The crying game

What makes us shed tears?

I had behaved badly, and feared the worst. I went looking for my father, gave him a reasonably accurate report, then did something that – now I think about it – seems rather odd.

Specifically, I released a salty, protein-rich fluid from my lacrimal apparatus, improvised adjustments in the muscles of facial expression, added a few non-specific and incomprehensible vocalisations, and convulsively inhaled and exhaled air with spasms of the respiratory and truncal muscle groups. To put it another way, I cried.

Like most boys, I sometimes allowed my conduct to deviate from the ideal: running around the house, gobbing on my brother, setting things alight. But the occasion I have in mind was different. Not because of the specifics of my crime, which I no longer recall, but because this time my father interrupted to tell me I was too old to cry. (How old? Somewhere between eight and 12, is my best guess.) His point, I suspect, was that for years he had not expected me to take criticism tearlessly, but now he did. As it happens, he doesn’t remember the incident – and insists he has never felt anybody can be “too old to cry” as such – but it lives with me still, the shocking realisation that I could no longer squeeze out tears to escape trouble. A rite of passage for which there is no name, although we all go through this, or something like it.

I have, of course, cried many times since then. Even relatively recently – in front of my father and others too – although not ordinarily to avoid a bollocking. As an adult I’ve cried for characters in films and books. I failed an important exam, once, because my eyes constantly flooded as I tried to put from my mind the death of a close relative the night before. I burst into tears in front of a flatmate – a man – after my mother was made redundant some years ago. In my first job as a journalist, after spending a whole day sitting beside a nitpicking editor as he went through my work, I went home and cried to my girlfriend. After severing major blood vessels in my foot, I wept in front of my wife (as she had by then become) and a roomful of strangers. Four years ago, after reading the memoir of a woman dying from cancer, I drove to the reading group where that book had been chosen for discussion and cracked up on the elevated motorway that snakes through west London, allowing my tearful gaze to rest on a beautiful sunset and… driving into the car in front. (I stopped weeping, obviously, to exchange telephone numbers with the driver, but the incident provided still more reason for crying again afterwards.)

And let’s not forget this one. Last year, on a fast road in Texas, a squirrel dashed out in front of my car; even the slight bump caused by driving over it, minimal though that was, thanks to the excellent suspension on my rental car, was sufficient to generate tears.

To write this is embarrassing, even shameful. To cry for a squirrel: how could I be so pathetic? But it’s also self-serving, hinting at a sensitive soul – and a bold move, to put all this on public record. As I was researching this story, a glamorous woman told me something that I only hope others feel too: “There is nothing more powerful than seeing a grown man cry. It shows a sensitivity and vulnerability that is very appealing.”

Over the centuries, as between cultures, the appropriate context for tears has varied considerably. St Francis of Assisi is said to have gone blind from too much crying. In the 12th century epic, Song of Roland, the lords of France weep bitter tears, pull their beards and faint from grief. As Tom Lutz writes in his brilliant and witty book, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, only Monty Python could do justice to the idea of 20,000 knights in armour weeping and fainting and falling off their horses. Among later European classics, comedians could have fun with The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which Goethe’s hero sobs almost constantly, and many Victorian melodramas that came after. (Europe dried up, it is said, during the first world war, because there was just too much to cry about. But I reckon crying became unfashionable earlier, around the time Oscar Wilde joked that you would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Dickens’s Little Nell.)

A common ruse of journalism is to justify writing about something by claiming that it is on the increase. But to write that we’re all crying a lot more these days would be absurd because any such change would be glacially slow. All the same, we tend to forget how often we do cry. In one study, researchers asked English speakers to keep daily records and, at the end of the year, to estimate how frequently they had cried. The guesses were much lower than the diaries showed: women cry 64 times a year, on average, and men 17.

To find out what sets us off, I recently looked up stories that appeared this year in the mid-market Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, in which the words “crying” and “tears” both occurred. The subjects they covered most often were, in roughly this order: the deaths, births and illnesses of children; and of parents; cheating husbands; and violent ones; absent fathers; paedophilia; rape; adoption; the hell of school exams; remembering lost loves; or retired guide dogs; accepting an award for acting; problems with builders; and onions. Most of these things, thankfully, don’t arise often. The most common causes of crying are low-level frustration or sad moments on TV. Which may explain why, according to extensive research, adults cry most frequently when they are alone, at home, between 7pm and 10pm.

No other animal sheds emotional tears (as opposed to tears of irritation). Charles Darwin, who confirmed this in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, acknowledged that crying could be useful to infants for attracting attention from caregivers, but ultimately concluded that tears were more or less useless; like the appendix, an exception to the rule that purposeless behaviour and body structures will not be maintained during the course of evolution.

Perhaps he was right, and we will eventually lose this faculty. If we do we may miss it because, as a means to stop intimidation, crying would seem to be less humiliating than the chimpanzee’s preferred tactic of presenting the hindquarters.

The pageant of public life is frequently enlivened by tears from grown men (and women, of whom more later). These leaky outbursts, even following behaviour more than usually shameful, can raise a man’s popularity and immediately produce forgiveness – if not necessarily from the individuals he has hurt, then at least from anonymous millions who read the newspapers and watch TV.

But even the most powerful weapons in the armoury of public relations don’t always work. In the US, the Democrat Ed Muskie flunked the 1972 presidential primaries after crying in front of the press corps. (A hostile press had written that Muskie’s wife was “emotionally unstable”. He claimed they were not tears on his cheeks but snowflakes.) In Russia, the former prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, who also cried on camera, was forever after derided as the “weeping Bolshevik”. But many others have turned tears to their advantage, including Oliver North in the Contragate hearings, Jim Bakker, the fraudulent TV evangelist, and Bill Clinton, who always managed to tear up at need. Once, notoriously, Clinton was laughing and joking with colleagues at a funeral when he noticed he was being filmed, immediately became serious and welled up.

Such weeping, less than fully sincere, may put you in mind of Lewis Carroll’s walrus, in Through the Looking Glass, who weeps for the oysters as he cheerfully eats them. Or of the musician Liberace, who said after he was libelled that he would “cry all the way to the bank”. Or the poet Robert Lowell, who memorably wrote that we “piss hogwash through our eyes”.

Despite this roll of male dishonour, studies have shown that women in particular use crying purposely to manipulate others. This has long been suspected. Over the years women’s tears have been described as “the world’s greatest water power”, and “stronger than any acid”. According to one proverb: “Every woman is wrong until she cries.” Outdated misogyny? Late last year the British prime minister’s wife, Cherie Booth, got tears in her eyes during a speech defending herself against behaving improperly in a deal relating to her son’s university accommodation. Several newspapers unkindly interpreted those tears as forced. She was faking, they insisted, to win sympathy that she didn’t deserve. But surely she’s a bit old for that. Whatever would her father say?

At birth, most babies cry at C or C-sharp. (That is, according to one American study.) As they grow older, they learn to cry at different pitches, and with different intensities, durations and qualities. At around 10 months, they cease to cry primarily when alone in favour of crying when a caregiver is present: crying becomes manipulative.

Along with the noise – and usually, as we get older, without it – come tears. Ordinary tears, which lubricate the eyeballs every waking minute, are produced continuously in the lacrimal gland, which rests between the frontal bone and the eyeball, at up to two microlitres a minute, or nearly 10 ounces a day. They flow from the outside, upper edge towards the centre and drain away through puncta, or holes, on the lower eyelid. If the flow is excessive, as the result of yawning, coughing, vomiting or sneezing – or a poke in the eye – the 0.3mm-wide puncta can’t handle the flow, and tears slosh over the edge of the eyelids. This also happens when we weep.

But what causes emotional tears? The philosopher William James, following Darwin, considered emotions to be little different from reflexes, occurring without prior rational thought. Only after experiencing the bodily sensations of, say, anger or fear, James argued, do we cognitively recognise the emotions. But this doesn’t explain why the bodily sensations arise in the first place. Nor is it clear how James accounts for blushes which, as anybody can testify, come after embarrassing thoughts, not the other way round. And anyway, if bodily state alone determines emotions, why does the losing team in a soccer match feel miserable and the winning side euphoric – when both have played for the same duration, on the same pitch and in the same conditions?

