Cry Graphics courtesy of Human PsychologyOpens in new window

Crying is a behavior associated with emotionOpens in new window, usually sadnessOpens in new window.

  • In humans, crying may involve wailing and other vocalizations and often includes shedding tears.
  • In other animals, crying involves vocalizations, but tear shedding does not occur regularly (and does not occur at all with some animals).

Human and nonhuman (mammal and some bird) infants cry when hungry and when separated from their mothers. Adult humans and animals may cry when in pain or experiencing other distress. In humans, crying is sometimes associated with happiness (“tears of joy”).

The purpose of infant crying is clearly to attract attention and increase the chance that needs will be met.

The purpose of crying in adults is less clear since adults can communicate their distress verbally. One proposed reason is that crying has more impact than simply telling someone that you are sad. Singer et al. (2004) found that when people observe others who are crying, their brain activity is simiar to activity that occurs when they themselves experience unpleasant emotions.

Another explanation is that crying may be cathartic, allowing an emotional release that makes the individual feel better. However, research has generally not supported this theory. For example, in an experiment in which participants watched a sad film, one group was encouraged to cry while the other group was instructed to suppress their tears. At the end of the movie, those who had cried reported feeling worse (more depressed) than those hwo had held back (Kraemer & Hastrup, 1988).

Researchers Murube, Murube, and Murube (1999) took a direct approach to the question of why people cry. They asked 164 medical students to record all the instances when they cried over a two-week period. The results indicated that research participants most often cried either when requesting help or offering help; in other words, when suffering or when sympathizing with the suffering of others.

These findings are consistent with the ideas that crying operates primarily to express distress and solicit help, with the helper first experiencing empathy for the distressed person. However, much about the purpose of crying remains mysterious; crying is a fertile ground for research. For example, why we experience “tears of joy” is largely unexplained.

But the identification of the causal agents and the specific neural substrates responsible for schizophrenia must await the findings of future research.

There is reason to be optimistic about future research progress. New technologies are available for examining brain structure and function.

In addition, dramatic advances in neuroscience have expanded our understanding of the brain and the impact of brain abnormalities on behavior.

It is hoped that advances will also be made in the in the treatment of schizophrenia. New drugs are being developed at a rapid pace, and more effective medications are likely to result.

At the same time, advocacy efforts on the part of patients and their families have resulted in improvements in services. But a further expansion of services is greatly needed to provide patients with the structured living situations and work environments they need to make the transition into independent community living.

See also:
  1. Frey, W. H. (1985). Crying: The mystery of tears. Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press.
  2. Kraemer, D.L., & Hastrup, J.L. (1988). Crying in adults: Self-control, and autonomic correlates. Journal of Social and Clinical Psycholgoy, 6, 53 – 68.
  3. Murube, J. Murube, L., & Murube, A. (1999). Origin and types of emotional tearing. European Journal of Ophthalmology, 9, 77 – 84.