit of the scientific trail can lead to serendipitous discoveries both broad and deep. Emotional tears may provide an exciting new chapter in the NGF saga, and vice versa.

The rest of Curious Behavior goes on to explore such seemingly mundane but, in fact, utterly fascinating phenomena as yawning, sneezing, coughing, tickling, nausea, and, yes, farting and belching.

Photograph via Flickr Commons

BP

No Dream-Laden Adolescent: Anaïs Nin Meets Young Gore Vidal, 1945

“Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.”

Last month, we lost celebrated screenwriter, author, political activist, and professional contrarian Gore Vidal. Though much has been written about him both before and since his death, by far the most poignant and revealing portrait of the man beneath the icon comes from an unlikely source — Anaïs Nin, specifically the fourth volume of her diary, 1944-1947 (public library), from whence this beautiful letter on the importance of emotional excess in writing and creativity came.

In November of 1945, 42-year-old Nin met a young Gore Vidal, aged 20, at a lecture. Even their first encounter exudes Vidal’s unswerving and purposeful character:

Kimon Friar asked me to attend his lecture on love at the Y.M.H.A. so I went yesterday. I was in a depressed mood. I wore a black dress with long sleeves half-covering the hands, and a small heart-shaped black hat, with a pearl edging, shaped like Mary Stuart’s hat. Kimon lectured at the head of a long table. At the foot of the table, one chair was empty. I took it. Maya Deren sat a few chairs away. Next to me sat a handsome young lieutenant. During a pause I leaned over to speak with Maya. She said: ‘You look dramatic.’ I said: ‘I feel like Mary Stuart, who will soon be beheaded.’ The lieutenant leaned over and introduced himself: ‘I am Warrant Officer Gore Vidal. I am a descendant of Troubador Vidal.’ Later he admitted that he had guessed who I was. He is luminous and manly. Near the earth. He is not nebulous, but clear and bright, a contrast to Leonard. He talks. He is active, alert, poised. He is tall, slender, cool eyes and sensual mouth. Kimon was lecturing on Plato’s symposium of love. When it was finished, Vidal and I talked a little more. He is twenty years old, and the youngest editor at E. P. Dutton. His own novel is appearing in the spring. He knows Under a Glass Bell. He asked when he might visit me.

And visit he did — at first, timidly, shortly after their initial encounter, and then with persistent regularity that gave Nin keen insight into both his intensity and his vulnerability:

He came another time, alone. He tells me he will one day be president of the United States. He identifies with Richard the Second, the king-poet. He is full of pride, conceals his sensitiveness, and oscillates between hardness and softness. He is dual. He is capable of feeling, but I sense a distortion in his vision. He has great assurance in the world, talks easily, is a public figure, shines. He can do clever take-offs, imitate public figures. He walks in easily, he is no dream-laden adolescent. His eyes are hazel; clear, open, mocking.

Gore Vidal at age 23, November 14, 1948 (Library of Congress)

He embodied, not without self-awareness, the way in which our early experiences of attachment shape our adult relationships:

Gore said: ‘I do not want to be involved, ever. I live detached from my present life. At home our relationships are casual. My father married a young model. I like casual relationships. When you are involved you get hurt.’

Nin, herself trained in psychoanalysis, was quick to dissect Vidal’s emotional patterning:

Gore came. We slide easily into a sincere, warm talk. He dropped his armor, his defenses. ‘I don’t like women. They are either silly, giggly, like the girls in my set I’m expected to marry, or they are harsh and strident masculine intellectuals. You are neither.’ Intellectually he knows everything. Psychologically he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was ten, to remarry and have other children. The insecurity which followed the second break he made, at nineteen, after a quarrel with his mother. His admiration, attachment, hatred, and criticalness. Nor is it pity, he says. He is proud that she is beautiful and loved, yet he condemns her possessiveness, her chaos, her willfulness, and revolts against it. He knows this. But he does not know why he cannot love.

[…]

He moves among men and women of achievement. He was cheated of a carefree childhood, of a happy adolescence. He was rushed into sophistication and into experience with the surface of himself, but the deeper self was secret and lonely. ‘My demon is pride and arrogance,’ he said. ‘One you will never see.’ I receive from him gentleness and trust. He first asked me not to write down what he would say. He carries his father’s diplomatic brief case with his own poems and novel in it. He carries his responsibilities seriously, is careful not to let his one-night encounters know his name, his family. As future president of the United States, he protects his reputation, entrusts me with state secrets to lighten his solitude. Later he wants to write it all down, as we want to explore his secret labyrinth together, to find the secret of his ambivalence. To explore. Yet life has taken charge to alter the situation again. He, the lonely one, has trusted woman for the first time, and we start the journey of our friendship, as badly loved children who raised themselves, both stronger and weaker by it.

But Nin’s greatest wisdom shines, once again, in seeing past the hard intellectual edge of the public persona and into the soft core of the private person:

Gore fights battles with threatening forces, faces critics, is vulnerable. Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.

BP

Advice to Lovers, 1919

“Love is not kindly nor yet grim / But does to you as you to him.”

Between 1919 and 1923, when he was still in his twenties, English poet Robert Graves (July 24, 1895–December 7, 1985) published a short-lived and radical literary magazine titled The Owl. The foreword to its first issue declared, “The Owl has no politics, leads no new movement and is not even the organ of any particular generation.” The magazine went on to publish works by established writers like Thomas Hardy, W. H. Davies, and John Galsworthy, alongside vibrant illustrations by some of the era’s celebrated artists.

The second issue of the magazine, published in October of 1919, featured a wonderful poem by Graves himself, titled “Advice to Lovers,” later included in the posthumous volume Robert Graves: The Complete Poems (public library) — please enjoy:

ADVICE TO LOVERS

I knew an old man at a fair
Who made it his twice-yearly task
To clamber on a cider cask
And cry to all the lovers there : —

‘Lovers of all lands and all time
Preserve the meaning of my rhyme,
Love is not kindly nor yet grim
But does to you as you to him.

Whistle, and Love will come to you :
Hiss, and he fades without a word :
Do wrong, and he great wrong will do :
Speak, and he tells what he has heard.

Then all you lovers take good heed,
Vex not young Love in thought or deed :
Love never leaves an unpaid debt,
He will not pardon, nor forget.’

The old man’s voice was kind yet loud
And this shows what a man was he,
He’d scatter apples to the crowd
And give great draughts of cider free.

Complement with Graves on the importance of telling love and lust apart, then revisit this vintage guide to the art of wooing.

BP

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