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weeping is a physiological process in which some stimulus causes the lacrimal glands of the eyes to emit a salty liquid — tears. Weeping, crying, or shedding tears all refer to a specific type of human behaviour that, although primarily defined as a physiological phenomenon, has also been viewed throughout history as a manifestation of emotion, strongly linked to cultural conceptions of sex, age, and class. While weeping is usually considered simply the shedding of tears, the more problematic term crying alludes to both the shedding of tears and a vocalization, making crying a much more complex phenomenon that is not an exact synonym for weeping.

Three distinct kinds of tears have been distinguished. Basal tears are shed continually in order to moisten and protect the surface of the eye. Reflex tears cleanse the eye when a foreign object or gas irritates its surface. Emotional tears are the third type. Known also as psychogenic lacrimation, this type of weeping remains rather mysterious. Although many scholars believe that only humans are capable of weeping in response to emotional stimuli, others assert that animals — for example elephants — may do so, and have been seen weeping over the bodies of dead relatives. Tears shed in response to emotion have been reported to have a higher protein content than irritant tears. Such findings have led to suggestions that emotional tears are unique, that they might remove substances that accumulate in our bodies during stress; also that this could help to explain how we feel physically exhausted yet emotionally relieved after intense weeping and crying.

Western culture often connects the reasons we weep to what our weeping and tears communicate to others. Views from ancient Greece, medieval and early modern Europe, and modern Western societies involve highly preconceived notions of who should weep, why one weeps, when one weeps, and what weeping communicates to others. Despite the variations in cultures, the one theme that connects these vastly different time periods and their views of weeping is the perception that weeping is a language that enables people to communicate their emotional states without words.

In ancient Greece and Rome some physicians viewed tears as a humour of the body that was emitted when the body was not in balance. One wept copious tears to regulate the body's delicate balance of fluids, assuring good health. In ancient Greece women were also thought to weep more than men, since weeping was perceived to be a sign of emotional and physical weakness. The Greek protagonist Medea, in Euripides' play of that name, laments that women weep so much because they are considered weak creatures. This perception of women weeping more than men because they lack emotional and physical control persists to this day.

In both the Old and the New Testaments, weeping was performed collectively during mourning rituals to communicate sadness and to provide a controlled emotional release so that the community could begin to heal itself after a death. People also wept for their sins, hoping that their god would see and hear their tears and grant them forgiveness. The best known weeping figure in the New Testament is that of a woman weeping silently for her sins at the feet of Jesus, who responded to her tears and forgave her sins.

During the medieval and early modern periods in Western Europe, Christian theologians and other religious figures such as Augustine of Hippo and Bernard of Clairvaux viewed weeping and tears as signs of emotional and devotional states. Weeping was perceived to be the physical manifestation of states such as repentance, love of God, ecstasy and mystical joy, and confession. Medieval religious sources, such as the lives of saints, depict people like Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena as weeping during intense prayer or during a mass.

The most famous early modern weeper was the sixteenth-century Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola, whose copious tears filled the pages of his Spiritual Diary. He wept every day while praying and recorded all of his weepings to prove his religious devotion as well as to determine the best times during which to provoke his tears. As a good Roman Catholic, Ignatius viewed weeping as a physical sign of sorrow over sin and devotion to God. However, his Spiritual Exercises reveal his belief that weeping was not always a spontaneous act but could be learned and perfected in order to promote religious devotion and love of God.

Another sixteenth-century Spaniard, Juan Luis Vives, composed a treatise called De anima et vita (Concerning the Soul and the Life) in which he describes weeping and tears as the result of passions such as love. Like Ignatius of Loyola, he also considers tears to be gifts from God that demonstrate sorrow and compel others to have compassion for the weeper.

In his Les Passions de l'âme (Passions of the Soul) Descartes, like Vives, saw tears and weeping as the result of the passions. Unlike Vives, Descartes applied a more mechanistic explanation to the process of weeping in response to emotion. He viewed tears as a liquid that is formed from vapours in the eyes when one is agitated, just as sweat is a liquid that forms on the body when one exercises. He saw only two causes of tears when weeping. The first is when something enters the eye, causes pain, and thus changes the shape of the pore from which tears emanate, allowing more tears to flow. The second cause is sadness followed by love or joy. The initial sadness cools the blood but the subsequent joy or love sends more blood through the arteries, causing an increase in the amount of vapours in the eyes. Descartes thus envisioned a precise process in which the eyes react to the physical sensation of emotion within the body.

In eighteenth-century France both men and women were believed to weep in public while reading or seeing plays in the theatre. According to one modern scholar, their tears communicated the pleasure and pain they experienced, but also their desire to display publicly their heightened literary sensibilities. Physicians in eighteenth-century England believed that women's bodies were wetter than men's, causing them to emit more liquids, particularly tears. Weeping was still associated more with women than with men and this explanation provided a more ‘scientific’ reason for their penchant for weeping.

In his Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin used his observations of weeping children to assert that the tears they wept were due to the contraction of the muscles surrounding the eyes. Although he believed that strong emotions of any kind can cause these muscles to contract, generating tears, he did acknowledge that sometimes this happens without the presence of an emotion and can occur as a natural reflex action, as when coughing, vomiting, or when a foreign object enters the eye. Darwin also included in his research popular nineteenth-century views of weeping. Men, he claimed, are much less likely to weep due to bodily pain since weeping is seen as a weak and unmanly behaviour. Furthermore, the insane weep very easily because they lack restraint. True to the cultural perceptions of his time, Darwin believed that weeping expresses pain and suffering in humans yet he also acknowledged that other cultures give a variety of meanings to this behaviour that do not conform to Western ideas. He saw this behaviour as both a physiological and a cultural phenomenon, and acknowledged that some animals may have the potential to weep tears due to strong emotions.

In its anatomical detail, the lacrimal apparatus is intricately suited to its function. The tear-secreting cells of the main lacrimal glands form structures described as about the size and shape of an almond, tucked into a recess of bone behind the outer side of each upper eyelid. The fluid flows thence through ducts to reach the conjunctival surface. There are also multiple smaller glands, which back up the function of the main one. Drainage is through two pores, one at the inner end of each eyelid, leading to the lacrimal sac, which drains in turn into the nose. In addition to this provision for continual wetting and drainage, any tendency for fluid to overflow is countered by the secretion from a row of ‘tarsal glands’ embedded in both upper and lower eyelids, that spreads along their edges, with an anti-wetting effect. The lacrimal glands receive nerve fibres from both the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, providing pathways for the control of basic and reflex secretion, and the link to the brain and the emotions.

Lyn A. Blanchfield, and Sheila Jennett


Frey, W. H. (1985). Crying: the mystery of tears. Winston Press, Minneapolis.
Vincent-Buffault, A. (1991). The history of tears: sensibility and sentimentality in France, (trans. T. Bridgeman ). St Martin's Press, New York.