A look at animal and human tears
Children cry easily and even after a minor bump or hurt will shed tears. Adults may feel pain, cry and scream when hurt, but unlike children will not shed tears. An adult’s tears are associated with emotions or may be caused by some disorder, an eye infection or irritation, but not pain. And animals? They, too, have lacrimal (= tear) glands and can have watery eyes as the result of an infection or as part of a physiological control to remove excess salt from the body, but apparently not in connection with an injury. Sea turtles and a few other reptiles remove excess salt not only via their kidneys but with the help of their orbital eye glands as “white tears of saline” that drip out of their eyes.
Although human tears are not white, but watery, transparent and very slightly sticky because of mucins in them, they too contain salt – as do, in fact, the tears of all land vertebrates that may not ‘shed tears’ but use the lacrimal fluid to lubricate their eyes and keep the cornea moist. Chemically tears are mostly water (ca. 98%); and apart from salts the lacrimal fluid contains a cocktail of amino acids and proteins, antibacterial enzymes and minute quantities of stress hormones. A tear’s chemical composition depends on the cause of its shedding and varies on whether the tear’s function is to wash out dust from the eye, to fight off irritants such as fumes (smoke or onions come to mind), to lubricate the eye’s surface, and as a response to physical pain and emotional upheaval. The autonomic nervous system through its parasympathetic branch governs the production and release of tears from the lacrimal glands, which are located in the upper region of the eye’s orbit. The tears are stored in the lacrimal sac near the nasal corner of the eye; from there the fluid via lacrimal canaliculi is released into the eye upon a signal from the parasympathetic nerve’s acetylcholine transmitter. In healthy individuals, there is a constant release of minute quantities that are distributed with each eye blink across the cornea, but of greater amounts if required. Excessive fluid is drained through the nasolacrimal duct and causes the ‘sniffle’ during weeping.
Basal tears are continually-produced via the 5th cranial nerve’s innervation to keep the eye’s cornea moist and to prevent bacterial infections. In humans, about 0.75-1.1 ml of the liquid is produced each day. Reflex tears are produced when the eye is irritated, and through their copious amount and high water content function to remove the irritation from the eye. Psychic, also known as ‘emotional’ tears, occur in response to strong feelings, which could be sadness, but also joy, stress and physical pain. Because these tears contain such natural painkillers like leucine-enkephalin and prolactin, it may explain the role of the parasympathetic nervous system and that “a good cry can feel relieving”. But it does not explain why men shed tears less often than women, a fact that is often explained with the traditional roles men and women are expected to play in life (the advice “boys don’t cry” is a case in point).
The fourth reason for tears is related to diseases and the release of tears accompanying other activities (e.g. yawning). Although elephants have been described as shedding emotional tears, crocodile tears are not an expression of emotional distress, but the result of compression of a nerve that controls the jaw muscles during feeding. In humans suffering from Bogorad syndrome “crocodile tears” also accompany swallowing. Reference to tears can generate resolve (Churchill’s famous “Blood, Sweat and Tears” comes to mind); tears evoke empathy: children know that (and actors train to shed tears at will) and tears appear in poems and songs (the record “Tears on my Pillow” is in my collection) and who wouldn’t remember Marianne Faithful’s beautiful song “As Tears Go By” or Eric Clapton’s touching “Tears in Heaven” (which I heard it for the first time in Chile in 1993). I actually heard of people who shed tears when listening to it.
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