Research Blogging

Tears = Turn Off

Crying Lady

ResearchBlogging.orgHow many of us have been reduced to blubbering idiots by the tears of a distressed damsel? I am sure the casualties are too many to put a number. Almost all of us have come across a time when we were moved by the tears of a lady. Often the center of male chauvinism, the power of the female tears has been an issue which the unfairer sex has been jealous over and also cribbed about incessantly. So, we have long known the emotional portent of tears, but for some reason, this was not really investigated to be a form of chemosignal in humans. But now the balance has been restored.

In a study published in Science, now it has been scientifically looked at: what powers do tears have? Here is what the authors summarize:

Emotional tearing is a poorly understood behavior that is considered uniquely human. In mice, tears serve as a chemosignal. We therefore hypothesized that human tears may similarly serve a chemosignaling function. We found that merely sniffing negative-emotion–related odorless tears obtained from women donors induced reductions in sexual appeal attributed by men to pictures of women’s faces. Moreover, after sniffing such tears, men experienced reduced self-rated sexual arousal, reduced physiological measures of arousal, and reduced levels of testosterone. Finally, functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed that sniffing women’s tears selectively reduced activity in brain substrates of sexual arousal in men.

So, this study quite strongly indicates that tears are a definite turn off for men. Well, that is something pretty obvious, I would say. If years of watching chick flick can be considered good scientific observation, then I could go one step ahead and pronounce that tears may help in resolving the conflict but it does not make the “fun-stuff” real fun. Well, let’s face it, even the testosterone-charged Harry Potter found Cho Chang’s smoochie wet when she was crying all over him under the mistletoe!

On a more serious note, this study is cute but really scratches the surface of the issue of tears. I would really look forward to a socio-scientific study which would investigate the effect of tears as a social/emotional/?financial lubricant in the setting of emotional mellow/melo-drama.

Of late I have been reading lots of papers which are what one of my teachers used to call “quirky science”: its fun to read, awesome to analyze, easy to criticize, but eventually, it adds some spice to the business of scientific research which is mostly bland for the lay person. Although he was not very approving of such infotainment, I find reading them an educating tool, especially looking into how they went about designing the methodology. In this study, while the methodology is cute, the researchers essentially stumbled onto it rather serendipitously. Years ago, while Noam Sobel et al of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel were studying the impact of female emotional tears (which were collected, guess what, while females were crying while watching sad movies) on the male human mood, they realized that the makes did not feel either happiness or sadness but were surprised to note that there was a marked decrease in sexual arousal.

The tears were isolated from females crying at sad movies, then dumped on a pad which was pasted under the nose of the male subjects. Saline was used as a control. And the researchers measured the following as indicators of sexual arousal post-sniffing:

  • heart rate
  • respiration rate
  • skin temperature
  • testosterone levels
  • reduction in fMRI sctivity in brain substrates involved with sexual arousal

Very nice, eh?

Now for the part where I try to nit pick (often not too successfully):

  • Why use saline as the control? How about using non-emotional (?crocodile) tears as a positive control and saline as a negative control and then see how things pan out. Of course elicitation of crocodile tears would be a methodological nightmare, but hey, who said life was easy?
  • Reduced testosterone, by the admission of Sobel, is also an indicator of reduced aggression. One would feel that reduced aggression in males would be quite the evolutionarily beneficial response to emotional feminine tears!
  • Sobel also admitted that the study was forced to study the one way impact because they could not find males who were good criers. While that does sound stereotyped, I wonder what would be the study like if more permutations and combinations could be performed with the criers’ and sniffers’ genders!
  • How about taking in some wife beating sadomasochists? What would their responses be to emotional female tears? Surely they would be sexually aroused? Now THAT would open up an entirely new avenue of thought!

Overall. it is a fun study to read and analyze and of course, it has several open ends which might be pursued. For now, if you are a chick looking to score, keep those tears away. Or send me a mail… 😦

Gelstein, S., Yeshurun, Y., Rozenkrantz, L., Shushan, S., Frumin, I., Roth, Y., & Sobel, N. (2011). Human Tears Contain a Chemosignal Science, 331 (6014), 226-230 DOI: 10.1126/science.1198331


Also read this: Tears dampen arousal – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences


5 thoughts on “Tears = Turn Off

  1. I would be curious to see if tears produced under other situations would have the same effect.

    1. Fake tears – people who can make themselves cry on cue, in other words, teenage girls pulled over for speeding.
    2. Anger tears – some peoples get watery eyes when they get all mad.
    3. Pain tears – Imagine getting that by the IRB.

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