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The Tracks of Our Tears: Why We Cry

In the words of literary critic William Hazlitt (1788-1830), "to explain the nature of laughter and tears is to account for the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of these two! It is a tragedy or a comedy—sad or merry, as it happens."

It is the case that seeing tears flow from the eyes of another evokes prosocial behaviors, and that (mostly) people feel better after crying. Therefore, there must have been a point in the evolution of Homo sapiens when tears became a way to express the mental state of the crier.

It is not clear how far back in evolutionary time one has to go to explore the development of our cultural achievements. At some point, Homo sapiens emerged and human cultures, as we know them today, arose, with symbolism, storytelling, religion and myth, music, and eventually the stage art of tragedy. Somewhere along the way, we started to cry tears of emotion.

Crying is most frequently associated with events of loss, especially bereavement, although we also experience tears of joy and tears evoked by the arts, especially music and stories. This is relevant to our understanding of the evolutionary and social importance of crying. The awareness of the emotions of others (via mirror neurons)—which appeared at some point after the rise of consciousness, and almost certainly consequent to the development of linguistic skills—was signified by the use of deictic words (I, here, and now) that intone individuality, and perhaps dreaming. This allowed for the development of empathy, which is the embodiment of those feelings. It could be that the death of a member of a closely knit social group and the appearance of that person in a dream led to the enhancement of communal activities, such as attempts to find or visit another world, which, in turn, led to storytelling, religious rituals, and ideas of life after death.

During the evolutionary process, the development of the facial muscles allowed for much greater expression in Homo sapiens and the eyes underwent astonishing alterations. Look into the eyes of any other living primate and you will see that the sclera (the area around the iris) is dark. In the human eye, the sclera is white, so changes in the size of the iris that accompany shifting emotions are visible. The ability to feel the sadness of others was a critical part of the development of Homo sapiens, and is directly related to neurobiologic changes that occurred in the central nervous system during the evolutionary process.

Recent research in the field of neuroscience has revealed that certain brain circuits are activated, rapidly and unconsciously, when we see another in emotional distress, but the induced prosocial feelings are enhanced considerably, not only by facial expression, but also by the shedding of tears.

A Tearful Evolution

The main action in crying is inhalation, which involves the soft palate, larynx, and pharynx (in laughter, it is exhalation). Crying disrupts speech, which is why we choke up when we weep. This suggests that emotional crying evolved before propositional language, and perhaps explains why tears communicate states of mind and feelings that are often difficult to express in words. And crying is one response we have to the arts.

In contrast to the plastic arts (such as sculpture and painting), music and novels are the arts that provoke tears; both convey events over time with emotional valence. The proportion of people who cry when listening to music or reading a novel ranges from 70% to 90% in different cultures (in contrast, the proportion who cry when looking at a painting is about 20%).

In humans, the middle ear carries sound only at specific frequencies. It is naturally attuned to the sound of the human voice, although it has a range far greater than that required for speech. Further, the frequency band that mothers use to sing to their babies has exaggerated intonation and rhythm, and corresponds with what composers have traditionally used to compose melodies. The fetus can hear sounds before it can see. In babies, tears evoke behavior from mothers that mollifies an infant's distress, such as the singing of lullabies.

As adults, we turn to music to try to make sense of things when all around us is falling apart. And fiction may elicit the expression of dispositional empathy, or it may cultivate the sympathetic imagination through the exercise of innate role taking abilities. Our highly developed sense of compassion and the feelings of yearning associated with a sense of loss are fed and quelled by music and stories. The feelings aroused by the beauty of music that can leave us literally choked up are beyond words and can lead to tears.

Most people report that crying when listening to music or reading—often referred to as catharsis—makes them feel better. Music paces our unconscious ever-changing bodily activities, and acts as a monitor and a moderator of human emotional states. Such feelings are deeply embedded in us, and reflect aspects of our humanity, such as our earliest individual experiences, our sense of bereavement related to loss, and our beliefs.

In short, our brain evolved to allow feelings of empathy and compassion. Tears became more than a biologic necessity to lubricate the eye and developed into a cipher of intense emotion. They became a social signal with strong bonding properties, useful when our ancestors began to contemplate life in the context of loss and death. Tragedy—one of the most enduring art forms, which was first codified by the Greeks but has since made its way into theater, opera, and the cinema—is an unavoidable part of human life. We go to events that involve drama and loss, often driven by poetry and/or music, and cry. Crying is a uniquely human act. The empathy from which tears are born was the basis for the development of an ethic and aesthetic founded on compassion. It is, in fact, one of the very few activities that truly distinguish us as human.