More confusingly, the same thoughts can produce two different emotions. Pity and schadenfreude both arise from the contemplation of somebody else’s misfortunes. So why does only pity make us cry? Hormones certainly have some influence: in tests, patients injected with adrenaline have reported feeling something like an emotion but not the emotion itself. (“I feel as if afraid,” said one. “I feel as if I were going to weep without knowing why.”) But neurologists are unsure of the precise pathways of the nerves controlling the glands, which release hormones, let alone what happens in the brain to stimulate them.

They have, however, identified two different memory systems: one declarative and one emotional. People with brains damaged in accidents, who lose the use of only one of these systems, either (a) react with great fear to a person who hurt them, but without having any explicit memory of that person or the injury or (b) remember clearly the person and the injury but without strong feelings. This suggests that reason and emotions are not opposed to each other, as Plato long ago suggested. On the contrary, it indicates that reason and emotions need each other to function properly.

One person hoping to find answers to these mysteries is Ad Vingerhoets, one of a handful of academics, worldwide, to have devoted their attention to crying. Like Lutz, he recently came to London for a conference on adult crying hosted by the Freud Museum, but I meet him in Tilburg, in the Netherlands – a place best known for its soccer team, PSV Eindhoven, a rock academy, and the university where Vingerhoets is professor of clinical psychology.

He wears a shirt with button-down collar and beige canvas jeans. His hair, at the back and sides, is mostly white but his beard is dark. Odder still, he has no moustache. Altogether, this gives him something of the air of a magician, by no means ill-suited to his unusual discipline. Before taking me to the department of psychology and health, he buys me a coffee in the canteen, among students who drift in and out between seminars. Outside the window, I notice, water gushes inconsolably from a pair of fountains.

Vingerhoets had worked for years on the psychophysiology of the emotions when somebody at a party set him thinking. “A man asked me, ‘Is crying really healthy? I don’t believe it.’ I couldn’t tell him. There’s very little in the textbooks.” Over time, the professor became consumed by the subject, which everybody thinks they understand but which proved less comprehensible the more he looked into it. (Is sobbing fundamentally different from merely getting watery eyes, or for that matter a quivering lip? Nobody knows.)

At Tilburg, the study of psychology is scientifically rigorous, based on laboratory tests rather than mythology and metaphor. One of Vingerhoets’ PhD students, Michelle Hendricks, is currently analysing the distress caused by seeing somebody else cry. This morning, as part of an experiment, she has a volunteer coming in to watch a movie in the lab: a room at the end of the corridor has been specially prepared, with a huge Grundig TV set up before a leather-effect sun-lounger. The volunteers are undergraduate students, obliged to take part in a certain number of experiments each year, but allowed to choose which ones. Before the film begins, they’re told what will happen and asked to sign insurance forms. Next, they complete a questionnaire about their mood, and climb on to the sun-lounger, where Hendricks wires them up to monitors assessing, among other things, blood pressure, heart rate and sweating. They’re also given a button to press whenever the film, Once Were Warriors, elicits tears. When it ends, they must complete another questionnaire. One volunteer recently pressed the button eight times, reports Hendricks with evident satisfaction, but roughly three-quarters don’t press it at all. “I think maybe the movie is not touching enough. It’s pretty violent. Also the environment may affect them. They’re in a strange room with all kinds of wires…”

Examining the forms from her latest volunteer, Hendricks says: “She was happy before the film. Not so much after.”

Another postgraduate, Frank Donkers, recently completed extensive research into electrical activity in the brain. In a hutch at the end of another corridor, insulated against sound and electricity, volunteers sat in another comfortable chair, this time before a computer screen. On their heads they wore caps fitted with electrodes. “We showed them pictures like this one,” says Donkers, calling up on screen a portrait of a young woman with a blank expression. “And then this one, showing the same girl crying.” The pictures, featuring all sorts of people, of various ages, were taken at a nearby drama school. Donkers and his colleagues selected the most emotionally arousing, and these were screened at a rate of one every half-second (or “500 milliseconds”, as Donkers says precisely). Over 15 minutes, each shot appeared three times. “It seems that females are more aroused than males,” he observes, indicating the flow of electrical signals across his screen.

