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The Beauty of Tears Show They Are So Much More Than Emotional Responses

Science says that every tear has a different viscosity and composition. All tears contain a variety of biological substances including oils, antibodies and enzymes suspended in salt water. But how does this relate to the “real world” and how do tears have such far-reaching effects?

by Josh Richardson

Why Do We Cry?

Since crying is the primary means of communication for very young infants and continues to be an important part of the emotional repertoire of adults, it has received a good deal of attention from researchers who wish to exploit the most natural instinct in an attempt to diagnose and medicate.

“There is demonstrable evidence that clinicians often develop diagnostic tools which lead to early and unnecessary medical intervention, especially relating to the psychiatric allopathic model,” said pediatric specialist Dr. Marta Gonzales.

Could crying have another purpose? These days, most researchers believe its function is not physiological, but social. 

“If you cry, you send a signal that you need help,” says psychologist Asmir Gracanin at the University of Rijeka, Croatia.

What we do know is that emotional crying is downright weird. Many animals produce tears to protect their eyes, but humans alone cry out of feeling.

And we cry not only when we’re sad, but also when we’re happy, overwhelmed, enraptured and in pain. Why do we do it?

What are the benefits of blubbing? More pointedly, when should you keep a stiff upper lip, and when might it help to turn on the waterworks?

At first glance, liquid dripping from the eyesis a strange signal of helplessness, but neuroscientist Robert Provine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, thinks he knows how it evolved.

Many animals clean their eyes and reduce irritation by secreting tears from the lacrimal glands, above the outer corner of each eye (see diagram, below). Provine believes that as humans evolved, tears acquired a second role.

“If someone has injured their eye or is suffering from disease, others might comfort or assist them,” he says. “And after that, the presence of tears emerged as a cue for caregiving.”

In other words, once crying started to elicit help from others, it became worth our while to shed tears over any hurt, physical or mental.

Still, why did the eyes become the channel for signalling distress, and not sweaty palms or pale lips?

The eyes are perhaps the best clue we have to what others are thinking, Gracanin points out, so we are predisposed to look at them. You can also generally count on eyes to be visible. 

“They are a quite nice place to put a signal, as opposed to some other body part,” he says.

“Tears are just one of many miracles that work well so we get it out every day,” said Dr.Gerald R. Bergman, a professor at the Medical University of Ohio and an instructor in the Division of Arts & Sciences Northwest State Community College in Archbold, Ohio.

Apart from emotion and reason that underlie , crying often makes people feel better. Research indicates that 88.8% of people feel better after crying, and only 8.4% felt worse.

Clues in Microscopic Investigation of Tears

Rose-Lynn Fisher is a fine-art photographer who was intrigued by her own emotions. The Topography of Tears is a study of 100 tears photographed through an optical microscope. The project began in a period of personal change, loss, and copious tears.

Fisher wanted to see if her tears, all of which were triggered by different emotional states or reasons, looked different from one another. Her project reveals an interesting fact about human emotion.

The random compositions she found in magnified tears often evoked a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain.

Although the empirical nature of tears is a chemistry of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, antibodies and enzymes, the topography of tears is a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series is like an ephemeral atlas.

Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger, and as complex as a rite of passage.

They are the evidence of our inner life overflowing its boundaries, spilling over into consciousness.

Wordless and spontaneous, they release us to the possibility of realignment, reunion, catharsis: shedding tears, shedding old skin. It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.

Tears of Grief 

Tears of Timeless Reunion

Tears of Laughing

Tears of Possibility and Hope 

Tears of Release

Tears of Elation 

Photographer Maurice Mikkers got another idea while imaging crystals of pharmaceutical drugs. Each disc was a tear droplet that has been pipetted onto a glass slide, allowed to evaporate and photographed using dark field microscopy.

The delicate white structures are the crystallised salts left behind from the briny fluid. As well as salts, tears contain antibodies and other proteins that combat infections and help protect the eye.

He happened to bump into a table hard enough to trigger tears of pain, which became the subject of his next pictures.

“I was amazed by what I saw,” he says. “People could not believe how beautiful it was.”

Now he is seeking people to weep on demand for his growing collection.

Basal Tear

This tear is harvested after looking in to a ventilator and being happy smiling

Psychic tear

This tear is harvested after an emotional response

Reflect Tear

Harvested after cutting white onions

In the future, Mikkers will be trying to expand these series with several new images of other volunteers.

This project is all about showing the volunteers the beauty of their own tears thought the look of a microscope.

References: rose-lynnfisher.com, medium.com, preventdisease.com, newscientist.com