Will You Cry For Us?

This week, I started reading physiologist William Frey’s fascinating book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears, which chronicles his research on in the 1970s and 1980s. I am interested to learn if there is an emotional equivalent of condensation nuclei—the tiny airborne particles of dust, salt, grit, and soot that water vapor collect and condense on to form a droplet of liquid water. One particle of dust does not a raindrop make—other factors are involved, just as there are in the complex act of crying.
Raindrop making is, essentially, a mechanical process. I was interested in the mechanics of tear making (the workings of the nervous system, lacrimal glands, tear ducts, and chemistry of tears) but more in discovering emotional motes that triggered the production of tear drops. Actor Bill Murray put forth one possibility in the hilarious movie, The Man Who Knew Too Little, when he asks a woman he thinks is playing the role of an actress, “How do you people do it? What, do you poke your eye or think about your dead dog?” And then he begins to poke his finger in his eye and fake-sob “My dog is dead! My dog is dead!” to no avail.
To simplify things, I began with an equation that would look like this on an SAT test: dust is to raindrops as ___________is to tears. I picked up Frey’s book to fill in the blank. [NOTE: I borrowed Frey’s book through the Timberland Library’s fabulous Interlibrary Loan Service. Sadly, I had to return the unrenewable book last Friday before filling in that blank. I have requested a second loan. In the meantime, what I learned about how Frey and his colleagues designed his experiment in psychogenic (emotional) tears is quite entertaining and is a great lesson in thinking outside the box.]
In 1977, Frey set out to study how psychogenic tears are different chemically from the basal tears our bodies produce to lubricate our eyes and the reflex tears we produce in response to a stimulant such as onion vapors (actually hydrochloric acid) or an errant and doomed gnat. In 1977, the field of psychogenic tears was a virtually unexplored and Frey had to figure out how to get a supply of tears to study. He placed an ad in the daily paper with the headline “Will You Cry for Us?” He got 110 calls in the first day, withdrew the ad, and then invited his volunteers to his lab for the easy part: the reflex tears. To get a supply of these tears for chemical comparison to the psychogenic tears, Frey exposed his volunteers to an onion being ground up in a blender (his first try with horseradish failed; the volunteer who swallowed a spoonful of this potent root threw it up.)
Now for the emotional tears. Frey threw out the first idea that came into his head: tell his volunteer weepers that their dog had died, collect their tears in a test tube, and then explain that he had lied in the name of science. Fido is fine, thanks for the tears. Frey next called in a stage actress who claimed to be a pro at crying on demand in front of hundreds of people; for some reason, she was unable to produce any tears in Frey’s lab. Frey thought the ambience of his lab may have been to blame. He thought about asking his volunteers to take a test tube home to collect their own tears in their homes, but this presented problems with contamination, storage, transportation to the lab. He expanded his study group, but a remarkable few could produce tears after being asked to think sad thoughts for a good long while. What was inhibiting them? Frey couldn’t figure it out. He hauled out the big guns: the tearjerker.
Volunteers were outfitted with special eyewear Frey had had an optician and glassblower create. Lens-free eyeglass frames held small glass cups to catch the tears. After a trial run, it was discovered that the one-size-fits-all eyewear did not fit all—and most of the tears flowed to either side of the cups, following the varying contours of each face. Frey decided movie viewers would just have to skip the popcorn and use their free hand to hold a 6mm test tube below their eyelids.
He selected four movies: Sundays & Cybele (only 10% of the group cried, though Frey says this was the saddest movie he had ever seen), The Champ (15% cried, mostly guys), Brian’s Song (50%, again, mostly guys, but I remember crying at this one as a young teen), and All Mine to Give (a film I have never heard of, but managed to win the Best Tearjerker Award with a whopping 70% success rate.)
Frey discovered that the most successful tearjerkers were based on true stories and must have long periods of sadness or many episodes of sadness—so long, drawn-out sorrow that allows the audience time to fully engage with the story and characters.
So the tears were pouring and flowing into the test tubes which were then frozen in Frey’s lab. The absurdity of a Tear Freezer caught the attention of the media, and soon Frey was on the national news, including Charles Osgood’s CBS program “Universe.”
What Frey learned was that the tears his volunteers collected during the movies were more voluminous than those collected over the onions and…they had 25 % more protein. Subsequent studies found that emotional tears contain 30 times more manganese than is found in human blood. Manganese is linked to depression. The lacrimal gland (around the eyes) concentrates and removes manganese. Crying, therefore, may actually stave off depression. Frey also discovered several hormones in emo-tears, including ones that are indicators of stress.
Need a good cry? Add Brian’s Song to your queue. www.netflix.com

Next Blog: More on the chemistry of emo-tears and my discovery of the condensation nuclei of tears. Get out your handkerchiefs!