Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sunt Lacrimae Rerum

As I've grown older I have grown more sentimental. Not across the board. In the big things I’ve become much more hardboiled, facing with equanimity funerals and major losses that in my youth would have been shattering. Yet in small and intermediate things I am much more likely to experience an involuntary (and not entirely welcome) upwelling of emotion. For example, 40 years ago I dug the grave for my dog of 12 years and buried him without shedding a tear – not because I didn’t care, for I did. It just wasn’t my response. Not so the cat I buried last fall even though I was much less attached to her than I had been to the Great Dane. When young, I was never emotionally affected in more than the most superficial way by movies or music no matter how weepy they were intended to be. While I have yet to cry at the movies – perhaps that event will signal the onset of senility – I have to admit they occasionally affect me much more than they once did. It feels strange.

If there is a common denominator to the things that affect me more, it probably is nostalgia. The nostalgic element might not be right on the surface, but it is there: the evocation of some memory or familiar experience. This could explain the age association. There is more about which to be nostalgic when we are older. In the 19th century this was considered a dangerous, potentially lethal, condition. A great many death certificates of soldiers in the American Civil War list “nostalgia” as a contributing cause of death – sometimes as the only one. Despite having stronger negative connotations back then, the word denoted the same thing in 1864 as today, so the doctors and coroners meant exactly what they wrote. Nowadays we don’t expect to die from nostalgia, and even seek out the sensation. (Today we’d probably identify what the soldiers experienced as “depression” or PTSD, but at the time they really meant nostalgia.) Nostalgia involves sadness but it usually is of a sweet kind that isn’t necessarily unpleasant.

The title of this blog involves a case of nostalgia. As every second-year Latin student knows, the line (“there are tears for things”) comes from Vergil. It is from a passage in The Aeneid in which Aeneas stares at a mural that depicts the destruction of his city and the deaths of his friends in the Trojan War. He cries. “Stiff upper lip” wasn’t really a thing in the ancient Mediterranean.

Mark Twain famously remarked, "Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to." True, but it is not the only way we are unique. Humans are also the only animals that cry. Other critters vocalize distress, of course, but none of them actually sheds tears as a sign of emotion. Accordingly, there has been quite a lot of research on crying. Charles Darwin himself considered the matter. Among the things that he got right was the conclusion that causality runs both ways, which is to say that expressing an emotion can cause the emotion as well as the reverse. Recent studies confirm this; simply sprinkling saline drops (artificial tears) on subjects’ faces, for example, can induce sadness. Though usually an uncannily keen observer, Charles did make one significant mistake: he wrote that “savages” (hunter-gatherers in today’s more PC terminology) were more apt to cry freely than civilized peoples. This is wrong. What misled him was that the “uncivilized” people whom he met cried at different things than did Englishmen. He saw them crying over minor (to him) causes, such as when a Maori chief cried because his cloak was discolored by flour. So, he concluded they were more emotional, but he missed that the same people were unmoved by events that would set a Londoner to bawling. There is a lot of cultural variation in how many tears are shed and in what circumstances, but in general Charles got it backwards. There is an unmistakable (albeit not entirely perfect) correlation: People in more advanced societies cry more – a lot more. Abundant crying is a luxury afforded by wealth. Where life is truly harsh folks waste less energy crying over sentimental matters, and save most of their tears for true grief.

Some of the most extensive current research is being done by Ad Vingerhoets, professor in Social and Behavioral Sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and author of
Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears, in association with Michael Trimble, MD, at the Institute of Behavioral Neurology at University College, London. They have studied emotional habits in 37 countries. Said Vingerhoets, “Emotions are never caused by external events but rather by how we appraise certain events… There are cultures or periods in history when people cried much more than we do now, and probably we now cry more than we did 30-40 years ago.” They discovered, contrary to stereotype, that people in colder climates cry more than folks in warm ones. They confirm the wealth correlation with tears, and also reconfirm studies from the 1980s that show – in conformance with conventional belief – that women cry more than men by quite a lot, especially in countries with greater gender equality. The majority of women range between 30 and 64 cries per year as opposed to 6 to 17 for a majority of men. (It is likely that men more often deliberately suppress impulses to tearfulness, which lowers their numbers.) There is, of course, a lot of individual variation as well as cultural variation: stoics and chronic criers turn up in every group. Overall, though, the weepiest men are to be found in the United States and Australia; Nigerians, Malaysians, and Bulgarians are the least teary. Swedish women shed copious tears while women in Ghana and Nepal do not. It should be reiterated, though, that the quantity of tears is not a good indication of the actual level of distress; people can be dry-eyed when experiencing the most appalling misery and wet-faced when happy.

What is the evolutionary purpose of tears? Ultimately we don’t know, but Vingerhoets speculates it has something to do with social expression and empathy. Human social groups are vastly more complex than those of any other mammal and require complex communication – most of it non-verbal. This sounds reasonable, though it would relegate solitary crying bouts to the status of accidental side-effects. So, too, solitary nostalgia. Contrary to the fears of our recent ancestors, however, neither nostalgia nor tears will kill you. Sometimes they make us feel better. So, if the mood suits you, enjoy the prerogative of prosperity and shed tears ‘til you smile.

Question Mark and the Mysterians -- 96 Tears


  1. Wet-faced happy sort of mystifies me somewhat, which is generally associated with women. I guess it's closely related to laughing so hard you start crying. I guess I'm an old softy as some movies have that ability to evoke that emotion in me, conversely I've read online where someone posits: What music has brought you to tears? Well, none for me. I love music, but I guess either I love it or think it's beautiful or have some other reaction to it, or maybe that's just a figure of speech. But I've always found that a bit odd.

    I'm sure there's a cultural/societal/gender angle to it as well. You were talking about the equanimity at funerals too, and I guess I've changed on that too due to age/history. I see a lot of posting address someone famous dying, like recently George Martin or David Bowie, etc., and I understand that. But even though they may have made my life more durable, or enhanced it in some way, I'm less empathetic about that after some of my own family has passed. It's not that I don't care, it's that I never really knew them on some emotional level.

    1. Some music can at least moisten the eyes for me, at least if alcohol is a factor.

      Grief over celebrities has never been a thing for me either, though I think I understand it. I wrote about it in a blog back when Phil Everly died a couple years ago.