Crying, the shedding of emotional tears, is a distinctly human activity. There are one or two anecdoted reports of elephants crying but J M Masson and S McCarthy in their book ‘When Elephants Weep’ ultimately accept there is little evidence that elephants weep. Thomas Scheff (1984) argued in ‘The Taboo on coarse emotions’ that despite the uniqueness of tears in mankind, there has been a sort of taboo on researching this. There were virtually no research papers in the mid twentieth century on tears, as opposed to say 100,000 published papers on the characteristics of the fruit fly!
Three types of tears have been identified physiologically. Basal or continuous tears which lubricate the eye, reflex tears when chopping onions and emotional tears, which have psychological meaning. There is some evidence that the different types of tears have different chemical and hormonal compositions (Frey & Langseth 1985, Van Haeringen 1981). Crying follows a physiological pattern which often starts with a distressing thought, memory or experience and consists of distinct patterns of restricted breathing with tears building up to a crescendo, in which the sobbing is at its most rapid and intense and after which the person relaxes. The thoughts and memories cease to evoke an intense response. It is at this stage that people often report the feeling of relief conveyed by the expression ‘having a good cry’. A very similar pattern is found in laughter, particular the infectious laughter of a group, again with tears but the starting stimulus involves humour rather than sadness or loss.
Since the notion of catharsis described by Artistotle in the “Poetics”, the idea of the purgative properties of expressing emotion have been with us. Tom Lutz in his insightful analysis of catharsis (1999) traces the general role of catharsis in many schools of psychotherapy and notes the deeply held views of psychotherapists and of their patients in the value of crying. In contradiction, he notes that general lack of experimental evidence for the therapeutic value of crying (Littrell 1998, Cornelius 2001, Nicols and Zax 1970). Reviewing the possible psychological processes underlying catharsis, he distinguishes two main models, the somatic-emotional and the cognitive-emotional. The first attributes the therapeutic value of catharsis to the bodily experience of crying; the second to the cognitive changes or ‘coming to terms with issues’ inherent in crying.
Whatever the process might involve, it would seem that tears are a special example of emotional processing. They share a stimulus input, an affective experience and behavioural expression as outlined in the emotional processing model.
Understanding how tears might operate to reduce a sense of distress would help us to understand more about how emotional processing might generally operate in reducing emotional hurt.