Prejudice, Ignorance, Intelligence and the evil of intellect

Ignorance is the lack of Knowledge, which is an understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills that is acquired through experience or education byperceiving, discovering, or learning. Ignorance is a state of being uninformed (lack of knowledge). It can be passive or active; Ignorance is rooting from ignoring is a selective state of unawareness, that is, it is a choice and therefore based on a conscious decision (active) of not knowing, or refusing to learn.

Intelligence has been defined in many different ways including as one's capacity for logic, understading, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, planning, creativity and problem solving. It can be more generally described as the ability to perceive information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context. Being capable of learning is not the same as being educated, knowledgeable, or learned. One can be intelligent, even very intelligent and still be ignorant.

Vanity is the excessive belief in one's own abilities or attractiveness to others. It refers to a broader sense of egoism and pride. A vain person who is particularly proud of their perceived intelligence may deny being ignorant and, as such, refuse to learn.

Prejudice is a preconceived, usually unfavorable, feeling toward people or a person because of their gender, beliefs, values, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race/ethnicity, language, nationality, beauty, occupation, education, sport team, or other characteristics. It is an unfounded belief and may include any unreasonable attitude that is resistant to rational influence. It is based on ignorance.

As shown above, one can be intelligent and ignorant at the same time that is willfully ignorantWillful ignorance is the practice or act of intentional and blatant avoidance, disregard or disagreement with facts, empirical evidence and well-founded arguments because they oppose or contradict your own existing personal beliefs. It is a reflection of intellectual vanity at its worst. And it is a disaster.

One can be a successful politician, journalist, a doctor, and a scientist and still be a bigot. Don’t take the word of the Media, or of politicians as a reflection of the truth. Check the facts to make sure you check your own ignorance, for all of us suffer from it to a point. Ignorance is a disease that will never be eradicated but is treatable and you can cure yourself. You just need to check the facts.

Hubris, bullying and suffering

Nature is red in tooth and claw when one species preys upon another in search of food; but destructive violence between members of the same species is comparatively rare, and usually only occurs under special circumstances of overcrowding or shortage of food. The other exceptional circumstance where it occurs is among domesticated animals. Humans are domesticated animals.
 
Man is uniquely violent and cruel. When murder or other violent behaviour occurs, man is behaving only like man and not at all like any other living creature in the wild. But even in the domestic setting, deliberate cruelty seems peculiar to the human species. Men seem to enjoy subjecting their own kind to violence and cruelty, even (and, perhaps, particularly), when their victims are helpless and totally at their mercy. This enjoyment is legally sanctioned when it is referred to as hunting. It is called ‘game.’
 
In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance. Hubris is often associated with a lack of humility, though not always with the lack of knowledge. Those accused of hubris often come from higher social backgrounds, such as politicians or wealthy celebrities. An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in Greek mythology. The proverb "pride goeth (goes) before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (from the biblical Book of Proverbs, 16:18) is thought to sum up the modern use of hubris. It is also referred to as "pride that blinds", as it often causes one accused of hubris to act in foolish ways that belie common sense. In other words, the modern definition may be thought of as, "that pride that goes just before the fall".
 
Luck and chance play a role in many successful outcomes, and those who fail to acknowledge the role luck may have played in their success—and thereby overestimate their own merit and capabilities—have succumbed to hubris.
 
All that said the purpose of this comment is to assist those of us who are victims of those with hubris. That can occur in the form of harassment and bullying, at work, school, at home and in other social environments. Unfortunately this is becoming more common and will become even more so as our population grows, space diminishes and resources become scares.
 
In my practice I often see those who have suffered the consequences of bullying and harassment. Their confidence is often shattered; they are anxious, with low mood and in some cases moderately to severely depressed. The common theme in their accounts is their shock to learning that those who victimized them are so cruel. That they are untruthful, devious and dishonest yet able to succeed and cause so much harm. Then comes the realization that those people succeeded because of their deviousness and with that the fear and distrust in other people. Then come hopelessness, helplessness and despair.
 
The medical doctor’s job is first and foremost to relieve suffering. In psychiatry, my field, the aim is to relieve psychological pain and heal the scarring that this kind of victimization causes to my patients.  It is complex and involves talking therapy, medication and in some cases assisting through the process of seeking legal remedies by providing expert opinions through reports, liaising with lawyers and even taking a stand in Court for our patients.
 
Fighting a strong adversary on your own is not a sign of strength. Getting help and accepting your own humility is the true sign of wisdom. If you are the victim and are suffering, do go and seek help. Ask your GP to refer you to a psychiatrist, or seek one yourself. It might take more than just taking a pill to feel better but help is at hand.
 
Dr Rui Mendel, M.D.