Crying Can Be Good for the Soul, But Not All Tears Are Equal
The fascinating science of crying — how it’s helpful and when it’s not
Throughout time and across cultures, tears have been considered a release, a balm for the soul, a psychological roborant from the storehouse of the human condition.
Tears permeate poetry and prose, imbue love songs and lamentations, and shower weddings, funerals, births, public rituals, and private pain — and still, scientists struggle to capture their meaning.
The sweeping history of weeping
People have been speculating about the origin and purpose of tears since about 1,500 B.C.E. For centuries, it was thought they originated in the heart. The Old Testament says that tears form when the heart’s material weakens and turns into water. The Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans carried tiny decorative bottle called “lacrimatories’ to funerals in which to collect their tears and bury with their loved ones.
Later, the ancients relocated the trigger for tears to the mind. Hippocrates thought that crying was the body’s way to safely release “excess humors” from the brain. Aristotle suggested that tears cleanse the mind of suppressed emotions. The poet, Ovid, agreed with Aristotle, saying that, “It is some relief to weep; grief is satisfied and carried off by tears.”
For all the groundbreaking discoveries in science and medicine in Renaissance Europe, folks still didn’t quite grasp human physiology. One theory for crying from 1579 claimed that compressing the brain resulted in great quantities of tears being ejected. Another theory, during the 1600s, maintained that emotions, particularly love, heated the heart, which produced water vapor to cool itself down. This heart vapor would then rise to the head, condense near the eyes, and be expelled as tears.
It wasn’t until 1662 when a Danish scientist named Niels Stensen discovered that the lacrimal gland was the actual point of origin of tears that others began to suspect there could be a possible evolutionary benefit to crying.