USF researcher takes a new look into why we cry

“We need never be ashamed of our tears,” wrote Charles Dickens in his 13th novel, “Great Expectations.”

Jonathan Rottenberg, a USF psychologist and associate professor, studies crying and depression. His research has given rise to the idea that crying is a much more complex emotional response than previously thought.

Part of Rottenberg’s research includes the classification and function of different types of tears in relation to emotional responses.

Basal tears are normal tears used to keep the eyes from drying out. They also lubricate the eyes and keep them from becoming irritated. Humans also experience reflex tears, which result from an irritant like dust. 

Rottenberg and his colleagues poured over 3,000 reports of sobbing. Emotional tears are the most puzzling tears, because they can occur across the spectrum of emotions, for a variety of reasons. 

“The main topic that we’re researching in my lab is emotional functioning and depression,” Rottenberg said. “I got into crying research as a satellite. In a diagnostic manual for depression it says depressed people cry more readily and crying is a sign of depression. So some years ago, I thought to do a research study because I didn’t really understand where those ideas were coming from.” 

Rottenberg and his team exposed depressed and non-depressed subjects to a short, sad film for three and a half minutes. The clip, a scene of a boy watching his father die in the film “The Champ” which featured a substantial amount of crying.

“Crying is a contagious behavior, like laughter,” Rottenberg said. “We’re interested in the big individual instances in crying. Some people are more prone to cry than others.”

Surprisingly, the depressed individuals did not cry more. The research team found evidence to support the hypothesis that depression seemed to diminish the normal effects of crying. This initial study got Rottenberg thinking more about the psychological effects of crying.

“What people think of first and foremost is whether crying has psychological benefits,” Rottenberg said. “Do people feel better after crying? Depressed people don’t seem to report getting these mood benefits.”

Rottenberg said the act of crying itself is interesting because there doesn’t seem to be any mood benefit during the act, yet many report feeling better after an episode. Crying is a problem solving behavior people use when they don’t know how to cope with a situation. It’s a clear signal that something is wrong.

“People make localizations and show tears others can see,” Rottenberg said. “Sometimes crying prompts someone to figure out what was going wrong and take some steps to change the situation. We found in studies after looking at thousands and thousands of crying episodes that people felt better when they perceived that crying had solved some problem they were having.”

Crying occurs in positive situations as well though, which confounds the research on emotional tears even more. Crying is a dramatic social behavior, but a socially accepted behavior. Crying from joy or surprise calls into question the former studies that related crying to depression and mental disorders.

Rottenberg said the community of researchers studying crying across the U.S. is small enough to fit in a single room. All of whom agree that crying is a fairly primitive mode of communicative behavior, but a complex function nonetheless.

While crying may be a simple act, depression is complex and can’t be turned on or turned off like a spout. Though the research is still in early phases, it can still illustrate that depression doesn’t always include the tearful signs that many associate with it.

The subjects involved in the initial study that called into question the link between depression and crying self-evaluated themselves as depressed, and were not necessarily diagnosed as such. Nonetheless, Rottenberg said the findings were significant enough to move into a more serious phase that would study clinically depressed patients.