Why do humans feel better after they have cried?
Whether it’s bawling your eyes out at a film or shedding a tear over getting ketchup down your favourite t-shirt, the idea that crying is beneficial is subject to fierce debate.
Asked by: Clare Linnell, Guildford, Surrey
The popular idea that crying is beneficial and ‘cathartic’ is actually the subject of intense debate among emotion researchers. A study of personal diaries conducted by the University of South Florida found that people generally reported feeling down on the days before and after a good cry. Lab studies using sad films have also found that most people actually feel worse immediately after crying. However, a recent Dutch study found that a beneficial effect of crying kicks in after about 20 minutes.
The precise reasons why crying may (sometimes) be beneficial remain unknown, although there has been plenty of speculation: crying may prompt us to seek out mood-boosting activities; it could trigger physiological changes that help us to relax; and of course crying can invite love and support from others.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.