In 2008, at a zoo in Münster, Germany, a gorilla named Gana gave birth to a male infant, who died after three months. Photographs of Gana, looking stricken and inconsolable, were ubiquitous. “Heartbroken gorilla cradles her dead baby,” Britain’s Daily Mail declared. Crowds thronged the zoo to see the grieving mother.
Sad as the scene was, the humans, not Gana, were the only ones crying. The notion that animals can weep — apologies to Dumbo, Bambi and Wilbur — has no scientific basis. Years of observations by the primatologists Dian Fossey, who observed gorillas, and Jane Goodall, who worked with chimpanzees, could not prove that animals cry tears from emotion.
In his book “The Emotional Lives of Animals,” the only tears the biologist Marc Bekoff were certain of were his own. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, the authors of “When Elephants Weep,” admit that “most elephant watchers have never seen them weep.”
It’s true that many mammals shed tears, especially in response to pain. Tears protect the eye by keeping it moist, and they contain antimicrobial proteins. But crying as an embodiment of empathy is, I maintain, unique to humans and has played an essential role in human evolution and the development of human cultures.
Within two days an infant can imitate sad and happy faces. If a newborn mammal does not cry out (typically, in the first few weeks of life, without tears) it is unlikely to get the attention it needs to survive. Around three to four months, the relationship between the human infant and its environment takes on a more organized communicative role, and tearful crying begins to serve interpersonal purposes: the search for comfort and pacification. As we get older, crying becomes a tool of our social repertory: grief and joy, shame and pride, fear and manipulation.
Tears are as universal (but less culturally contingent) as laughter, and tragedy is more complex than joy — an insight Tolstoy and many others have offered. But although we all cry, we do so in different ways.
Women cry more frequently and intensely than men, especially when exposed to emotional events. These differences seem to emerge around puberty, which may be related to hormonal changes but also to the influence of gender stereotypes.
Like crying, depression is, around the world, more prevalent in women than in men. One explanation might be that women, who despite decades of social advances still suffer from economic inequality, discrimination and even violence, might have more to cry about.
Men not only cry for shorter periods than women, but they also are less inclined to explain their tears, usually shed them more quietly, and tend more frequently to apologize when they cry openly. Men, like women, report crying at the death of a loved one and in response to a moving religious experience. They are more likely than women to cry when their core identities — as providers and protectors, as fathers and fighters — are questioned.
“It is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion,” said Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. And yet the Greek epics are filled with tearful heroes like Odysseus, Agamemnon and Achilles. In recent decades, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have normalized the sight of the weepy chief executive. Twice in the last week — at a campaign speech in Iowa on Monday, and addressing his campaign staff in Chicago after his re-election victory — President Obama choked up. Babe Ruth cried when he learned he had cancer, and Floyd Patterson after losing to Muhammad Ali.
Women and men alike are most likely to cry at home, in the early evening and while alone or in the company of a female friend. At the movies, we cry more if the friend sitting next to us does.
People who score on personality tests as more empathetic and neurotic cry more than those who are more rigid, controlling or obsessive. Frequency of crying varies widely: some tear up at any novel or movie, others only a handful of times in their lives. Crying in response to discord, stress and conflict in the home, or after emotional trauma, lasts much longer than tears induced by run-of-the-mill sadness — which in turn last longer than tears of delight and joy.
Darwin speculated that crying occurred less in Britain than in non-Western countries. More robust cross-cultural evidence comes from the Dutch psychologist A. J. J. M. Vingerhoets, who with his colleagues surveyed crying across 37 countries. Americans, Germans and Italians are more prone to tears than Bulgarians, Chinese and Peruvians. Paradoxically, people from wealthier democratic countries with moderate climates cry — or admit to crying — more frequently, and the gender differences are greater. The less hierarchical the social-class structure, the more tears flow, which is perhaps a reflection of greater individual autonomy, acceptance of emotional displays and exposure to the arts.
SADNESS is our primary association with crying, but the fact is that people report feeling happier after crying. Surveys estimate that 85 percent of women and 73 percent of men report feeling better after shedding tears. Paradoxically, crying is more commonly associated with minor forms of depression, like dysthymia, than with major depression involving suicidal thoughts. The popular antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Prozac, are reported to inhibit crying — an effect that, surprisingly, many patients who otherwise obtain relief from the drugs find unsettling.
