Tears have a history that is as old as human history. “We came out of the ocean more than 400 million years ago, but we never completely left the sea water behind. We still find it in our blood, sweat and tears,” is how Fritzoff Capra sums up million years of human history.

Tears, the human language of emotional expression, are universal. A tear can mean nothing. It can also mean many things. Not only do tears relieve emotions, they also reduce stress. We cry when we are sad, and we also cry when we are happy. The secretion of tears can be due to any irritation caused by foreign irritants in the eye. Public weeping to draw attention is nowadays a common phenomenon. Then there is ‘shower weeping’ and there is ‘stream weeping’. During shower weeping, one weeps inordinately, shedding floods of tears. During stream weeping, quiet streams trickle down the cheek.

Intense situations, happy or sad, can provoke overwhelming reactions. They may take the form of tears. Crying often signals vulnerability, and it tends to lessen a person’s aggressive behaviour. Crying signals submission and promotes a feeling of trust. It promotes a feeling of sympathy or unity in associates. Besides helplessness and loss, the factors that promote weeping include personal conflict, anger, rejection, feeling of inadequacy, self-pity, joy, and the emotions produced by music and films. Emotional isolation can also produce tears.

Tears lubricate the eyes. Crying is a process like exhaling, urinating, defecating and sweating. Tears release potentially toxic substances from the body. They act as a safety valve by releasing excess stress hormones, such as cortisol. As stress often precedes a good cry, the sense of calm often felt afterward is, at least in part, due to hormonal release. Our traumatic memories need to be flushed out of the psyche. Crying is one of the ways of getting rid of such memories. Tears can be a kind of overflow or discharge of previously repressed emotion.

Tears have healthy as well as pathological implications. The healthy implication of tears is to function as a channel for the discharge of affect or a strong feeling. Tears also have hysterical symptoms. Confusion and sleeplessness may result in bouts of tears that may last for hours. There is a view that says that weeping serves no purpose, other than to get rid of ‘increased cerebral excitation,’ and to allow the excitation to ‘flow away.’

Emotional tears differ from onion tears. Emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones. The levels of hormones rise with stress, researchers observe. Emotional tears contain more manganese than onion tears. Chronically depressed people often have high levels of manganese in their systems. Researchers say that manganese helps regulate mood. Crocodile tears don’t have the biochemical or psychic weight of the deep emotional ones. Researchers say that the benefits of crying depend on what, where, and when a particular crying episode took place. They found that in the majority of cases, improvements in the mood followed a bout of crying.

Without a context, tears mean nothing, believed Charles Darwin. For him, weeping was an incidental result, and its sole effect was to give relief to individuals who were experiencing the agony of pain. Tears assume meaning only when they have a particular mental, social and narrative context. Darwin, in his book In the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, listed three reasons for the secretion of tears: “The primary function of the secretion of tears, with some mucus, is to lubricate the surface of the eye, and a secondary one, as some believe, is to keep the nostrils damp, so that the inhaled air may be moist, and likewise to favour the power of smelling. But another, and at least equally important function of tears is to wash out particles of dust or other minute objects which may get into the eyes”.