Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Her tears, like diamonds on the floor

Crying is one of the weirdest biological phenomena.  Try to think about it from a non-human perspective, as if some benevolent alien scientist came to earth to study humanity.  So picture yourself being interviewed by the scientist, as you are clearly one of the more intelligent native life-forms:

Dr. Xglork:  "So, this crying thing I've heard of.  What is 'crying' and why do you do it?"

You:  "Well, when humans get sad, they start breathing funny, in little fits and starts, and water comes from their eyes."

Myself, I think that our Dr. Xglork would be justifiably mystified at how that sort of reaction makes any sense.  "How does that make you feel better?" he'd probably ask, looking at you quizzically from seven of his twelve eyes, while making notes on a clipboard held in his tentacles.

And yet, it does, doesn't it?  I'll admit, I cry easily.  Somehow guys aren't supposed to be that way, but there's no use denying it.  I cried my way through the last third of The Return of the King, embarrassing my older son to the point that for two years after that he refused to sit next to me in the theater.  I've cried over songs, television shows, and books (I almost had to wring out my friend's copy of Marley and Me before I could return it).

And after you cry, you feel better.  You don't look better, unless you somehow find red eyes and a snotty nose sexy; but you do somehow feel more relaxed and centered.  This universal reaction led scientists to surmise that crying was doing something to the levels of chemicals in the blood, so they did a study in which volunteers were put in a variety of situations that made them cry, and were asked to collect their tears in a vial.  Some were just exposed to irritants, like onions; others were shown sad movies (I'd have needed a bucket).  Then they chemically analyzed the tears to see if there were differences.

And there were.  There were proteins present in the tears we cry when we're sad that are absent in the ones we cry because our eyes are irritated.  This implies an interesting function for crying -- ridding our blood (and therefore presumably our brain as well) of chemicals which are making us feel sad or stressed.  Crying therefore does serve an important function, as our emotional reaction afterwards would suggest.

And just a few days ago a new study became public that sheds even more light on the whole thing.  Friday's issue of the journal Science included an article by Noam Sobel of Israels' Weizmann Institute of Science.  Sobel and his team took the crying study one step further -- they wanted to find out the effects of crying not on the person who was doing the crying, but anyone nearby.

So they collected tears from female volunteers (it being difficult, according to Sobel, to get a guy to cry in a lab; maybe they should have flown me over there).  They then allowed male volunteers to smell the vials of tears, including some vials of saline solution (as a control).

The team's hypothesis -- that there was a pheromone in tears that elicited empathy in others -- turned out to be incorrect.  When shown photographs of sad or tragic events, the men who'd smelled the actual tears didn't rate them as any sadder, or their emotional reaction to them as any stronger, than the guys who'd smelled the saline solution.

The real surprise came when the guys in the study were asked to rate various women's photographs for sexual attractiveness, and they found out that the guys who'd smelled the tears rated all the photographs lower than the guys who'd smelled saline did.  And -- most amazingly -- when given a quick saliva test for testosterone levels, the guys who'd smelled the tears showed lower levels of testosterone than the control group, and when given an MRI, lower activity in the parts of the brain associated with sexual arousal.

So crying, it seems, has a chemical "not NOW, honey!" feature.  This whole thing opens up a variety of questions, however.  First, it makes you wonder how the writers of Seinfeld ever came up with the idea of "make-up sex."  Second, do male tears have a pheromone as well?  Apparently Sobel's team has now found a "good male crier" and is going to see if there's any kind of reciprocal reaction in women -- and I'll bet there is.  And third, and most important -- does this explain the phenomenon of the "chick flick?"  I'll leave that one for you to decide.

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