People widely report that crying relieves tension, restores emotional equilibrium and provides “catharsis,” a washing out of bad feelings. (Tears, in fact, seem to be the only body fluids that do not evoke feelings of disgust.) The term “catharsis” has religious overtones of purging evil and sin; it’s no surprise that religious icons so frequently feature tearful saints and that religious ceremonies are, around the world, one of the main settings for the release of tears.
Crying is a nearly universal sign of grief, though some mourners report that, despite genuine sorrow, they cannot shed tears — sometimes even for years after their loved one has gone. Unlike today, when the privacy of grief is more respected, the public or ceremonial shedding of tears, at the graveside of a spouse or the funeral of a sovereign, were once considered socially or even politically essential. To avoid dry eyes, widows would fill their handkerchiefs with onions lest their bereavement be underestimated.
Crying has also served other social purposes. Rousseau wrote in his “Confessions” that while he considered tears the most eloquent testimony of love, he also just liked to cry over nothing — a frivolous form of self-indulgence.
As the story of the wrapped onion suggests, crying can be induced to manipulate the emotions of others. Shakespeare wrote in “The Taming of the Shrew”:
And if the boy have not a woman’s gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift.
Notions of manipulative crying endure to this day. “When a woman cries,” a writer named Angela Epstein declared in September, in an article in The Daily Mail, “she’s on her way to getting what she wants.”
In ancient Greek courts, weeping wives were often brought forward to try to sway a jury in favor of husbands on trial. The explosion of playwriting in France in the 17th and 18th centuries prompted the notion among some critics that the primary purpose of tragedy was to produce tears — and that the more the audience cried, the better the work. (Others argued that tears caused suspension of critical judgment and led to mediocre plays’ being overrated.)
THE association of tears with art has ancient roots. The classic Greek tragedies of the fifth century B.C. were primarily celebrations of gods, especially Dionysus. Tragedies, like poetry and music, were staged religious events. Even then it was recognized that crying in response to drama brought pleasure. (Hollywood filmmakers certainly know this, as do playwrights, television producers and even news presenters.)
I have argued that there are neurobiological associations linking the arts and mood disorders. I give pride of cerebral place to the so-called nondominant right hemisphere of the brain, which is deeply related to our social and cultural behaviors.
When I lecture on crying, I ask my audience to let me know, by a show of hands, which art forms most move them to tears. About 80 percent say music, followed closely by novels (74 percent), but then the figures fall sharply, to 43 percent, for poetry, and 10 to 22 percent for paintings, sculpture and architecture.
I am often asked why I do not include cinema in these surveys, but what drives emotion in films is usually the music. Witness Michel Hazanavicius’s recent “silent” film “The Artist,” which won the Academy Award for best picture last year. Anything but silent, it arouses intense emotions through its musical score.
The physical act of crying is mainly one of inhaling — as opposed to laughter, which requires exhaling — and involves the soft palate, larynx and pharynx. Crying disrupts speech, which is why we choke up when we weep. This suggests to linguists and anthropologists that emotional crying evolved before propositional language, perhaps explaining why tears communicate states of mind and feelings that are often so difficult to express in words. Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, recognition of emotion (usually through facial gesture) was essential for survival.
The earliest hominids arrived several million years ago, but only with Homo sapiens, 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, did cultures, language, religion and the arts arise. Along the way, tears became more than a biological necessity to lubricate the eye and developed into a cipher of intense emotion and a signal of social bonding. The development of self-consciousness and the notion of individual identity, or ego; storytelling about the origins of the world, the creation of humanity and life after death; and the ability to feel others’ sadness — all were critical parts of the neurobiological changes that made us human.
More recently, we’ve learned from neuroscience that certain brain circuits are activated, rapidly and unconsciously, when we see another in emotional distress. In short, our brain evolved circuits to allow us to experience empathy and compassion, which in turn made civilization, and an ethics based on compassion, possible. So the next time you reach a tissue box, or sob on a friend’s shoulder, or tear up at the movies, stop and reflect on why we cry and what it means to cry. Because ultimately, while we love to cry, we also cry to love.
Michael Trimble is an emeritus professor of behavioral neurology and a consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Neurology, University College London, and the author of the forthcoming book Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain.