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Do Emotions Affect the Type of Tears We Produce?

Author: Winnie Mok

Editors: Aanya Ram and Kyra Wang

Artist: Tracy Xu

Breaking down in tears after bidding a loved one farewell. Laughing till tears come out of your eyes after hearing a funny joke. Almost everyone has cried at least once, whether from grief, happiness, frustration, etc. Although these emotions are common and overwhelming, many misconceptions still surround them. A common one is that when you cry tears of sadness, the first tear comes from your left eye, and a tear of happiness falls from your right eye. This fact has been shared all over social media even though no scientific study has been conducted to support it. Even though this is a false statement, it makes one curious if the emotion we feel affects the type of tears we produce, which will be explored more in-depth in this article.

First, we must understand the categories of tears: reflexive, basal, and emotional. Reflexive tears are a product of our physical environment, irritating our eyes. Some causes of these types of tears may include chemicals, bugs, allergens, and dust. Reflective tears are mostly made of water and are activated until the eyes are cleansed of the irritant. Basal tears are ones that we produce consistently throughout the day in small amounts: water, proteins, enzymes, fats, and electrolytes that come in three layers. The layer closest to the eye is the mucus layer, the water layer, and finally, the oily layer. This type of tear is common throughout almost all animals as they help protect the cornea and lubricate the eye. They also contain lysozymes, proteins that defend against viruses and bacteria. Emotional tears, the ones mentioned in the beginning, are self-explanatory, as its name suggests. When the emotion that we feel is intense enough (the type of feeling does not matter as the hypothalamus is not able to differentiate between them), the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for detecting emotions, signals the hypothalamus to trigger the parasympathetic portion of our autonomic nervous system. This action turns into the liquid that comes out of our eyes. What is unique about emotional tears is that humans are the only animals that produce them. It makes sense as humans are very social creatures, and tears allow us to communicate our current state of emotion and draw empathy from those around us, possibly increasing our chances of survival.

Now, to explore the question of whether tears are dependent on the feeling that we experience, the answer is surprisingly yes. Although you might think of tears as one substance of the same components, no matter the type, that is not true. Emotional tears include some proteins and hormones that other types do not have, such as stress hormones, potassium, and prolactin. Scientists hypothesize that humans release emotional tears to relieve stress and return the body to normal. To answer the question, though, sad tears might taste more sour than happy tears because they are more acidic. Happy tears taste sweeter, and angry tears are saltier due to the higher sodium content. So, the next time your eyes are watery, you’ll know what kind of tear you’re producing!

 

Citations:

Mukamal, Reena. “All About Emotional Tears.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 28

Feb. 2017. https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/all-about-emotional-tears.

Dahl, Linda. “Strange and Wonderful Truths About Tears.” Medium, 15 July 2022.

https://lindaddahl.medium.com/behind-crying-eyes-196489e779e5.

Levine, Hallie. “What Are Tears Made Of?” AARP, 23 Aug. 2022.

https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-

2022/tears.html#:~:text=Emotional%20tears,-

These%20are%20the&text=They%20contain%20additional%20proteins%20and,help

%20calm%20your%20body%20down

“The Make-up of Our Tears Changes Depending on Our Emotions.” Medownick Laser Eye

Clinic, 9 Nov. 2023. https://lindaddahl.medium.com/behind-crying-eyes-196489e779e5.

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