Wednesday, 14 October 2009


“It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Do you remember the last timed you cried? And I don’t mean the last time you peeled onions or were trying to light a fire, I mean wept; cried real, emotional tears as a result of some adversity in your life or as a result of a particularly painful memory surfacing again. If you answered “yes”, then you are probably a woman, as a German Society of Ophthalmology study has shown that women cry more often, for a longer time and more dramatically than men.

But first some physiology: Tears are produced by the lacrimal glands that are situated in the upper eyelids. The fluid that is constantly produced by this gland cleanses and lubricates the exposed surface of the eye and drains into the nose through the lacrimal duct. Every time we blink we help to cover the eye with a thin trilaminar layer of secretion, keeping our eyes moist and washing away dust, bacteria and other irritants. What we think of as tears, scientists call tear film, which is made up of three distinct, microscopic layers. The middle, watery layer (what we normally think of as tears when we cry) is sandwiched between a layer of mucus and an outer layer of fatty, oily substances collectively called meibum.

Tear glands will produce more secretion when the eyes are irritated. These extra tears are called reflex or irritant tears (remember the onion? Apparently if you chew gum while peeling onions you’ll tear less – I haven’t tried it). When something makes you happy or sad, your tear glands will produce emotional tears, which have a slightly different composition than irritant tears. Tears drain down into the eye through two tiny openings on the brim of the upper and lower eyelids at the inner edge of the eyes, which lead to the nasolacrimal tear ducts next to the bridge of your nose. From there, they are channelled into your nasal cavity where they are swallowed or blown out with other nasal fluids. If there are too many tears, they will overflow your lower lid and run down the cheeks.

Sjögren’s syndrome is a disease also called “dry eye syndrome”, where they produce little or no tears. People who have diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus often have this condition as a complication. They must use artificial tears up to every 10 to 15 minutes, and apply other medications to their eyes before going to bed as part of the treatment to improve the condition of their eyes and to prevent infection. Interestingly, some of these people can still produce emotional tears, but not irritant tears!

According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, which has collated different scientific studies on tears and crying, women shed tears on average 50 times a year and men about 10 times a year. Men tend to cry for about three minutes, but for females, crying sessions last around six minutes. Weeping turns into full-blown sobbing for women in 65% of cases, compared to just 6% for males.

Until adolescence, however, there is no sex difference. Up until 13 years, boys and girls cry in the same way and with the same frequency. This suggests that we may learn how to control our crying and there may be other influences such as societal norms and peer pressure, hormonal factors and even family upbringing that will influence whether or not you are likely to burst into tears.

The reasons for crying are different between the sexes too. Women cry when they feel inadequate, when they are confronted by situations that are difficult to resolve or when they remember past events. Men, meanwhile, tend to cry from empathy or when a relationship fails. The function of emotional tears and weeping remains something of a mystery, however, the research found. The cold hard scientists have grave doubts over its cathartic or relaxing effects, but you and I know full well that having a good cry really does get things out of your system!

weep |wēp| verb ( past and past part. wept |wept|) [ intrans. ]
1 shed tears: A grieving mother wept over the body of her daughter | [ trans. ] He wept bitter tears at her cruelty.
• utter or express with tears : [with direct speech ] “No!” she wept.
• [ trans. ] archaic mourn for; shed tears over: A young widow weeping her lost lord.
2 exude liquid: She rubbed one of the sores, making it weep.
noun [in sing. ]
a fit or spell of shedding tears.
ORIGIN Old English wēpan (verb), of Germanic origin, probably imitative.
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  1. This was very interesting. Course I fall into the crying at movies category of weeper. And I do find it quite cathartic. In fact for the first couple of years after my head injury I was not able to lose my temper or cry. And there were some really good reasons to do both just then.

    Don't bawl anymore but I can definitely weep almost non-stop at memorial services and sad movies. And while it runs the makeup it definitely brightens the eyes.

  2. interesting - i'm not afraid to cry

  3. I cry easily and I am the sort of person who takes the tissues to the movies. I always feel better after crying emotional tears.

  4. Fascinating stuff. I think the most interesting thing was that irritation tears are different in composition to emotional tears! That means that you can run a chemical test and see if tears wept are genuine or not...
    I don't cry much anymore - life has hardened me somewhat I think.