February 4, 2009


The Muddled Tracks of All Those Tears (BENEDICT CAREY, 2/03/09, NY Times)

Over the years, psychologists have confirmed many common observations about crying. It is infectious. Women break down more easily and more often than men, for reasons that are very likely biochemical as well as cultural. And the physical experience mirrors the psychological one: heart rate and breathing peak during the storm and taper off as the sky clears.

When asked about tearful episodes, most people, as expected, insist that the crying allowed them to absorb a blow, to feel better and even to think more clearly about something or someone they had lost.

At least that’s the way they remember it — and that’s the rub, said Jonathan Rottenberg, a psychologist at the University of South Florida and a co-author of the review paper. “A lot of the data supporting the conventional wisdom is based on people thinking back over time,” he said, “and it’s contaminated by people’s beliefs about what crying should do.”

Just as researchers have found that people tend, with time, to selectively remember the best parts of their vacations (the swim-up bars and dancing) and forget the headaches, so crying may also appear cathartic in retrospect. Memory tidies up the mixed episodes — the times when tears brought more shame than relief, more misery than company.

In a study published in the December issue of The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Dr. Rottenberg, along with Lauren M. Bylsma of the University of South Florida and Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, asked 5,096 people in 35 countries to detail the circumstances of their most recent crying episode. About 70 percent said that others’ reactions to their breakdown were positive, comforting. But about 16 percent cited nasty or angry reactions that, no surprise, generally made them feel worse.

Given that the most obvious social function of crying is to rally support and sympathy, the emotional impact of the tears depends partly on who is around and what they do. The study found crying with just one other person present was significantly more likely to produce a cathartic effect than doing so in front of a larger group. “Almost all emotions are, at some level, directed at others, so their response is going to be very important,” said James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford.

The experience of crying also varies from person to person, and some are more likely than others to find catharsis. In laboratory studies, psychologists induce crying by showing participants short clips of very sad movie scenes, like from “The Champ” or “Steel Magnolias.” Those who break down — typically about 40 percent of women, very few men — then report directly on the experience. These kinds of studies, though no more than a simulation of lived experience, suggest that people with symptoms of depression and anxiety do not get as worked up, nor recover as fast, as most people do. In surveys, they are also less likely than most to report psychological benefits from crying.

People who are confused about the sources of their own emotions — a condition that in the extreme is called alexithymia — also tend to report little benefit from a burst of tears, studies have found. This makes some sense. One purpose of crying may be to block thinking, to effectively seal off the flood of unanswerable questions that come after any major loss, the better to clarify those that are most important or most practical.

Suck it up.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 4, 2009 6:45 AM
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