The Science of Tearjerkers: Why We Love It When Movies Make Us Cry

iStock/simonkr
iStock/simonkr

Each year, millions of people pay their hard-earned money to watch movies that will make them cry.

Some plays and novels are famous for drawing out the waterworks (don’t get us started on Where the Red Fern Grows), but movies seem to have our tear ducts on speed dial. We spoke with experts to learn how weepies get to us, and why audiences find them so appealing.

SEPARATING FICTION FROM REALITY

In the 19th century, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that effective fiction relied on a “willing suspension of disbelief.” That is, in a theatrical scenario, the audience has to juggle two incongruent thoughts: I know these people on the stage are just pretending, but I’m pretending this is real anyway. Coleridge argued that this unspoken contract between artists and audiences makes acting seem believable—and it makes the audience emotionally vulnerable.

Dr. Jeffrey Zacks, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, argues that Coleridge had it backward.

“You know it’s just a movie. But large parts of your brain don’t process that distinction,” he writes. “This makes sense because our brains evolved long before movies were invented, and our perceptual systems are honed to deal with the problems posed by the real world. Our brains didn’t evolve to watch movies: Movies evolved to take advantage of the brains we have.”

As Zacks tells Mental Floss, movies engage the algorithms already hardwired in our brains. When our nervous system confronts something in the cinema that looks and sounds real, our brain will respond to it appropriately. It’s the reason “jump scares” in horror movies work: You are experiencing a natural, uncontrolled biological response.

UNCONSCIOUSLY WE ROLL ALONG

These natural bodily responses happen all the time at the cinema—just look at the audience’s faces. According to Zacks, when a character frowns or smiles or laughs, the audience is likely to unconsciously imitate these responses. When a character cries, your own facial muscles might involuntarily copy their expression. The tension can place pressure on your eyes and trigger your tear ducts to well up.

This automatic mimicry response—what Zacks calls the “mirror rule”—is a relic of an old survival mechanism. Millennia ago, if you saw a group of cavemen running, it probably wasn’t a good idea to investigate what they were running from. “Rather, upon seeing others run, running should come first—automatically and immediately—and analyzing the situation should come later,” Dr. Tanya Chartrand and colleagues explain in a chapter of The New Unconscious [PDF].

But because the face is the most noticeable part of the body, it’s the most susceptible to this automatic mimicry response. According to Chartrand, a professor of marketing, psychology, and neuroscience at Duke University, it’s part of everyday life. If you smile at an infant, the baby might smile back; yawn around a friend, and your friend might yawn too; sit at an interview and scratch your forehead, and your interviewer might begin scratching their forehead.

The phenomenon has even been observed to occur at levels that are impossible to detect with the naked eye. In one study published in Psychological Science, researchers showed test subjects pictures of neutral faces. Just before the neutral face appeared, a happy or sad face flashed quickly on the screen. The test subjects failed to consciously detect the happy and sad faces—but their brains did, as shown by the involuntary twitching of their facial muscles.

Good filmmakers have been hijacking this evolutionary quirk for more than a century. “Our imitation of the emotions we see expressed brings vividness and affective tone into our grasping of the [movie’s] action,” psychologist Hugo Münsterberg noted in his 1916 book The Photoplay, which is widely considered the first work of film criticism. “We sympathize with the sufferer and that means that the pain which he expresses becomes our own pain.”

SUPERNORMAL STIMULI

Just because your face might mimic an expression you see on a screen doesn’t automatically mean you’ll feel that specific emotion. It does, however, boost your chances. “Functional MRI studies show that circuits in the emotional brain can be activated by watching emotional expressions on the screen,” Zacks writes.

Movies have a habit of eliciting exaggerated emotional responses. The reason why can be best explained with herring gulls.

In 1947, biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen was observing the eating behaviors of nesting herring gull chicks, which beg for food by pecking at the parent’s beak. Tinbergen performed an experiment, feeding the birds with models that looked less and less like their parents. Surprisingly, Tinbergen discovered that, the more unrealistic the model looked, the more the chicks exaggerated their pecking behavior.

Tinbergen called this response a supernormal stimulus. Put simply, exaggerated patterns can elicit exaggerated responses.

The cinema is designed to assault your senses. Nothing in your evolutionary circuitry has prepared you for an encounter with 30-foot tall faces. The dialogue, the color, the framing, the angles, and the editing can help exaggerate these stimuli even further, amplifying our unconscious responses.

“The combination of stimulus features that a movie presents can often be much more consistent, much stronger, and much more powerful than what we typically experience in the normal range,” Zacks tells Mental Floss.

With the conditions of film priming your body to react emotionally, all you need is for the actors to deliver on that special moment.

THE SECRETS TO A “GOOD CRY”

If you ask somebody why they choose to watch a sad movie, they’ll often say that it improves their mood. This idea, which is known as the tragedy paradox, has baffled thinkers from Aristotle to David Hume: Why would somebody seek out a negative experience to feel better?

Evidence suggests a “good cry” might be therapeutic. A 2008 review published in Current Directions in Psychological Science cited a study that evaluated 3000 crying episodes and found that 60 to 70 percent of people reported feeling better after shedding tears [PDF]. (One third reported no boost in mood. One in 10 claimed to feel worse.)

“When you ask people if they feel better after crying, in general, most people will say they do,” Dr. Lauren Bylsma, a crying expert and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, tells Mental Floss. “But if you ask them about a specific crying episode, especially the closer you get to that episode, most people say they didn’t feel better after crying.” The more distance we put between ourselves and a specific crying episode, the more likely we might lie to ourselves about how beneficial it really was. (A 2015 study in Motivation and Emotion found that respondents needed 90 minutes for their mood to bounce back after watching tear-jerking film clips.)

Crying is most therapeutic when the crier is surrounded by a strong network of supportive people, Bylsma says. It also tends to be more beneficial when it forces people to reflect on the causes of their emotions. A 2012 study backs that up: Researchers at Ohio State University had 361 college students watch an abridged version of the film Atonement and discovered that the people who found the movie saddest also came away from the experience feeling the happiest, because the movie compelled them to reflect on their own relationships.

Interestingly, the study showed that downward comparisons—selfish thoughts such as “at least my life isn’t that bad”—did not increase a viewer’s pleasure. "Tragedies don't boost life happiness by making viewers think more about themselves,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Silvia Knoblock-Westerwick, told Ohio State News. “They appeal to people because they help them to appreciate their own relationships more."

So for those keeping a checklist, here’s the secret to crying at the movies (and feeling good about it): Pick a heart-tugging film with lots of close-ups. Watch it in a controlled room and on a big screen that exaggerates the stimuli, and invite a handful of supportive friends. Lastly, find characters you can relate to. And bring the popcorn.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

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