nytimes | People widely report that crying relieves tension, restores emotional equilibrium and provides “catharsis,” a washing out of bad feelings. (Tears, in fact, seem to be the only body fluids that do not evoke feelings of disgust.) The term “catharsis” has religious overtones of purging evil and sin; it’s no surprise that religious icons so frequently feature tearful saints and that religious ceremonies are, around the world, one of the main settings for the release of tears.
Crying is a nearly universal sign of grief, though some mourners report that, despite genuine sorrow, they cannot shed tears — sometimes even for years after their loved one has gone. Unlike today, when the privacy of grief is more respected, the public or ceremonial shedding of tears, at the graveside of a spouse or the funeral of a sovereign, were once considered socially or even politically essential. To avoid dry eyes, widows would fill their handkerchiefs with onions lest their bereavement be underestimated.
When I lecture on crying, I ask my audience to let me know, by a show of hands, which art forms most move them to tears. About 80 percent say music, followed closely by novels (74 percent), but then the figures fall sharply, to 43 percent, for poetry, and 10 to 22 percent for paintings, sculpture and architecture.
I am often asked why I do not include cinema in these surveys, but what drives emotion in films is usually the music. Witness Michel Hazanavicius’s recent “silent” film “The Artist,” which won the Academy Award for best picture last year. Anything but silent, it arouses intense emotions through its musical score.
The physical act of crying is mainly one of inhaling — as opposed to laughter, which requires exhaling — and involves the soft palate, larynx and pharynx. Crying disrupts speech, which is why we choke up when we weep. This suggests to linguists and anthropologists that emotional crying evolved before propositional language, perhaps explaining why tears communicate states of mind and feelings that are often so difficult to express in words. Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, recognition of emotion (usually through facial gesture) was essential for survival.