What’s the good of crying? [That’s not a rhetorical question.] Sir Henry Maudsley (1859-1944), a neurologist and psychiatrist who took care of shell-shocked Australian soldiers during World War I, knew the answer: “Sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep.”
Ancient Greek dramatists knew it, too, staging tragedies so shockingly blood-thirsty [remind you of a current genre?], that audiences were guaranteed to have a good, cathartic cry. Today on the Beeb [BBC radio 1, that is], as Trueblood makes its UK debut, a group of media mavens were asking each other, “What is this current fascination with vampires and such?” One pundit opined that “in times of economic distress, people need an outlet for their own misery and fear, so they give themselves a socially acceptable reason to weep and wail.”
Cue the Possibly-Mad-Scientists. My personal fave is Jaak (not-a-typo) Panksepp [originally from Estonia], who coined the term “affective [pertaining to the emotions] neuroscience.” He studies the vocalizations of animals, such as rats, and has found that they wail with distress and laugh with delight. [Today’s post is no laughing matter. Later for that.] So, guess what familiar substance is found, in significantly elevated levels, in the saliva of wailing rats (inasmuch as they do not shed tears of sorrow)? CORTISOL. It’s also found in the tears and saliva of crying humans, folks. Talk about catharsis!
So, when Lili makes that keening noise as she is sent [or, these days, sends herself] to the basement, for the misdemeanor of barking at the UPS guy, an analysis of her saliva would likely show a whole lot o’ cortisol, which she cleverly lets “Duck” [her comfort stuffed animal] absorb, as she holds him in her mouth. In a few moments, she regains her composure and is back upstairs, happy as Larry [an Australian idiom, meaning “very happy”]. Very few of Maudsley’s wartime patients were Happy as Larry, one gathers.
How lucky for Lili (and Jaak’s rats, and human children), that society permits them this low-tech method of ridding the body of toxic cortisol. How unfortunate, that when grown-ups (especially men, or women in non-traditional jobs, such as the military) weep, they are humiliated with labels such as “weak,” “manipulative,” or “suffering from a Mood Disorder.” Recent research purporting to demonstrate that weeping only makes men more distressed [especially studies using my least favorite research tool, the fMRI], have been critiqued as culturally-biased. The subject’s (radio-active) brain is registering the anticipated, negative social consequences of crying, not a “hard-wired” neuro-chemical consequence. The brain of a male actor anticipating an Oscar nomination for his convincing on-screen crying [I hypothesize] would look very different in such a study, from his brother, the Marine Corps Drill Sergeant.
Which reminds me of a harrowing but invaluable class in our acting school, in which male & female students alike had to produce real tears on cue, for a grade. In keeping with the school’s Method Acting approach, no artificial means of lacrimation [such as onion juice on one’s fingertips, or a tack in one’s shoe] were permitted. The actor must Prepare: conjure up a powerful, tear-jerking memory, and use it as the spigot, to Turn On the Waterworks. Just imagine the endorphin hit which follows the [male or female] acting student’s right-on-cue crying jag. Talk about tears of joy!
Which we will, in the next post.