The neuroscience – and benefits – of emotional crying

What's going on in your head when you're crying? Discover the potential benefits of emotional tears.

I sat on the kitchen chair, messily spooning food into my baby's mouth. I could hear Jimmy Flannery's distraught voice coming through the radio and into my kitchen. His pain was palpable. The hurt of 2020 laid bare. Fungie, the dolphin, was still lost, despite all the fishing patrols and deep-sea divers' best efforts. Without warning, the tears started streaming down my face.

Fungie the dolphin and his mysterious disappearance

If you haven't heard of Fungie, you're probably not Irish. He is – well, was - a national treasure. The oldest solitary dolphin in the world. He first appeared off the Kerry coast back in 1983. Unusually, he took to human company over that of his fellow dolphins.

Over the decades he became famous nationwide. An industry built up around him, with regular fishing boats bringing tourists out to see him. Even Fungie sceptics were swayed by his elusive aquatic charm.

Then came 2020, COVID-19, and the almost overnight cessation of tourism in Ireland. Fungie's usual action-packed schedule was abruptly halted. Without human contact, the dolphin became lonely – and this was spotted by local fisherman – Jimmy Flannery.

Jimmy then took it upon himself to go out in his fishing boat daily and keep Fungie company during Ireland's national lockdown.

Despite Fungie reportedly returning to great spirits with the companionship of the kind fisherman, in October 2020 the famous dolphin went missing. It was breaking news, just about eclipsed by the latest coronavirus revelations and figures.

 

And so, Jimmy Flannery - the fisherman from Dingle - found himself on national radio pouring out his heart about the beloved mammal.

And I, I had tears streaming down my face.

The neuroscience behind tears

Emotional crying appears to be a uniquely human experience. And within the human world, it is universal – being present across different cultures and countries, and spanning generations.

Given how pervasive it is, there is a surprising lack of scientific information on the subject. But here, I'll go through what we do know about emotional crying.

Our highly tuned sensory nervous system picks up on our environment – sending signals to our brain about the sounds, sights and smells surrounding us. These messages reach our brain's cortex (outer layer of the brain), which then passes on this neural information to the limbic system.  

The limbic system has many important functions – one of which is the processing and regulation of our emotions.

Once the limbic system has recognised an emotional trigger, it can then activate the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is our 'automatic' nervous system – it affects our blood pressure, breathing etc. – without needing any conscious control from us. It's always working away in the background keeping our body's functioning.

This automatic nervous system has fibres that run right down into a special gland in our eyes – the lacrimal gland. These nerve fibres trigger the lacrimal gland, causing the production and release of tears.  

 

So, when my ears heard Jimmy Flannery's distressed voice, this message was carried to my brain's cortex, and then onto the limbic system. My limbic system recognised the emotional outpouring of another human and went onto activate my autonomic nervous system. The stimulated autonomic nerve fibres then triggered tear production and excretion from my lacrimal glands, causing tears to spill from my eyes and roll down my face.

And all this, while I continued to attempt feeding an impatient baby.

The potential benefits of crying

Once the tears passed, and the baby was fed, I felt a lot better. Better even than I had before hearing Jimmy on the radio. I felt a sense of emotional relief.

This sense of emotional relief after crying is commonly described in literature, and even health articles, however, there is little hard science to back up these claims.

In fact, there is little hard science about the topic of emotional crying full stop.

Charles Darwin was the first researcher to give the study of emotional tears any attention in his book 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals' published in 1872. After a thorough review of the subject, he concluded that weeping was 'purposeless'.

This has been widely disputed in the scientific world since. Most scientists agree that emotional tears do indeed serve some purpose.

(Most) scientists agree that the following are benefits of emotional crying:

  • It's an effective way to communicate that extra support from others is required – in fact, scientists believe it evolved from human young having such a prolonged period of vulnerability compared to other species. Our lengthy childhood means we need as many ways as possible to signal for assistance.

  • When crying is witnessed, it promotes sympathy and a sense of social connection – it seems to act as a social glue, that can bond us together.

  • It can cause a shift in psychological coping mechanisms – it indicates a move from the 'fight or flight' response to more of a 'relaxation' response. This can contribute to a decrease in stress levels.

The End

So next time you do have a cry, you can marvel at the complex web of signals going on in your head. And, if you do find shedding a tear embarrassing, know that you're actually helping create a sense of social connection with those around you. If you're anything like me, you'll even be left with a boost in mood after the tears have dried.

As for Fungie, he remains missing. And Ireland is left with some great stories, not just of our famous dolphin, but the humans who welcomed him into their community.

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