On this particular chart, a sudden jump indicates that the volunteer blinked. “That has an enormous influence. We have to factor it out. If a subject is blinking, I have to tell them on the intercom to stop.” Other volunteers frustrate him in different ways. “I hear them say, ‘Oh, no, what is this!’ Or, ‘Jesus, this is boring.’ Or they might fall asleep.”

Nevertheless, the results were sufficient to show clearly that pictures of blank expressions elicit less mental activity than pictures of people crying – not much to go on after eight months of work but with luck it may prove a useful step in the long process of understanding why people cry. “Next,” says Donkers, “is to see if women respond more to pictures of men, and the other way round.” But that, he makes absolutely clear, is a job for somebody else.

I find this fascinating, but wonder if Vingerhoets and his team ever worry about the seriousness of their work. As he drives me to the airport, the professor seems to admit as much when he tells me about a friend and former colleague, a world expert in blinking, who gave it all up for a career in politics. “This would seem to be one answer to the question of ‘why oh why?’”

I leave Holland little clearer about my own crying habits, let alone those of Cherie Booth. But soon afterwards I come across another piece of research, much like the one Donkers mentioned. In tests, individuals were asked about their own reactions to watching men and women cry, and also how they thought other people would react in the same situation. Most felt that “people” would be more bothered by male crying than they themselves were – indicating a substantial, if unacknowledged, acceptance of male crying. This makes a lot of sense. The British soccer player Paul Gascoigne became a national icon in 1990 after he cried in the World Cup, even though his tears were entirely self-pitiful. Then there are the weeping movie stars. Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks are well known as sensitive types, but even the conventionally macho Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis have shed tears on film. Indeed, it has been argued that actors are more likely to win awards if their performance requires them to cry.

Thinking about this, I wonder whether, after decades of exhortation from pop psychologists – many of whom believe crying to be therapeutic, although this has yet to be supported by hard evidence – men have acquired a new licence to cry in public. And whether, owing to the even mightier imperatives of feminism, women have felt an equal and opposite prohibition. Lutz, in his book, hints at exactly such an idea. He believes this may be part of a more general trend towards the centre: just as politicians seek to position themselves away from the extremes of left and right, so men cry to prove they are “not too manly” and women suppress tears to prove they are “not too feminine”. For me, this can only be good news. Cherie Booth, on the other hand, may regret making the mistake of crying while also not being a man.

But did she, as accused, fake her tears? I ask Mark Borkowski who, in addition to wearing pinstripes and advising major companies on public relations, has a background in performing arts. “In public life,” he says, “you are always under pressure, and you have to show strength. We have a tradition where you can’t show emotion, you’re trained to deal with the media and not to be seen as who you really are… People do want to see the honest human face, and when someone cries, there’s huge appreciation. But they might also think this has been manipulated. We are so savvy, in Britain, about spin. If you went into the street and asked people if they thought PR people were using tears for leverage, I think seven or eight out of 10 would say yes, so you have to take that into account. And there’s too much light on the puppet strings, when it comes to the Blairs, so if I’d been asked I would not have advised her to cry.”

But each client is different. “If someone said to me – before a press conference or interview – ‘Look, I really want to keep a stiff upper lip’,” continues Borkowski, “I would probably say, ‘No, let it go, people want to see the real you.’ If they said, ‘I would like to pull out a hanky at paragraph eight in my speech,’ I would say no. Nobody has ever asked me, but it may happen. If somebody publishes conclusive research, there are going to be a thousand publicists telling clients to think about using tears.”

If that happens, they may want to get in touch with Dee Cannon, an acting teacher who works at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) and for private clients who have included Matthew Modine, Jon Voight, Courtney Love, the singer Craig David and the former soccer star David Ginola. She followed her mother into this work. The legendary Doreen Cannon was an acting coach in New York until she married an Englishman and came to teach in London at the Drama Centre, for 20 years, then at Rada. Her students included the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Simon Callow (whose book, Being An Actor, includes a gripping account of her classes). Eight or nine years ago, her daughter was working as an actress but taking additional jobs to bring in money – in her case, by teaching. So when Doreen needed cover for a holiday, Rada called in Dee and judged her good enough to make her a permanent fixture.

