common threads #2: crying

Posted: January 30, 2012 in Observations and Commentary
Tags: , , , , ,

It’s fascinating how complicated crying really is. You see tears filling someone’s eyes or streaming down their face and your natural conclusion is they are sad or upset. Being compassionate you want to do the right thing. You console or give them whatever privacy they need. But your assumption about the source of their tears isn’t necessarily right. You’re probably correct far less than you realize. And that confusion about “why” helps make crying a complicated pony.

Many of us believe a tear is a tear is a tear, water spouting from eyes. Until recently I didn’t know there were different types of tears. Three to be precise. Each serves a different function, in part due to changes in their chemical composition. My friends, tears are more than a reason to wear sunglasses on a cloudy day. They are complex. Yes, it’s true they start in your eyes, so there’s no need to be suddenly alarmed your armpits may start weeping or you’ll begin blubbering between your toes, although that would be pretty cool. But scientists being, you know, scientists have identified and categorized tears in a more meaningful ways.

The tears we generally associate with crying are psychic tears. Now if someone randomly asked me to define psychic tears I would probably respond with a smartass answer involving a crystal ball, levitating table and slick pickpocket in a room with thick, red velvet drapes and the heavy aroma of dragon’s blood incense. That would have been stereotypical and oh so wrong, at least according the biologists and chemists among us. The proper definition says psychic tears are those caused by emotion or physical pain. Emotionally they can reflect grief, agony or joy. With physical pain they usually reflect agony. However, for a segment of the population tears arising from physical pain could mean rapturous joy, bless their experimental little souls. Psychic tears also contain natural painkillers. That sounds good, but if you are one of the chosen who gleefully weep for every bolt of physical pain served upon you, tears with painkillers is kind of a cruel joke. Hey, no one said life on the fringe is easy.

Next are basal tears. They should not be confused with basil tears, a unique sensation known only to herb gardeners when blight strikes their tender, earthy growths. You know when something gets in your eye and it begins to water? Like a particle of dust or a thrown baseball? What you’re experiencing are basal tears and their purpose is to cleanse the eye. One major difference from psychic tears is their lack of painkillers. (Not good if you are living the thrown baseball example.) Since basal tears tend to pool before spilling nature, in its evolutionary wisdom, chose to eliminate the painkiller as not to numb the eye. Instead those basal babies are primed for battle against the dastardly forces of bacterial infections. So the lesson is clear. Whenever you get a paper cut toss a pinch of dirt in your eye. Once the basal tears start percolating press your sliced skin against them. Or at least rub it across the wetness. Not only will you kill germs think of the money you’ll save on Neosporin.

Finally we have reflex tears. These are essentially basal tears on steroids. Reflex tears kick in when your eyes are especially irritated. Common causes include the wafting aroma of raw onions, exposure to bright flashing lights or a blast of pepper spray from university police. They consist of the same basic chemical composition as basal tears, but with an extra burst of bleach or whatever it is that cleans you out. Perhaps basal tears on steroids isn’t the right description. Let’s say reflex tears are basal tears, plus the amazing power of scrubbing bubbles! Much better.

As you can see crying is not so straightforward. The next time you see a person crying don’t jump to clichéd conclusions. Sure, you could whisper a word of sympathy or hand them a tissue or provide a gentle pat on the back or recommend eating bread while slicing onions or offer a shot of Visine. All are acceptable. But if you want to be unique, if you want to be remembered as someone who ventures in unforeseen directions, ask which type of tears they are producing. You will be rewarded with a befuddled look, but at least you will have created enough of a distraction to momentarily help them forget why they are crying.
Learn more about The Common Threads Project.

  1. BrainRants says:

    Sometimes I think it might be good for me if I could cry more easily. Dunno. Kind of inconvenient.


  2. Jay Schwartz says:

    Very well said! Currently, I’m struggling with all manners of artificial tears and eye drops, so I can certainly relate, albeit unfortunately. Nevertheless, I offer the following words of wisdom by Kurt Vonnegut, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” 🙂


  3. pithypants says:

    Crazy tears. Please tell me you’ve seen this video of Kristen Bell:


  4. kayjai says:

    So, when I cry I’m psychic? Cool!!


  5. sparklebumps says:

    I’m pretty sure if someone’s sobbing while their eyes are crying, they are sad. Just saying… 😉


  6. Then there are also those musical tears – Tears in Heaven and Tears for Fears.


  7. whiteladyinthehood says:

    I laughed so hard I cried…but just crocodile tears…. (seriously, loved your humor in this one) and where can I get some of that dragon’s blood incense?


  8. So, just wondering, what motivated you to do this fine research?


  9. Then there are the fake tears I witnessed today with a teenager trying to convince her psychiatrist that it was in her best interest to shack up with a ne’er-do-well twice her father’s age….everything materialized in her crying except for actual teardrops…

    Great summary of one of life’s mysteries!


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