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In Why humans like to cry: Tragedy, evolution, and the brain, Michael Trimble focuses the reader's attention on a special form of lachrymation, the action of crying in response to one's experience of an emotion. Noteworthy to mention here is that an emotion is not merely 'a feeling', but rather a complex pattern of physiological and psychological changes of which intensity and valence (i.e., positive as in happiness and negative as in sadness, guilt, or shame) are two key dimensions. Crying, the author reveals, appears to be a uniquely human behavior. Of course, non-human animals may shed tears in response to physical pain and environmental events that disturb the physiological equilibrium of the eye. They may also experience a variety of emotions, and express actions that suggest that they may be sensitive to emotional contagion and capable of empathy. Yet, according to the author, they appear to be unable to cry in response to such experiences. In further support of the notion that the action of shedding tears associated with, or provoked by, an emotion belongs to a unique category of behavioral experiences, the author reminds the reader not only that documented chemical differences exist in human beings between tears induced by emotions and tears induced by irritants (Frey, 1985), but also that chemical differences in tears exist between human beings and other non-human animals (Bodelier, van Haeringen, & Klaver, 1993).
Trimble's narrative can be organized into three main themes: (1) the behavior of crying and its neurophysiological and neuroanatomical substrates; (2) the evolutionary history of crying; and (3) crying as related to pleasure. The author first offers some statistical information about the frequency, context, and timing of crying obtained from survey studies, and then lists the purported causes of this action. The author's keen effort to explain an array of assumptions and to illustrate related supporting evidence greatly facilitates the reader's understanding of the causal link between internal states and the activity of crying. Trimble delves into the scientific literature to extract alternative explanations of crying and the evidence upon which they rely with the precision and confidence of a chef delving into the ingredients of a familiar recipe. He then artfully compares and contrasts diverse theoretical accounts and research findings. The goal is to uncover plausible and evidence-based theoretical interpretations which the reader can trust. The author's ability to integrate diverse viewpoints and fields of knowledge into a coherent narrative offers the reader the opportunity to be guided through a difficult and potentially unfamiliar terrain without feeling overwhelmed or lost. As a result, the reader is gently led down a path of interesting facts about crying that shed a critical light into the functions and uses of this apparently unique human activity. For instance, along this path, the reader learns that the notion that crying restores homeostasis (physiological recovery hypothesis) has received less empirical support than the notion that it increases emotional activity (physiological arousal hypothesis; Gross, Frederickson, & Levenson, 1994). He/she learns that crying has been conceived as a form of communication that not only elicits the attention of others (Ostwald, 1972; e.g., a baby's sobbing demands a mother's attention and leads her to undertake actions intended to relieve discomfort, thereby increasing the baby's chances of survival), but also conveys information about the person who bears the tears and about the nature of his/her actions (e.g., honesty).
The scientific training of the author emerges in his initial illustration of the unique features of crying, and continues in his exploration of the neurophysiology and neuroanatomy of shedding tears as an emotional response. Clear from the start is that the reader's understanding of crying as a uniquely human attribute relies, first and foremost, on the author's ability to report physical evidence of a link between the action of crying and concurrent physiological changes in specific brain areas where emotions (including primary, background, and social) are purported to arise. The author expertly summarizes the key neuroanatomical structures that are involved in the experience of a variety of emotions and highlights their intricate connections. Emphasis is placed on the extraordinary degree of control exercised on the activity of crying by higher cortical functions that is evident in the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of human lachrymation (Rolls, 2005). Although the author's narrative is so engaging and straightforward that the appendix devoted to key neuroanatomical concepts and the glossary appear redundant, a few instances occur that may give the informed reader a pause. Under this category may fall the author's mention of the James-Lange theory of emotion to clarify the relationship between physical changes and psychological experiences. According to this theory, visceral and somatic responses shape the emotions people experience (e.g., I am shaking; thus, I am afraid); but the theory has been heavily criticized for relying on the assumption that patterns of physical changes can clearly and unequivocally differentiate between/among emotional experiences and that people can reliably and quickly detect such patterns (see Cannon, 1927; Dana, 1921; Robbins & Cooper, 1988).
The remaining sections of the book are engaging, but more reliant on assumptions regarding our evolutionary past and philosophical arguments. Nevertheless, the author's attempts to link conjectures and scientific evidence are remarkable, even when he debates the notion of esthetic experience, the emotional experience arising from the exposure to tragedy as an art form (i.e., a staged event in which the diverse sources and manifestations of suffering are explored), and the role that music may play in initiating and sustaining specific emotional experiences. The soundness of the proposed links is probably attributable to the author's depth of knowledge in a variety of fields and his ability to connect the dots, even when those dots appear far apart. Although individual readers' background knowledge and interests are likely to make some chapters of the book more appealing than others, noteworthy to mention is that the most creative and intriguing chapters of the book are indeed those where conjectures abound, where the notion of emotion grows to be less transparent and more complex, and where the link to scientific evidence becomes more tenuous. All in all, Why humans like to cry: Tragedy, evolution, and the brain is a remarkable read that will undoubtedly engage the reader's critical thinking skills and will lead him/her to ask more questions than can possibly be answered at the present time. The author offers a mere beginning rather than a conclusive end to an inquiry regarding crying and any pleasure arising from it.
Bodelier,V. M. W., VanHaeringen, N. J,& Klaver, P. S. Y (1993). Species differences in tears;comparative investigation in the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Primates, 34(1), 77-84.
Cannon, W. B. (1927). The James-Lange theory of emotions: a critical examination and an
alternative theory. The American Journal of Psychology, 39106-124. doi:10.2307/1415404
Dana, C. L. (1921). The Anatomic Seat of the Emotions: A Discussion of the James-Lange Theory. Archives of Neurology & Psychiatry, 6634-639.
Frey, W. (1985) Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press.
Gross, J., Frederickson, B., & Levenson, R. (1994). The psychophysiology of crying. Psychophysiology, 31(5), 460-468.
Ostwald, P. (1972). The sounds of infancy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 14(3), 350-361. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8749.1972.tb02601.x
Robbins, T. W., & Cooper, P. J. (1988). Psychology for medicine. London England: Edward Arnold Publishers.
Rolls E. T. 2005. Emotion explained. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
© 2013 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University