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Mindful : December 2018
If you are a Harry Potter fan, the deaths of Fred Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, and Remus Lupin during the Battle of Hog warts might do it. If you’re more of a traditionalist, maybe it’s Beth’s demise in Little Women. If your lachrymal glands don’t respond to the written word, surely they do to the scene in The Green Mile where a terrified John Coffey, in the prison’s death chamber, tearfully begs the warden not to lower the executioner’s hood over his head...because, he explains piteously, he’s afraid of the dark. Or if you’re unmoved by flights of fictional fancy, maybe it’s the moment when the bride takes her first steps down the aisle, or the choir launches into a hymn that speaks to your heart... or you stand beside the grave of someone who loved you more than anyone in the whole world ever has or will. You cry. Even when you’re not in danger, you’re not pleading for help, you’re not in phys- ical pain—all situations where crying serves what scientists suspect is its primary purpose: signaling the need for comfort or rescue. That crying serves that function is a little puzzling, since this biological signaling device appears to be reserved only for humans. But it’s even more puzzling to put together why we cry emotional tears. For some reason, the mind is wired in such a way that when it processes sadness, joy, relief, or other complex emotions it some- times sends a signal to the eyes to unleash the waterworks that otherwise protect the retina against smoke, dust, and other potential harms. Although a small percentage of people never cry (they also tend to have difficulty expressing and processing emotions), the behavior is a nearly universal human trait. And when a trait is this widespread, it suggests that it became part of human nature because it brought evolutionary benefits (though Darwin himself believed that emotional crying was purposeless). Evidently shedding tears helps people survive. → Why Are You Crying? Researchers suggest that there may be a deep-seated need served by having a good cry, and that tears do far more for us than clean dust and dirt from our eyes. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Sharon Begley is senior science writer with S TAT, a national health and medicine publication. She is also author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain and, most recently, Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions (2 017, Simon & Schuster). 30 mindful December 2018 By Sharon Begley • Illustrations by Edmon de Haro brain science