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TEARS: how this natural «chemical weapon» affects humans

Анн-Мари Зильберман. Золотые слезы
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Anne-Marie Zilberman. Golden Tears /


In general, humanity is a relatively aggressive species. Aggression is sometimes shown by men and women, the elderly, and children. The reasons can be varied — social, psychological, genetic, or due to emotional culture. The good thing is that evolution has ensured that mankind does not exterminate itself. It has created all sorts of barriers to aggression and violence. One of the most effective has been… tears.


Tears express our nature as well as the nature of the world


Jerome Neu, philosopher, author of the book «A Tear is an Intellectual Thing»




Is physical violence inherent in human nature, or is it socially generated? There is still no definite answer. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, it is empirically evident that men are the record holders of aggression within the human species. Just look at soccer fans and the history of warfare.

When the University of Akron, Ohio, decided to find out the cause of increased male aggression, it turned out that the Y-chromosome is to blame. It determines not only the sex of the fetus but also a lower level of serotonin and increased toasterone. But if the man’s «body chemistry» is doomed to greater aggression, the woman received from evolution another «chemical weapon» — a greater tendency to tears.

And while the variation in behavioral and cultural norms is enormous, biology correlates quite well with gender stereotyping. Tears can be perceived as a sign of weakness and emotional instability, something that men don’t seem to be entirely comfortable with. But in the Dominican Republic, the norm is a crying man who loudly complains to friends and neighbors about wrongs done by a woman. But in Western culture, crying is a private activity: crying is mainly done behind closed doors, alone, in the company of a loved one or a psychologist.

Researcher Lee Charman studied the attitude to crying of white people and found that they see nothing wrong in crying alone. Moreover, tears are attributed to a kind of cleansing power. Her American colleague Randolph Cornelius, analyzing the history of 140 years of discourse on crying, found that in 94% of cases, tears are described as applicable.




But whatever the cultural differences, women around the world, on average, cry more than men. Dutch scientists from Tilburg University, observing people in 37 different countries, found that on average, women cry between 30 and 64 times a year on average, while men cry between 6 and 17 times a year.

Of course, the palette of emotions that cause tears is vast. It’s hard to say what people don’t cry from because, in fact, they cry from everything: they cry from grief, pain, joy, fear, sympathy, helplessness, anger, emotion, self-pity, strong aesthetic experience…

On average, during life, each of us cries as much as 70 liters, engaging 43 facial muscles (during laughter — only 17). But in any case, men cry less «qualitatively» — 66% are not able to surprise this activity for more than 5 minutes. Of course, they are ready to let a stingy tear while watching «Saving Private Ryan». But with women, 49% of whom are able to cry for more than 6 and up to 30 minutes, men can not compete.

Unlike the female pituitary gland, the male pituitary gland does not produce enough of the «tear-producing» hormone prolactin. And it is not by chance that evolution has separated men and women into different «chemical» corners.




If you think that the creepy novel «Perfume» man telling about the love elixir obtained with the help of an extract from a dead woman’s body, is a figment of Patrick Suskind’s imagination, you are mistaken. Actual perfumers have long been experimenting with various exotic smells: blood, urine, meat, and cheese with mold…

So the American of Polish origin Martynka Wawrzyniak created the perfume Eau de M, which presented to its readers in Harper’s Bazaar magazine with pleasure. The base of the fragrance is Martynka’s sweat and tears. She collected the raw material for the perfume for a year, excluding meat from her food, not getting out of gyms, and watching tear-jerking romantic videos.

Next, chemists from Hunter College got involved in a process not much different from the one described by Suskind. The fragrance was positioned as incredibly sensual and alluring. However, the perfumers did not risk relying entirely on the natural smell of Matinka and added to it the aroma of cocoa and freshly cut grass.

Something similar, by the way, was practiced in Persia and Byzantium, where women’s tears were collected in a special vessel, mixed with oils, and used to treat wounds. This is not surprising if we remember that tears contain 160 different molecules.

In the book «Crying: The Mystery of Tears», biochemist William Frey, although often criticized by colleagues, claims that emotional tears even contain a natural anesthetic, like morphine.


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It would be possible to treat this case as just another curiosity, if not for one «but». Women’s tears can really produce a disarming effect on men. Researchers from Israel and the United States followed in Martynka Wawrzyniak’s footsteps: they patiently collected the tears of 6 women of years, crying while watching videos, not using cosmetics and hormones.

In a stainless steel room isolated from foreign odors, 24 boys sniffed the tears and the saline solution containing them, after which their reactions were studied using computer simulation and MRI.

It turned out that women’s tears, although they have no distinct odor as such, send a clear chemical signal. Strictly speaking, we don’t smell them so much as inhale them. The composition of tears is selected by evolution in such a way that it dampens male aggression by 43.7% and reduces testosterone levels and sexual arousal. A side effect, however, is that tears make a woman’s face less sexually attractive.




As a socio-cultural phenomenon, they are somewhat ambiguous. We remember how Homer made his heroes cry — Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus. Since the middle of the XIX century, people have been convinced that it is better to cry than to get sick — holding back crying can develop into a psychosomatic disease.

Today, no one thinks it strange for a manager to pay attention to the emotional stability of the team. However, as Kimberlin Leary, chief psychologist at Cambridge Health Alliance, reminds us, it wasn’t so long ago that corporate culture standards dictated that emotional outbursts by subordinates be curbed.

One 2016 study found that weepy women and men are seen by colleagues as warm and soulful people but also as poorly compliant. Crying women are seen as weak-willed and prone to manipulation. Men who cry are viewed even more negatively.

Some modern researchers, such as James Gross, deny crying even a cathartic effect. But whatever the case, the chemistry of tears works without fail. The impact of blocking aggression by the smell of tears is significant in situations where verbal communication is impossible.

It helps to maintain the intraspecies balance between reproduction and aggression. During tearful sobbing, a newborn baby’s energy expenditure increases by 13%. He can not yet speak, so the reaction to chemical signals is essential for his survival.

However, scientists are still at a loss as to what specific purpose babies do this.




The times of Charles Darwin, who believed that crying was a spontaneous reaction of the body intended only to moisten the eyes, are long gone. We now know that human behavior is hormone-dependent. That’s why chemical signals can change maternal, eating, sexual, and social behavior. But, judging by experiments on rats and mice, the mechanism of chemical defense against aggression is characteristic not only of humans but of all mammals.

It was first identified in blind diggers, in which subordinate males cover themselves with tears to reduce the aggression of the dominant male. The tears of baby mice reduce the sexual aggression of males towards them.

It seems utterly fantastic that these signals operate not only within species but also between species! Thus, the chemical signal of tears of male rats changes not only the behavior of their females but also that of mice, making them actively avoid predators.

We can only repeat Alfred Tennyson: tears — we don’t know what they mean!


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