Scientist Asks: Why Do We Weep?

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Sometimes we see the tears coming, and sometimes they catch us off guard; we find ourselves weeping without knowing why. It's a personal problem, but it's a scientific one, too: Why do people weep? What purpose does it serve? One expert attempts to answer these questions in a new article in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.

Article author Carlo V. Bellieni is a pediatrician and a bioethicist at Siena University Hospital in Italy. His previous studies have focused on children's emotional well-being and babies' crying and pain. For his latest paper, he examined data and observations on weeping from more than 70 studies and books from researchers stretching back all the way to Charles Darwin.

His conclusion? Weeping is "a complex phenomenon."

For starters, Bellieni writes, weeping is similar to crying, but it's not the same thing. Crying is typically a reaction to pain or anger. It's audible and physical, increasing heart rate, affecting breathing, and contorting the face and body. A crying person's voice changes, and their body makes more stress hormones like adrenaline. And while they don't shed tears, other animals cry, too.

Weeping, on the other hand, appears to be uniquely human. It's what happens when the cup of our emotions runneth over. We cry when we drop a cinderblock on our foot. We weep at funerals, and at weddings.

As Bellieni discovered, there are many theories on how we cry and weep, and where the tears come from. Some researchers have argued that we make tears to return ourselves to the soothing, fluid environment of the womb. Others theorize that our bodies start extruding tears (and snot) to keep our nose and throat from drying out as our breathing intensifies. Darwin's hypothesis was that the tears are a byproduct of scrunching up our faces, including the tear-production glands.

None of these theories seem especially plausible, Bellieni writes. So for now, the answer to the physical question is, "We don't really know."

The emotional and social sides of the weeping equation are slightly more straightforward.

Weeping is a form of releasing intense emotion and physical tension. When we weep, we tell our body that it's okay to relax. This helps us reset our system, so to speak, and move on.

And seeing someone weep makes us want to help them, Bellieni says. Weeping makes other people want to help us. Visible sorrow is an opportunity to strengthen social ties. And among social animals like us, strong bonds mean a better chance of survival.

It's wrong to think of weeping as wimpy or weak, Bellieni says. In fact, it's "a strong behavior with positive effects on health and social interaction."

"In the light of these data," he concludes, "weeping appears to be a primal and important human behavior that deserves more attention."

How Often Should You Poop?

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When it comes to No. 2, plenty of people aren’t really sure what’s normal. Are you supposed to go every day? What if you go 10 times a day? Is that a sign that you’re dying? What about once every three days? Short of asking everyone you know for their personal poop statistics, how do you know how often you’re supposed to hit the head?

Everyone’s system is a little different, and according to experts, regularity is more important than how often you do the deed. Though some lucky people might think of having a bowel movement as an integral part of their morning routine, most people don’t poop every day, as Lifehacker informs us. In fact, if you go anywhere between three times a day and three times a week, you’re within the normal range.

It’s when things change that you need to pay attention. If you typically go twice a day and you suddenly find yourself becoming a once-every-three-days person, something is wrong. The same thing goes if you normally go once every few days but suddenly start running to the toilet every day.

There are a number of factors that can influence how often you go, including your travel schedule, your medications, your exercise routine, your coffee habit, your stress levels, your hangover, and, of course, your diet. (You should be eating at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, a goal that most Americans fall significantly short of.)

If you do experience a sudden change in how often you take a seat on the porcelain throne, you should probably see a doctor. It could be something serious, like celiac disease, cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease. Or perhaps you just need to eat a lot more kale. Only a doctor can tell you.

However, if you do have trouble going, please, don’t spend your whole day sitting on the toilet. It’s terrible for your butt. You shouldn’t spend more than 10 to 15 minutes on the toilet, as one expert told Men’s Health, or you’ll probably give yourself hemorrhoids.

But if you have a steady routine of pooping three times a day, by all means, keep doing what you’re doing. Just maybe get yourself a bidet.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why You Should Be Wary of Prescription Drug Ads on TV

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In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration permitted prescription drug companies to start publicizing their products directly to consumers in television advertisements. Compelled by the persuasive spots, patients petitioned their physicians for drugs to alleviate mood disorders, cardiovascular issues, and various other chronic conditions. But two studies released this year both came to a sobering conclusion about this direct-to-consumer approach: While advertising is persuasive by nature, drug spots may actually be misleading.

In a report published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers at Yale University looked at 97 drug ads that aired on television in 2015 and the first half of 2016. Most were targeted to people with arthritis, diabetes, and other ailments that require continuous care. None of them offered objective information about the potential risks of the drugs; the focus was instead on relative improvement in quality of life. In 13 percent of the ads, the drug companies suggested that various diabetes medications could be used off-label to reduce weight or lower blood pressure, a violation of FDA policy.

The spots also emphasized positive results of clinical trials. These efficacy statements dominated the narrative, with statements like “most people using [the drug] saw 75 percent clearer skin,” or “my doctor said [the drug] helps my bones get stronger.” The Yale study concluded that these and similar claims were potentially misleading and difficult to analyze objectively.

Another recent study published in the Annals of Family Medicine [PDF] examined the abundance of lifestyle depictions in the spots. Rather than dwell on risk factors, the 61 ads that researchers analyzed were predominantly made up of footage that made a direct connection between using the drug and an improved quality of life. Many of the ads were addressing conditions (like diabetes and depression) that might benefit from therapies other than medication. Roughly 59 percent of ads depicted a person losing control of their life as a result of their condition, while almost 69 percent suggested the advertised drugs enabled a more active and healthy lifestyle.

The FDA is responsible for making sure companies don't mislead consumers, but critics charge that the agency is not doing its part. It doesn't review prescription drug ads in advance, nor does it restrict ad spending. “Everyone on the ads appears healthy, happy, dancing, and they get better,” internist Andy Lazris, M.D. told Health News Review. “So people are led to believe a) the drug will be effective (which is often not the case), and b) that they should replace their old therapy with the newer one because it’s better (again, which is often not the case)."

“And if they give you any numbers at all, they’re almost always the deceptive relative numbers that look really good, not the more realistic absolute numbers," Lazris added. "So the benefits are over-exaggerated, the harms are downplayed or missed, and that’s how patients can get hurt.”

Because the spots are so short—usually 30 to 60 seconds—it’s difficult to communicate the risk-to-benefit ratio clearly. Even when ads go into a laundry list of side effects, it can become white noise compared to the happy, smiling faces appearing onscreen. (Soon, the FDA might even allow companies to shorten that list, based on its own study that found fewer mentioned side effects allow consumers to retain more information about the drug’s risks.)

The one part of the spots most critics agree is accurate? When they urge viewers to talk to their doctor. Weighing the risks and benefits of prescription medication outside of the fictional and persuasive images of drug spots is the only way to be sure a product is right for you.

[h/t Los Angeles Times]

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