We sit in her lounge, on the third floor of a block in a leafy street in Ealing, west London. The room is brightly decorated in primary colours. A fan hums quietly to keep down the high temperature outside. Cannon, who is in her 30s, wears sunglasses on the top of her head and sits back on the sofa with legs crossed – but leans forward urgently to explain the mysteries of Stanislavsky’s Method, and particularly his use of emotional memory.

In classes, she explains, students lie on the floor. To relax, they’re encouraged to imagine themselves on a beach, or in a garden. Then she asks them to look back on a traumatic episode. “It’s normally death, to be honest,” she says. “Or it could be a car accident.” Whatever it is, the memory must be at least five years old, because the emotion associated with anything more recent may be too strong to control. Cannon invites them to shut their eyes and consider every aspect of that event. “You get them to go back to the beginning of that particular day,” she explains. “Where were they? What were they wearing? What were the sounds and the smells? You try to get them right up to the moment when they picked up the phone and heard the bad news.”

Gradually, this forensic attention brings most students to tears. Is it odd, for Cannon, to see everybody crying at her feet? “A little.” But also gratifying? “Oh, absolutely.”

Afterwards, she asks students to identify the precise detail that elicited the tears. “It could be the look in someone’s eye, or an intake of breath, or the sound of the telephone.” Whatever it is, that’s the trigger they take with them into the studio, or on to the stage.

Another method she recommends is to choose a piece of music. By replaying that constantly, actors teach themselves, like so many Pavlov’s dogs, to cry whenever they hear it. (Researchers at the University of Keele have investigated the effect of musical passages on the emotions. Among other things, they found that shivers were most reliably provoked by relatively sudden changes in harmony, while the heart races at acceleration and syncopation. Tears were most reliably evoked by melodic appoggiaturas, or grace notes, in which a note above or below the main tone precedes it, creating tension that is released when the tonic is then sounded. Listeners’ expectations are aroused, frustrated and satisfied in fairly mechanical ways – so much for profound emotional response.)

Not so long ago, Cannon directed a play, Steel Magnolias, in which an actress had to come on crying because of the death of her daughter. “She found a piece of music, a classical piece, and she listened to it for 10 or 15 minutes beforehand, then came on sobbing. It worked throughout the rehearsals and the performance. The only thing is, I don’t think she had enough control. She came on crying at once, because the music was so powerful. I would have liked her to hold on for a few minutes into the scene.”

Yet another technique is to use objects with sentimental significance, such as a ring or a photograph. “I get students to talk about it, where they were when they were given it and what was their frame of mind. You build up a whole picture. And by talking about it and sharing that slice of their life they quite often find tears rolling. I’m absolutely overjoyed when that happens. Quite often you can get the whole group to cry. These personal objects are your friends, you endow them with memories and use that in performance.” Any object will do, so long as it has emotional resonance. “I could go through this apartment and show you what all kinds of things mean to me.” She picks up a cushion and waves it. “Even this.”

Whichever technique they use, actors – and politicians, or their wives – must then work out how long it takes for the memory to produce tears, and build that interval into rehearsals so that they cry exactly on cue – and that’s rather more difficult than it sounds.

As in representations of drunkenness, says Cannon, the most effective criers appear to struggle against their condition. Thus, just as it’s funnier to watch drunkards straining for sobriety than mere slurring and staggering, an audience is less likely to be moved by incontinent sobbing than by characters who fight back their tears. The prime minister’s wife seemed to do that, in her speech last year. An exceptionally gifted performer, as we have seen, can do this. Could Booth? Perhaps, but she’d endured a tough week. Is it possible, boringly, that something unscripted flickered in her brain, the lacrimal gland started to produce tears and – pace William James – she only registered her miserable mood when it was too late to stop? What does Cannon think?

“Well, it doesn’t always take much to produce tears, especially if you’re feeling a bit low in the first place… ” She pauses, remembering something that is interesting, particularly for students of rock music, but which leaves me no more sure than I was before about my own tears; and less sure about Booth than my father was about me, justly, all those years ago.

“The point of acting techniques,” says Cannon, “is that you are in control. Vulnerability and sensitivity are not techniques – although if you are clever you can use them. When I worked with Sinead (O’Connor) she would just tap into something and cry. It was amazing. But she would say, ‘I’m on my period, I was feeling vulnerable before I came in.’”