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Have you ever wondered why you feel better after a good, hearty sob? Well, it turns out the reasons are kind of a mystery, and they range from social support to brain temperature.

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This episode is brought to you by  the Music for Scientists album,   now available on all streaming services. [♪ INTRO].

Sometimes, when you’re feeling overwhelmed,   nothing hits the spot like  a good, emotional movie. I mean, you’ve got the swelling music,   and the ending that gives you all the feels,  and then suddenly, you’re just weeping.

But afterward, you somehow feel...  better? You’re not alone in that. In studies, plenty of people have  reported feeling better after a good sob.

But the reasons why are kind of a mystery.  And they range from social support,   to brain temperature. For one possible explanation, we turn to some of  the most celebrated sobbers in the world: babies. Babies cry for all kinds of reasons,   from emotional ones to physical  ones like hunger and discomfort.

And it makes sense! Since human  infants are pretty helpless,   it's important to have a signal for  caregivers that something is wrong. But for adults, tears might actually  be a similar distress signal!

In a 2019 study published in Motivation and  Emotion, researchers asked 140 participants how much they’d be willing to  help people they saw in photos.  Half the photos showed people crying. And  the other half showed the same people,   but with the tears photoshopped out. And it turns out, tears had a really big effect.   Most people reported being more willing  to help when they saw those tear tracks.

In fact, tears might be an even more  important cue in adults than in babies. Another study revealed that  photos of crying adults evoked   more sympathy than photos of  crying children and infants.  That might be because participants rated the  photos of bawling babies as more irritating. Which I mean, is kind of  unfair; they can’t help it.

But also, when babies are wailing,  it’s primarily an auditory thing. Whereas adults are more likely to  quietly cry, so it’s mainly a visual cue. So, the researchers think adult tears are  seen as a subtle and sincere signal of   emotional distress that’s designed  to invite others to comfort us.   Other researchers suggest that when adults weep,   it tells other people that you're  in less control than usual, and that you need help from someone who  might be more in control at the moment.

So, if crying connects you to someone  who can comfort and support you,   that may be one reason you’re more  likely to feel better afterward. In fact, one study examined more than 4000  people’s reports of recent weeping episodes. And the researchers found that  when criers received comfort,   they were more likely to  experience improvements in mood. 
And if you cry when no one’s around?   Well, it could just be your body’s  automatic strategy to get support.  That said, that’s not the only idea  about why crying can feel so helpful.

Others are rooted a little more in  biology, and how our bodies work. Like, one idea is that crying might serve a basic,   physiological purpose: to  soothe your mind and body. Now, crying is contradictory, because  it both works you up and calms you down.

But the timing of those emotional shifts is key. In one study that involved 60 participants,   peoples’ heart rates accelerated  when they started to cry. But then, they quickly went back to normal.  Meanwhile, their breathing became slower than  normal, indicating they were calming down.  Crucially, the soothing effect lasted two to  three minutes longer than the agitating effect.

So the researchers concluded that  crying may be a self-soothing behavior.  It's also possible that crying triggers the   release of oxytocin -- a stress-reducing  hormone associated with social bonding. That said, it's unclear whether oxytocin  levels rise due to the biological act of crying or because the tears caused  someone to, say, give us a hug.  Either way, oxytocin helps improve our mood. And beyond that, there are several other  reasons crying could make us feel better.

Some scientists speculate that weeping releases   opioids that boost our tolerance  for physical and emotional pain.  Others think crying might lower the  amounts of stress hormones in the blood. And most bizarrely, some researchers say inhaling   all that cold air when we’re sobbing might  cool the brain, by literally cooling our blood. And that could alter the activity of   neurotransmitters and create  a pleasurable sensation.

But these are just hypotheses,  so we still have a lot to learn.  The reason there’s so much uncertainty is because   the way crying affects mood is  really challenging to study.  For one, it’s hard to get people to cry on demand. So, in a typical crying study, a  participant might watch a sad movie alone.  And that means the social  motivations behind crying,   like seeking support, don’t really come into play. After all, crying participants probably don’t  want to have a heart-to-heart with the scientists.

In fact, in laboratory settings, participants  usually report feeling worse after crying. That may be because of the lack of support, or  because they’re often being observed or filmed, which might make them self-conscious  or ashamed about crying.

 So, the way we feel about crying   and whether it’s okay in a certain situation  can impact how it makes us feel afterward, too. Like, in one study, subjects were asked  to either suppress crying or let it flow   while watching a sad movie.  In the end, people who were trying to hold  back tears experienced a big stress response.

But people who rarely shed tears but  tried to force it also felt stressed. So when it comes to crying,  do what comes naturally. If you want to let it out… let it out.

If you enjoyed this episode, you  might also be interested in the album  . Music for Scientists, written  and recorded by Patrick Olson. The album is a creative exploration  of the space between art and science.

We recommend checking out the song  “The Idea” — and the music video too! The music video is a hybrid of traditional art and   advanced machine learning.  It’s pretty mindblowing! If you want to check it out,  click below to see the video,   or you can stream the music  on all major music services. [♪ OUTRO].