Different Emotions Reveal Changes in Tears Under Microscope

girl crying

Story at-a-glance -

  • Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher examined more than 100 dried human tears under a microscope
  • Tears of “laughing till I’m crying,” tears of grief, tears of change, onion tears, and others all appear remarkably different
  • While crying may initially make your mood worse, research suggests it leads to an eventual rebound and heightening of mood in time

By Dr. Mercola

Your body produces three different types of tears. There’s the basal variety, which are made as a form of lubrication and protection for your eyes. These are constantly secreted in tiny quantities (about one gram over a 24-hour period) and coat your eyes when you blink.1

You also produce reflex tears. These are another form of protection and are released in response to irritants, such as wind, dust, smoke, or cut onions. The third form of tears – emotional or “psychic” tears as they’re sometimes called – are arguably the most talked about and the most mysterious.

Your tears, no matter what the form, are a combination of salt water, oils, antibodies, and enzymes.2 Yet each looks vastly different when examined under a microscope.

Intriguing Photos Reveal ‘The Topography of Tears’

In a project called “Topography of Tears,” photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher used a microscope to examine what dried human tears look like close up. Over the course of several years, she examined more than 100 tears, from herself, volunteers, and even a newborn baby, under a microscope.

What resulted was a beautiful collection of strikingly different images, many resembling large-scale landscapes. Fisher described them as “aerial views of emotion terrain.”3 She continued in Smithsonian magazine:4

It’s amazing to me how the patterns of nature seem so similar, regardless of scale… You can look at patterns of erosion that are etched into earth over thousands of years, and somehow they look very similar to the branched crystalline patterns of a dried tear that took less than a moment to form.

… Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger, and as complex as a rite of passage… It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”

As the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, so to see the photos for yourself, see Rose-Lynn Fisher’s website.5 What is perhaps most intriguing is the different forms tears take depending on the emotions behind them. Tears of “laughing till I’m crying,” tears of grief, tears of change, onion tears, and others all appear remarkably different.

Do Emotions Change the Structure of Our Tears?

This reminds me of the work of the late Dr. Masaru Emoto, a visionary researcher from Japan, who studied the impact of human consciousness on water and its crystalline order.

Water that was imprinted by love, gratitude, and appreciation responded by the development of complex beauty, and water that was mistreated by negative intentions became disordered and lost its magnificent patterning. Perhaps something similar occurs in our tears… it’s known, for instance, that tears contain unique substances depending on their cause.

Emotional tears, for instance, contain leucine-enkephalin, a natural painkiller your body releases in response to stress. There are, however, other explanations for why each dried tear takes on a unique appearance under a microscope. As reported in Smithsonian magazine:6

“… [B]ecause the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close.

‘There are so many variables — there’s the chemistry, the viscosity, the setting, the evaporation rate, and the settings of the microscope,’ Fisher says.”

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Crying Really Does Make You Feel Better… Eventually

Research is mixed on whether crying is good for your emotional state. Some studies have found it to enhance mood while others suggest it actually has a negative effect. New research published in Motivation and Emotion may explain some of this ambiguity, as the study found crying may lead to both worsened and heightened mood, depending on when your mood is measured.7

The research involved 60 people who watched an emotional movie and had their moods assessed immediately after as well as 20 and 90 minutes later. Those who cried during the film had significantly increased negative moods right after while non-criers’ moods remained unchanged.

By the next measurement, the criers’ moods had returned to baseline but, interestingly, by the final measurement their moods had not only recovered but also were enhanced compared to their pre-film measurements. So while crying might initially make you feel worse, it may ultimately boost your mood. The researchers explained:8

After the initial deterioration of mood following crying that was observed in laboratory studies, it apparently takes some time for the mood, not just to recover, but also to become even less negative than before the emotional event, which corresponds to the results of retrospective studies.”

Separate research has also suggested that crying is more likely to make you feel better if you have an emotional-support person nearby (such as a close friend). Crying may also improve your mood if it helps you to come to a new understanding about your situation or if it’s due to a positive event.

Crying either alone or with one other person tends to be helpful while crying among unsupportive people, or crying that makes you feel embarrassed, tends to worsen mood.9

Tears Are an Important Form of Communication

Crying is an especially important form of communication for infants, who use tears to show they’re in need of comfort or care. However, tears also convey emotion into adulthood. Not only do tears tend to heighten the facial appearance of sadness, but they may also make others more willing to provide you with support. As reported by the American Psychological Association (APA):10

“‘Tears add valence and nuance to the perception of faces,’ says the study's lead author, Robert R. Provine, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Tears become a sort of social lubricant, he says, helping to ensure the smooth functioning of a community by helping people communicate.”

Tearing up or crying can be “used” to build and strengthen personal relationships because it signals to others that your defenses are down, you’re less of a threat, and it may evoke feelings of empathy in others. Researcher Oren Hasson explained:11

"My analysis suggests that by blurring vision, tears lower defenses and reliably function as signals of submission, a cry for help, and even in a mutual display of attachment and as a group display of cohesion."

Interestingly, crying may even play a role in helping you identify your own feelings.

Among people with Sjögren’s syndrome, which makes producing tears difficult, 22 percent said they had significantly more difficulty identifying their own feelings than a control group.12 The researchers noted:13 “The hampered ability to cry in patients with Sjögren's syndrome may affect their ways of dealing with emotions.”

Why Do Women Tend to Cry More Than Men?

There are differences between crying and gender, too. Women cry 30 to 64 times a year compared to men’s six to 17 times. Women also tend to cry for about twice as long as men during an episode (about six minutes per crying session for women compared to two or three minutes for men).14

The reason women cry more often than men may be purely physiological. Most women have shallower tear ducts than men, which means they overflow faster and easier than men’s.15

It’s also been suggested that hormonal differences may be to blame; testosterone appears to inhibit crying while prolactin, found in higher levels in women, promotes it.16 There are also marked cultural differences when it comes to crying. According to the APA:17

“A study of people in 35 countries found that the difference between how often men and women cry may be more pronounced in countries that allow greater freedom of expression and social resources, such as Chile, Sweden, and the United States. Ghana, Nigeria, and Nepal, on the other hand, reported only slightly higher tear rates for women.18

Lead study author Dianne Van Hemert, PhD, a senior researcher at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, says that people in wealthier countries may cry more because they live in a culture that permits it, while people in poorer countries — who presumably might have more to cry about — don't do so because of cultural norms that frown on emotional expression.”

For Optimal Stress Relief, a ‘Good Cry’ May Not Be Enough

One theory of why you cry when you’re sad is that it helps your body release some of these excess stress chemicals, thereby helping you feel more calm and relaxed. But while crying is a healthy response to a stressful situation, settling in for “a good cry” every day is unlikely to quell the ill effects of stress on your body.

Energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can be very effective by helping you to actually reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and meditation are also important “release valves” that can help you manage your stress.

EFT is unique in that it stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist. By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional “scarring” and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well. In the following video, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman discusses EFT for stress relief.

Go ahead and have a good cry if you need to, but keep strategies such as EFT at the ready for times when stress threatens to become overwhelming (and for best results, use them regularly so you don’t get to that point).