• John Teske

Crying and Laughing

Updated: Jul 3

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

Yes, things can often look much better in the morning, and the verse from Psalm 30 is part of an encouragement to be patient. Time may not heal all wounds, as there are, indeed, wounds that can leave one crippled, but it does heal a lot. Part of the perspective we don’t always have on our own sorrow or grief, is that “this, too, shall pass.” I never tired of encouraging students to think back to a crisis, or a tragedy that occurred a few years ago, to read an old journal or an old message, and see that from the perspective of the present, it may seem like much less. “I thought that was a crisis?” And I remember the beautiful color photo I once put on my young daughter’s bulletin board, of a girl spilling ketchup on a white blouse, which says “Not a tragedy.” When my son was at his lowest, he used to often say “well, at least it is not snowing,” until he finally realized that most all of his problems and difficulties were “first world problems” paling in comparison to famine or war, to abject poverty or repressive governments. The punch-line in the student exercise, of course, is to ask “What will you think about your current crises five years from now?” How despicable they look in retrospect.

Our trials can seem light and momentary afflictions; so even when the night seems ever so dark, the morning cometh. Much as I love Kris Kristofferson’s wonderful ballad of “Me and Bobby McGee,” especially when sung by Janis Joplin, or performed by the Grateful Dead, one line always stuck in my head “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday,” because how can one ever know that there will not be even more wonderful tomorrows? That way lies suicide, the worst shrinking of temporal perspectives ever possible. Even the depths of one of the saddest movements of Mozart’s Requiem, Lacrimosa, is followed by Qua Resur Get Ex Favilla, “when from the ashes shall rise.” A Phoenix rising from the ashes is one of my favorite images of all time. I even have an “Alamogordo Phoenix” tattoo to commemorate rising from the atomic devastation of the desolate ending of my worst unrequited love, after too many mornings of waking with a “razor blade in my heart.” I was always one of those not anaesthetized.

Crying and laughing can mark some of the most primal and important of our human connections, from the “tear test” Hallmark moment I use when picking out a birthday or holiday card, to discovering the meaning of the word “keening” after my father’s death. Births and deaths, weddings and reunions too long deferred are among the most powerful. “We laughed, we cried, we cried about our laughter, we laughed about our tears.” Tears and laughter are mediated by proximal areas in the brainstem, the oldest part of the brain. Think about how close a laugh is to a sob, and maybe equally contagious. I remember my father’s SRO funeral service, when a moment wouldn’t go by without hearing a sob from somewhere in the congregation.

Can one really have a “good cry”? It may be that crying does reduce the neurochemistry of distress, as long as it doesn’t just lead to rumination (which will prolong it), and I’m certain enough of the potentially cathartic effects of crying that I can understand why people will sometimes play music that produces it. There is a segment of Beethoven’s Eroica that does it to me every time, and I well remember emerging as a young adult and crying to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” including the line “you can’t be 20, on sugar mountain,” and I did feel like I was leaving there too soon. Odd that Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, though spawning a whole industry, mentions crying only once (his Social Intelligence does a better job), and Andrew Solomon’s immensely wise Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, not at all. I know depressives cry more easily. I always dreaded days my depressive father preached, as I knew he would cry, though I think the sympathy elicited made his sermons that much more moving and effective. When introducing a lecture on hunger, I often read a section of Elie Weisel’s concentration camp memoir Night, and only when doing so no longer elicited my own tears did I decide that Prozac wasn’t for me. OK, that and the libidinal side effects.

Sad facial expressions, because they usually involve a sad person looking down and to the side, are much easier to detect if we see that someone is crying, so sometimes even a catch in the voice or a change in vocal expression is sufficient. I actually found that some emotionality during a lecture was even more effective if I had to pause demonstrably to collect myself. Our natural and automatic mimicry of others’ faces in the first quarter of a second is one source of shared emotion. Infants cry from birth, and newborns cry to express distress at anything uncomfortable or aversive, a cry which has powerful effects on nearby parents, who want to make it stop. Crying generates attention and care. Newborns also show sympathetic crying. One infant crying in a nursery is highly contagious, but only the cry of another newborn will suffice, and it disappears in the first year. Mostly we learn to control and mask our responses, but again, the first few hundred milliseconds of initial mimesis are telling. Seeing an angry or fearful face produces physiological changes in us that don’t disappear, even if our consciousness of that face has been masked with another face.

