Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Why do we cry?

vdonely's picture


When I first looked up this question, I thought I would find a simple, clear-cut answer. However, I was surprised to find it is not such a simple question. Why people cry is a more complicated process than one would think. For starters, there are three kinds of tears: basal, reflex, and emotional. Basal tears are released regularly to lubricate one’s eyes. Reflex tears are created when something is bothering our eyes. Finally, emotional tears are released with certain feelings such as anger, sadness, and laughter. People also produce emotional tears when they are injured, however there are studies that show people’s bodies do not distinguish between emotional and physical pain like the mind does. (1)

In tears there are certain proteins, some more prominent than others. One of the most important is prolactin—“the hormone of lactation” (2). Women have greater levels of prolactin than men do, as prolactin is at its highest level when a woman is pregnant. While breastfeeding, women may feel strong emotions because this protein is so prominent. Studies have shown women, in the first couple of weeks after the baby is born, feeling more calm and spaced out because of the high levels of prolactin. (1)

One theory is that prolactin and other hormones regulate people’s moods. When a person feels emotional or physical pain, these hormones are released, producing tears. In turn, the prolactin also causes a calming affect on the person. This may be why after crying hard, people feel calm. The saying “crying yourself to sleep” comes to mind.

Crying may also be seen as a form of communication. After leaving the womb, babies automatically cry, although they may not produce actual tears. Some say this is to test out their lungs, others say it is because they had to leave their nice, comfortable bed inside their mother. (3)  Before babies can talk, they cry to let their parents know they are hungry, tired, or need their diaper changed. Toddler boys and girls cry to let people know they are not happy. As children get older, crying happens less frequently. This is probably because they have learned other ways to communicate their displeasure.

The amount of crying a person does, usually relates to their gender. From a young age, boys are taught not to cry but to get angry. Girls were often taught to set your emotions free and to cry whenever you need. However, this idea has set women back in the world. Now women are viewed as too emotional and people believe that they cannot do their jobs properly because they are not strong enough to handle the demands of the “working world.”

Be that as it may, adults still use crying as a communication (or manipulation) tool. One example would be a story about my mom. She once got pulled over for speeding when she was younger and when the older male policeman walked up to her car, she promptly burst into tears. This surprised the policeman so much that he simply gave her a warning. In this situation my mom was so upset that she could not help crying. She had never gotten pulled over before and the stress of the situation created tears. These tears, in turn, communicated to the officer feelings of sadness. He felt sorry for my mom and let her go with a warning. It seems that crying does come in handy in certain situations.

Another theory as to why people cry, spoken by Oren Hasson evolutionary biologist at Tel Aviv University, is that it is a sign of submission. Hasson states “…by blurring vision, tears lower defenses and reliably function as signals of submission, a cry for help, and even in a mutual display of attachment and as a group display of cohesion” (4). I find this theory interesting because tears do blur one’s vision so much that it is extremely difficult to see. As someone who has cried while driving, I can say that it is not an easy task. Because blurred vision does make it impossible to see, the crier must rely on the people around him or her. They must submit themselves into the care of those around them and be taken care of. In this way, crying could be seen as a form of giving up one’s independence and caving into the care of others. When one cries in front of other people, that person is viewed as vulnerable and usually the other people feel the need to console and protect the crying person. In this way, crying ties people together and helps form relationships.

Another interesting fact to point out is that humans are the only living things which shed actual tears. Animals, such as dogs, whimper and whine when they are sad or need attention, but do not cry. Some people say that they have seen tears come from a dog’s eyes, but it has not been proven whether this wetness is from actual emotion. Even the closest relation to humans, the primates, do not cry. In my opinion, this is because animals do not feel the same emotional responses as humans do. We feel sadness and I am sure animals do as well, but not at the same level. A human’s sadness goes much deeper and probably hurts a lot more than an animal’s sadness. An animal may not be able to register the emotions it is feeling like humans can and therefore cannot create a response, like crying, to the emotion.

There may be many theories on why people cry, but it is a truth that crying is good for you. Crying relieves stress, removes toxins from the body, and helps the body heal itself. Even Shakespeare knew the benefits of crying, writing “To weep is to make less the dept of grief." A professor at the University of Colorado Medical School, who works mostly with people in mourning, stated that after crying, people look better physically. (5) I imagine this must be true because before a person cries, their face is full of stress and anguish. After they have cried and let the stress flow out of them with their tears, their face looks as if a weight has been lifted.

Stress causes many health problems in life, this is no secret. From reading these articles on why people cry, it seems that there would be a lot less health problems if people opened up their emotions and cried more. Crying relieves stress and without stress people would generally be healthier. Even though we do not know the exact cause of why humans shed tears, there is not any evidence that it is a bad thing. Our culture tells us that, men especially, should not cry. It is a sign of weakness. However, there are other cultures which promote crying. Men and women cry when they want and flaunt their emotions. If Americans acted in this way, I believe we would all be much healthier as a whole.






1)      Ellis-Christensen, Tricia. "Why Do People Cry?" WiseGeek. 2009. Web. 27 Sept. 2009. <>.

2)      Galan, Nicole. "What is Prolactin?" 21 Apr. 2009. Web. 27 Sept. 2009. <>.

3)      "Why Do Babies Cry?" Babies Online. Web. 27 Sept. 2009. <>.

4)      "Why Do We Cry?" Neatorama. 29 Aug. 2009. Web. 27 Sept. 2009. <>.

5)      Parachin, Victor M. "Have a Good Cry." Miscellaneous Musings. Web. 27 Sept. 2009. <>.


Paul Grobstein's picture

crying is a good thing?

But, according to one of your theories, is a "sign of weakness," meaning weakness is a good thing?

Shelby's picture

No, (s)he said that the

No, (s)he said that the reason most people are ashamed to cry is because society views it as a "sign of weakness."