With so many amazing entries this year, I couldn’t possibly let you miss out on some of the brilliant science writing I received. Here is our second runner-up, Theia who is 14 years old, from the UK, and explained why we cry.
Why Do We Cry?
It would be easy to just shrug it off as a reflex and get on with your day, to see it as just a natural part of life. But, with how magically complex every little bit of our bodies are, did you really think anything in us would just happen for the sake of it? Of course not. So, let’s say you google it. What’s the first result? “A complex secretomotor phenomenon characterised by the shedding of tears from the lacrimal apparatus, without any irritation of the ocular structures.” If you’re like the majority of the public, that means nothing to you and you understood maybe six words at a push. I’d like to break it down for you simply but in detail. Helping you to understand a specific part of your body, and why you have those knee-jerk reactions when you’re sad, angry, really happy, in physical pain or just have some dust in your eye.
Some tears contain leucine enkephalin, which is a natural painkiller. You only partly cry due to physical pain in which case, crying is helping to numb the pain a little naturally. However, when it comes to emotional crying, your body believes you’re in physical pain and is trying to help by releasing a physical painkiller. This is, of course, useless. The entire point of the tears is to remove some obstruction in the eye like dust or an insect. In that case, your eye is just trying to be rid of it; you can tell this because then the tears are just 98% water, and no painkiller is present.
There are actually three types of tears that all have a specific purpose and are only used when a stimulus is present. There are physical/emotional, basil, and reflex. Physical/emotional tears are the type that’s easiest to explain, and I’m sure it’s pretty clear from the name. These are the tears produced when you’re experiencing an overwhelming emotional or physical pain. The brain gets alerted to the sudden bombardment and tries to soothe it, bringing forth the painkiller in the form of tears. Also, if you are crying from happiness or other positive emotions, it still releases the same painkiller, making the positive emotions that much better.
Basil tears kind of sound like a spice, but I assure you they are not. Those tears are produced by an obstruction in the eye as I mentioned earlier (when they’re 98% water). They’re to clear and lubricate the cornea and keep it safe from dust and other small objects. If you’ve ever had a staring contest and felt like your eyes are burning up, that’s the basil tears being produced as your cornea is drying up. Reflex tears are more of a strange one. They’re the tears produced by onions or tear gas, for example. This is because your body can sense these irritants and release tears that are more heavily packed with antibodies to fight the harmful substance from the teargas or onions. They also come out in larger amounts than in basil tears in a drastic attempt to make sure the cornea is protected from the invading substances.
Let’s go back to the opening, complex, definition of what tears are. It mentioned that tears are produced in the lacrimal apparatus which is, surprisingly, an oversimplification. It means the lacrimal glands which are found in the top corner of your eyelids. These glands produce tears from your blood plasma, which build up in these corners. Once you blink, it spreads across your eyelids and escapes down your cheeks. The things collected from the plasma that create tears are: Water, Mucin, Lipids, Leucine enkephalin, Lysozyme, Lactoferrin, Lipocalin, Lacritin, Immunoglobulins, Glucose, Urea, Sodium, and Potassium. As you can see, a lot goes into the process of creating tears. A lot of things are put in them and there are many different ‘genres’ of tears as well. There are other small quirks that tears have, like the fact that if you’re crying from sadness the first drop falls from the right eye, and if you’re crying from happiness it is the other way round. Things like that are still trying to be understood as it is a continuous job to understand the tiny parts of this specific bodily function.
Nonetheless, tears and crying are, in general, a reflex. But it isn’t just a reflex. It’s a complex process that requires multiple parts of your body to be completed, with subcategories and triggers. Different formulas based on the trigger and so much more. I hope it was interesting to learn a bit more about a tiny part of your life that is often overlooked, and I hope you learned something from this.