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Why Humans Like to Cry: The Evolutionary Origins of Tragedy

  • Looks at why humans are the only species to have evolved emotional crying
  • Explains the physiological, psychological, and biological reasons for crying
  • Links this unique aspect of human evolution to the development of language, self-consciousness, and religion
  • Considers the influence of the ability for empathy and how the brain allows us to develop theory of mind
  • Builds on Nietzsche's ideas about the deep origins of tragedy
  • Explores our love of tragedy in art forms and the particular emotional power of music

By: Michael R Trimble(Author)

256 pages, 15 b/w illustrations

Oxford University Press

Paperback | Aug 2014 | #212920 | ISBN-13: 9780198713494
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £10.99 $14/€12 approx
Hardback | Nov 2012 | #197731 | ISBN-13: 9780199693184
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £16.99 $22/€19 approx

About this book

Human beings are the only species to have evolved the trait of emotional crying. We weep at tragedies in our lives and in those of others – remarkably even when they are fictional characters in film, opera, music, novels, and theatre. Why have we developed art forms – most powerfully, music – which move us to sadness and tears? This question forms the backdrop to Michael Trimble's discussion of emotional crying, its physiology, and its evolutionary implications.

His exploration examines the connections with other distinctively human features: the development of language, self-consciousness, religious practices, and empathy. Neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of the brain have uncovered unique human characteristics; mirror neurones, for example, explain why we unconsciously imitate actions and behaviour. Whereas Nietzsche argued that artistic tragedy was born with the ancient Greeks, Trimble places its origins far earlier. His neurophysiological and evolutionary insights shed fascinating light onto this enigmatic part of our humanity.

"Trimble ambitiously cracks the surface of a complex human process."
Scientific American

"Trimble earned my respect for his erudition and ambition [...] an engaging storyteller."
– Randolph Cornelius, New Scientist

"Fascinating volume [...] an insightful account [...] offers a profound glimpse into the human heart as well as deep insight into the role of art in our lives."

"This is a stimulating, adventurous book from one of the interdisciplinary front lines of our time, named here variously as neuroanatomy, neuropsychiatry and neuroaesthetics. It focuses on weeping and offers a neurological description of crying together with an evolutionary account of its value for humanity.

Michael Trimble argues that an “explosion of findings in neuroscience in the last 50 years” has made neurology not only essential to the practice of psychiatry but a source of insights elsewhere too. Looking at brains can tell us not just about our emotions but about the origins and experience of art.

The book has some vivid findings at the disputed boundary between hard science and social science. For instance, it describes how tears prompted by emotion have a different chemical composition from tears caused by pain. And it shows that certain muscular contractions of the face not only express sadness but also induce some of its physiological effects; to that extent Botox can make you less sad (it might depress you for other reasons).

Trimble cites a research project confirming the common view that women cry more than men (5.3 weeps a month as against men’s 1.4), though here we might wonder about the reliability of the research. And there are other touches of weird science: “a recent study, in which males were given female tears to sniff, showed that they decreased sexual arousal in males, and lowered levels of testosterone”. I’d have thought the circumstances of the test would dampen anybody’s ardour.

The central chapters of the book are a guide to the anatomy of the brain. They give an introductory but demanding general account, focusing on the physiological circuitry by which tears happen. Trimble says that questions of localisation are problematic when it comes to brain function. “There is a tendency after a while to think that everything in the brain is connected to everything else, and that any hypothesis can be verified by simply implying that two structures must connect.” His account of the brain shows that the links are more intricate than that. The illustrated lines of communication are complex, and it is good to know that new work of therapeutic value is being done through enhanced technologies of brain-imaging.

But even though points of synaptic connection can now be studied with greater accuracy than before, it is hard to say what these connections signify outside the medical context of mental malfunction. The book is full of phrasings that bridge the gap between brain physiology and human experience only by muddying the relationship between the two. We read for instance that “the underlying neurology is akin to feelings associated with social bonding and love”, and that “emotions are closely allied to the activity of the amygdala”.

When it comes to aesthetic considerations, it is misleading to think that any amount of physiological analysis of the brain can tell us about the actual experience of being moved by the likes of Sophocles, Wagner or Tolstoy. The mental data in play are too complex for such description, and our responses too tied into social and subjective histories to be explained by evolutionary narratives. It doesn’t help Trimble’s argument that his ventures into the aesthetic are the weakest part of the book.

To this layman it seems that the scientific analysis of brain states is still at a very early stage. The gap between what can be empirically observed about brains and what we can say about complex states of consciousness is huge, and it undermines this book’s big claims to describe aesthetic experience in terms of neuroscience."

- Peter Swaab, The Telegraph, 15-12-2012



1: The Birth of Tragedy
2: Crying
3: The Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology of Crying
4: Tragedy and Tears
5: Tearful Logic
6: Why Do We Get Pleasure Crying at the Theatre?

Appendix 1: Neuroanatomy
Appendix 2: Glossary

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Professor Trimble is emeritus professor of Behavioural Neurology at the Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London. His research for many years has been on the behavioural consequences of neurological disorders, especially epilepsy and movement disorders. He has a lifelong research interest in neuroanatomy, hence his ability to explore the neuroanatomical basis of crying. However, he is also a psychiatrist with much clinical experience of mood disorders, and had investigated the latter in patients using neurological techniques, such as brain imaging. He is the author of The Soul in the Brain (Johns Hopkins, 2007).

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