Monday, October 29, 2007


No one knows for sure what purpose our tears serve, but the research goes on. Charles Darwin once proposed that tears are the result of an accidental stimulation of the lacrimal glands in response to muscle contractions around the eyes during times of strong emotion. Other scientific theorists have suggested that tears are a form of communication and that they contain antibacterial properties that guard against upper respiratory infection.

More recently, biochemist William Frey has set forth the theory that crying is important to our overall health. In his book Crying. The Mystery of Tears (Winston Press, 1985), he explains his research and points out that people feel better after crying because the shedding of tears removes "chemicals that build up as a result of emotional stress." Emotional tears, as opposed to irritant tears (from onions, for example), contain more protein as well as at least four different hormones-among them, prolactin-that modulate the human response to stress. In short, Frey postulates that reclaiming this facet of emotion allows us to "become more fully human."

Although follow-up studies by other researchers contradict some of Frey's findings, his work remains well respected in the scientific community. For one thing, his studies shed new light on the normal crying behavior of adults. Women, it turns out, cry an average of 5.3 times a month, compared with 1.4 for men. And the most common forms of crying for both genders include, in order of decreasing frequency, episodes of watery eyes lasting about one minute, episodes of tears spilling over the eyelids, and overt sobbing. More importantly, Frey's work reveals that most adults hold positive attitudes toward crying. (Executive Health Report, Oct 1989, pp. 2-3) Not a far cry from the sentiments of Hubert Humphrey, who said, A man without tears is a man without a heart." Or, in the words of Washington Irving: "There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of... unspeakable love."

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