Today, Earth welcomes back Cmdr Chris Hadfield who touched many people, not only Canadians with his tweets and Youtube videos from board of the International Space Station (ISS). One of the last things Cmdr Hadfield did was to post a very cool rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity. The music was recorded on earth and the singing on board of the ISS. The text is slightly altered from the original and rarely has this song been so relevant than here with Cmdr Hadfield leaving the ISS just a few hours later - looking one last time at Earth from that perspective ...
I must admit, it brought a few tears to my eyes. The video was powerful - the music has so many associations for me, it was a particular moment in time that would never come back (you can do something for the first time only once). So why were there tears?
Crying has been one of the interesting riddles - what is the function of crying? What is the evolutionary perspective on crying? Is crying good for you or bad for you?
As it turns out, there are no easy answers. Darwin already was not completely sure what do with crying. Quote from Darwin (1872)
(p. 172) In considering how far this view is probable, we should bear in mind that the eyes of infants have been acted on in this double manner during numberless generations, whenever they have screamed; and on the principle of nerve-force readily passing along accustomed channels, even a moderate compression of the eyeballs and a moderate distension of the ocular vessels would ultimately come, through habit, to act on the glands. We have an analogous case in the orbicular muscles being almost always contracted in some slight degree, even during a gentle crying-fit, when there can be no
So the idea here is that forceful crying in the infant leads via mechanical reasons to the secretion of tears. Over time particular situations get associated with this type of fit, which in turn gets more and more controlled in the adult and so crying when adults are sad is a sort of remnant of this process. You can read the argument in more detail here.
Since then many researchers have studied the mechanics and chemistry of crying and tears. It is still a complicated story though ... is it satisfying? Can it cope with sentimental crying? What about crying for joy?
One of the key researchers on crying is Ad Vingerhoets from Tilburg University. Here is a brief article from the Guardian that refers also to Ad's recent book Why only humans weep.
I have also tried my hand at the topic, but then - Ad's books are probably the best place to start ...
In the meanwhile - Cmdr Hadfield answers the question what happens to tears in space ...
Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, UK: Murray.
Kappas, A. (2009). Mysterious tears. The phenomenon of crying from the perspective of social neuroscience. In: Thorsten Fögen (ed.), Tears in the Graeco-Roman World (pp. 419-438) , Berlin & New York,: DeGruyter.
The release of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street was the excuse I needed to finally plunk down some electronic cash and get the Rolling Stones Boxed Set. Among the treasure trove of all things Jagger/Richards also Emotional Rescue - by coincidence - or is it - the name of an article about some of the work my colleague Heather Urry is doing at Tufts University.
The research described relates to regulating emotion - apparently the topic of the week for this blog. The article in Tufts Journal is worthwhile reading and might be a good starting point to find out more about Heather's work. What I find fascinating is that in my mind much of the work on the cognitive regulation of emotion goes back to the pioneering work of Richard Lazarus fifty years ago. This is not a criticism regarding today's work but a praise to this early groundbreaking work. Already then, Lazarus and his colleagues demonstrated that the physiological response to a stressful film could be manipulated by either a text presented while the film was shown or given before to create an orientation that influenced the meaning of the bloody film. What these studies showed is that there is no fixed link between a stimulus and the emotion it would elicit, but that how the stimulus is appraised - what the meaning of this stimulus is - plays an important role. This was a revolutionary statement then and to some degree it still is now. It is the basis of teaching people to control their emotions by trying to think about certain things in a different way. GIven how much modern emotion research focuses on the brain it also underlines the plasticity of emotional processes. The brain might have a particular sensitivity to some things, such as faces, or snakes, but in many cases the reaction to a particular pattern is not fixed. The intermediate step between a stimulus and a response is the meaning of that stimulus. Today, rather than just looking at peripheral measures of emotional arousal, such as skin resistance, we can observe how brain activity in specific locations, such as the amygdala, is affected by how we think about a stimulus, such as an ugly picture. Consider the study by McRea and colleagues below as an example.
One of the most interesting challenges in emotion research is to integrate two types of processes - those which we can control by thought and automatic processes that often even happen outside of our awareness. I will be talking more about that ...
Now back to listening to some Stones ...
McRae, K., Ochsner, K. N., Mauss, I. B., Gabrieli, J. D. E. & Gross, J. J. (2008). Gender Differences in Emotion Regulation: An fMRI study of Cognitive Reappraisal. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 11, 145-162.
I remember very well that in the early stages of my PhD thesis I had intense discussions with John Lanzetta regarding emotion theory. John was a very emotional emotion researcher! Content-wise, I had been very much influenced by the second wave of appraisal theories that appeared at the time. Coming from Klaus Scherer's lab - in Giessen, Germany, at the time -I was very much into his component process model. At about the same time Craig Smith and Ira Roseman were publishing their seminal papers about their work with Phoebe Ellsworth.
Eventually John asked me to write an overview over emotion theories. I do not remember how long it took me, but the way I remember it, it was a massive file, amounting to about 100 pages. Probably it was less though. In any case, once I was done, John read it, approved of it, and said that I should put it away now. He said, there was no need to put it into the thesis itself because nobody would want to read it, but instead focus on the research I was going to do. I was quite furious. What a waste, I thought. Of course, that was not true. I have been talking about the history of emotion research ever since - I would call that a sleeper effect ...
However, the important lesson here was clearly not to get bogged down in some of the endless discussions between theorists. Know the theories yes, but do not waste too much time picking a fight. John pushed for data, empirical observations, and models that could make sense of these data. There was no question in my mind after discussing with him that emotions were foremost social processes. Thus, the regulation of emotion would always involve a social component. We regulate emotions in part because of social context, just as we regulate our social context with emotions (for example emotional displays). Our emotions are regulated because of the way that the different emotional components are connected in feedback loops. If the social rule states not to smile, and not smiling moderates how you feel, then social rules can modulate emotions via expression. Similarly, empathy is one of the bonds between people that imply that emotions are not just something inside of us, but also something between us. Emotions are social!
Today, when discussing these things I like to use expressions like
Emotions are self-regulating processes that serve nested intra- and interindividual regulatory functions. Psychological and neuroscience theories that deal with emotion regulation as an after-thought are bound to fail capturing the complexity of multi-level regulation that is part of typical emotional episodes.
Kappas, A. (2010). Emotion/Regulation: Never Tear Us Apart. Presented at the Emotion Preconference 2010 to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Meeting. Las Vegas, Nevada, January 28.
Arvid Kappas is Professor of Psychology at Jacobs University Bremen. He has been conducting research on emotions for over three decades in the US, Canada, and in several European countries.