Watching The Notebook, cutting onions, or looking at your overdraft are all activities that may lead you to reach for the tissues. But, why do we do cry? Photographer Rose Lynn Fisher has recently captured the microscopic differences between tears of joy, grief, irritation and laughter, but why do different tears appear differently under the microscope?
Well, it seems there are more to tears than meets the eye. Your lacrimal system (the inbuilt waterworks of your body) is actually capable of secreting three different types of tears: Basal, Reflex or Psychic. Basal tears are produced by the eye throughout the day to keep your eye moist and nourished, and you produce on average around 0.75 to 1.1 grams of basal tears in one day. Reflex tears are those that seem to flood your eye like a tsunami, every time you cut into an onion. These tears are produced in response to irritants, such as the sulphuric acid that has formed because of the fumes released by the onion (think of it like the onion’s ultimate revenge). Finally, psychic tears are those tears probably forming in the corner of your eye when you finished that last spoon of Ben and Jerry’s. These psychic tears are produced in response to strong emotions such as sadness, pain or conversely feelings of joy.
But what are tears of joy or grief composed of? Tears are primarily composed of water, salts, antibacterial enzymes and oils, but as some of the photographs taken by Fisher have shown, certain types of tears seem to form unique structures. These intricate patterns produced by different tears, have been found to be a result of the varying levels of hormones such as prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormones in your tears, which are both released at different intensities in response to stress and emotions. Additionally, the neurotransmitter leucine encephalin, which is your body’s natural painkiller, can also be found in your tears, and may explain why crying can feel good.
Studies investigating why we cry when we feel sad have found that crying helps remove some of the hormones that flush the body when we feel distressed. On the other hand, crying with happiness seems to be a way for your body to neutralise your emotions so you don’t become too overwhelmed. These tiny droplets of emotion then drain from your eye into your nose, hence why your nose runs when you cry. Women have smaller tear ducts than men and so their tears will spill onto their cheeks quicker, providing a brilliant excuse for men to hide those tears shed when watching penguins reunite on Planet Earth II. Or is that just me…
Triggering the waterworks also seems to produce a whole host of other effects such as an increase in heart rate and slowed breathing, which may help to elevate feelings of stress. Babies cry on average, 1-3 hours a day as a way of communication. 22% of patients with Sjorgen’s syndrome, who have difficulty producing tears, have reported that they struggle with identifying and communicating their own feelings. This highlights a possible evolutionary advantage and social function of being able to share our emotions to the world through the act of crying. So, the next time you feel your bottom lips quiver, and your eyes glaze over, just let it go and have a good ol’ cry; it seems to be good for you.