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A toddler crying.

File:Weeping Parisian from NARA Ww2-81.jpg

French people bid troops of the French Army goodbye as they leave metropolitan France at Toulon harbour, 1940.

Crying (also called sobbing, wailing, weeping, bawling, and blubbering) is shedding tears as a response to an emotional state in humans. The act of crying has been defined as "a complex secretomotor phenomenon characterized by the shedding of tears from the lacrimal apparatus, without any irritation of the ocular structures".[1] The medical term for this is to lacrimate, which also refers to non-emotional shedding of "tears".

A neuronal connection between the lacrimal gland (tear duct) and the areas of the human brain involved with emotion was established. No other animals are thought to produce tears in response to emotional states,[2] although this is disputed by some scientists.[3]

In many cultures, it is more socially acceptable for women and children to cry, and less socially acceptable for men to cry.[2]

Tears produced during emotional crying have a chemical composition which differs from other types of tears. They contain significantly greater quantities of the hormones prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, Leu-enkephalin[4] and the elements potassium and manganese.[2]


The question of the function or origin of emotional tears remains open. Theories range from the simple, such as response to inflicted pain, to the more complex, including nonverbal communication in order to elicit "helping" behavior from others.[5]

In Hippocratic and medieval medicine, tears were associated with the bodily humors, and crying was seen as purgation of excess humors from the brain.[6] William James thought of emotions as reflexes prior to rational thought, believing that the physiological response, as if to stress or irritation, is a precondition to cognitively becoming aware of emotions such as fear or anger.

William H. Frey II, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota, proposed that people feel "better" after crying, due to the elimination of hormones associated with stress, specifically adrenocorticotropic hormone.[7] This, paired with increased mucosal secretion during crying, could lead to a theory that crying is a mechanism developed in humans to dispose of this stress hormone when levels grow too high.

Recent psychological theories of crying emphasize the relationship of crying to the experience of perceived helplessness.[8] From this perspective, an underlying experience of helplessness can usually explain why people cry. For example, a person may cry after receiving surprisingly happy news, ostensibly because the person feels powerless or unable to influence what is happening.

Emotional tears have also been put into an evolutionary context. One study proposes that crying, by blurring vision, can handicap aggressive or defensive actions, and may function as a reliable signal of appeasement, need, or attachment.[9]

Frequency of crying

According to a study of over 300 adults, on average men cry once every month; women cry at least five times per month,[2] especially before and during the menstrual cycle when crying can increase up to 5 times the normal rate, often without obvious reasons (such as depression or sadness).[10]

According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, which has collated different scientific studies on crying, women cry on average between 30 and 64 times a year, and men cry on average between 6 and 17 times a year.

Men tend to cry for between two and four minutes, and women cry for about six minutes. Crying turns into sobbing for women in 65% of cases, compared to just 6% for men.[11]

Types of crying in infants

File:Crying newborn.jpg

A newborn child crying.

Although crying is an infant's only way of communication, it is not limited to one monotone sound. There are three different types of cries apparent in infants. The first of these three is a basic cry, which is a systematic cry with a pattern of crying and silence. The basic cry starts with a cry coupled with a briefer silence, which is followed by a short high-pitched inspiratory whistle. Then, there is a brief silence followed by another cry. Hunger is a main stimulant of the basic cry. An anger cry is much like the basic cry; however, in this cry, more excess air is forced through the vocal cords, making it a louder, more abrupt cry. The third cry is the pain cry, which, unlike the other two, has no preliminary moaning. The pain cry is one loud cry, followed by a period of breath holding. It is important to note that most adults can determine whether an infant's cries signify anger or pain (Zeskind, Klein & Marshall, 1992). Most parents also have a better ability to distinguish their own infant's cries than those of a different child.[12]

There has been some evidence that crying between cultures also has some differences. In western countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, babies cry more often than infants in Eastern European countries. East Asian and Southeast Asian babies cry the most in the world, while African babies cry less than anywhere in the world. This is due to an intense amount of crying in the first three months after birth, with periods of crying peaking in the fifth week of age. It is unknown why this difference occurs culturally.[13] A recent study has revealed that babies mimic their parents' pitch contour. French infants wail on a rising note while the Germans favor a falling melody.[14]

Disorders related to crying

  • Bell's palsy, where faulty regeneration of the facial nerve can cause sufferers to shed tears while eating.[15]
  • Cri du chat, where the characteristic cry of affected infants, which is similar to that of a meowing kitten, is due to problems with the larynx and nervous system.
  • Familial dysautonomia, where there can be a lack of overflow tears (alacrima) during emotional crying.[16]
  • Pathological laughing and crying, where the patients experience relatively uncontrollable episodes of laughing or crying, or both.


  1. Patel V (1993). "Crying behavior and psychiatric disorder in adults: a review". Compr Psychiatry 34 (3): 206–11. doi:10.1016/0010-440X(93)90049-A. PMID 8339540. Quoted by Michelle C.P. Hendriks, A.J.J.M. Vingerhoets in Crying: is it beneficial for one's well-being?
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Walter, Chip (December 2006). "Why do we cry?". Scientific American Mind 17 (6): 44.
  3. Langseth, Muriel; Frey, William H. (1985). "Ch. 14: Do Animals Shed Emotional Tears?". Crying: the mystery of tears. Minneapolis, Minn: Winston Press. pp. 135–9. ISBN 0-86683-829-5.
  4. Skorucak A. "The Science of Tears."
  5. "On the Origin of Crying and Tears". Human Ethology Newsletter 5 (10): 5–6. June 1989.
  6. Lutz (2001), 69ff.
  7. "Crying; The Mystery of Tears" personal page of Frey WH with quote from his book
  8. Miceli, M.; Castelfranchi, C. (2003). "Crying: discussing its basic reasons and uses". New Ideas in Psychology 21 (3): 247–73. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2003.09.001.
  9. New Theory for Why We Cry
  10. Fischer, Agneta (2000). Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives. ISBN 9780521639866.
  12. Santrock, John W. (2007). "Crying". A Topical Approach to Lifespan Development (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages. pp. 351–2. ISBN 0-07-338264-7.
  13. Barr, Ronald. Keefe, Maureen. Roberts, Ian St. James. (2001). New Evidence On Unexplained Infant Crying: Its Origins, Nature, and Management. Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute.
  14. Mampe B, Friederici AD, Christophe A, Wermke K (December 2009). "Newborns' cry melody is shaped by their native language". Curr. Biol. 19 (23): 1994–7. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064. PMID 19896378.
  15. Morais Pérez D, Dalmau Galofre J, Bernat Gili A, Ayerbe Torrero V (1990). "[Crocodile tears syndrome]" (in Spanish; Castilian). Acta Otorrinolaringol Esp 41 (3): 175–7. PMID 2261223.
  16. Felicia B Axelrod, Gabrielle Gold-von Simson (October 3, 2007). "Hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathies: types II, III, and IV". Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases 2 (39): 39. doi:10.1186/1750-1172-2-39. PMC 2098750. PMID 17915006.

Further reading

  • Frey, William H.; Langseth, Muriel (1985). Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Minneapolis: Winston Press. ISBN 0866838295.
  • Lutz, Tom (1999). Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-04756-3.
  • Walter, Chip (December 2006). "Why do we cry?". Scientific American Mind 17 (6): 44.

External links

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