Separation distress also produces crying, as does a failure to elicit maternal attention; thus infant attachment plays an important evolutionary role in keeping caregivers nearby. Abandonment, separation, or rejection may once have produced actual threats to life itself, but being treated as if you do not matter can sting well into adulthood. Social depression is the unhappiness caused by troubled or threatened relationships, but social rejection, and the fear thereof, are powerful sources of anxiety, and feelings of inclusion depend upon not so much numbers or frequency of contact, as feelings of acceptance. Separations and social rejections produce activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus, the same area of the cortex generating sensations of bodily pain. Merely feeling excluded from a computer game in which people bounce a ball to each other can be painful, and the metaphors we use, from “hurt feelings” to a “broken heart” suggest the bodily physicality of our emotional lives. Monkeys with anterior cingulate damage fail to cry when separated from their mothers, and mothers with similar damage fail to respond. Not only does the anterior cingulate mediate feelings of social rejection, but can be produced in a caregiver's brain region can be produced in situations like mothers responding to their babies' cries. Mirror neurons, which respond both to another’s motions and to the planning of one’s own, likely play an important role here, and the absence of this avenue in text-based communication may be part of a decline in reported empathy in college students across the last generation.

Part of the bodily sensations which make one affect different from another is their effects on end organs. When we cry in distress, the lacrimal apparatus is engaged. The primary function of tearing may be to protect eyes from dryness or noxious stimuli, just as the primary function of sweating may be evaporative cooling (one of the advantages of nakedness in a species which has found other uses for its tongue). So just as we also sweat in fear, under duress, and during sex (even if the chemistry of the sweat varies), so crying can be triggered during affect, accompanied by the sobbing vocalizations which communicate distress. The same affect-based expressions of cooing, laughing, screaming, or grunting in infancy can also be used by adults to indicate the tonality that can add delicate shades of meaning to words, and that accompanying facial expressions can radically alter. I had a post-stroke aphasic neighbor who had a whole vocabulary of meanings in the expression “all right,” which could be used to tell her husband she was upset with him, but also be used to happily greet the little children across the street. Perhaps the evolution of the voice was in giving added power to the expression of affect. But the complex pattern of a baby’s crying, including the lacrimal tears, the laryngeal cry, the reddening of the face, and the particular “omega” shape of a mouth in melancholy does not differ from that of an adult, despite whatever else is going on in the rather more educated adult mind. It also provides information both to social observers, and to the originator. Even my two-year old son is capable of drawing further attention to this information by saying “I cry” to share this self-understanding with his parents. He has already begun to accumulate some of the mental functions around this innate program of affect which will eventuate in adult emotion, ranging from distress to anguish, and shame to humiliation. Affect is also notoriously contagious, which may not be much different from the internal contagion by which affect triggers more of the same affect within us, as it need not be necessary to posit separate receptors for the “broadcast” of affect as for the internally derived. The same receptors may pick up the music of affect from other people.

Distress is produced by any constant and higher than optimal level of stimulation. Each affect produces an innate system of responses to a particular pattern of stimulation. Under distress, the corners of the mouth are pulled down, the eyebrows arch upward, and an infant will begin to cry with tears and rhythmic sobbing. When a baby experiences constant, higher than optimal levels of stimulation produced by being cold, hungry, lonely, or wet, this affect will be triggered. But it can also be triggered by data from memory, drive, perception, or cognition, any constant and unpleasant stimulus will produce the constant and unpleasant affect of distress, the broadcast of which may produce contagion. Anything producing a steady-state neural density within a certain range (which can vary across individuals) will make us feel like crying, and we may sob, whimper, cry, or even gulp for a moment, and easily recognize the feeling. Remembering similar episodes can make us feel sad, and enough tearful scenes can produce a level of distress that can dominate one’s mood.

Prolonged periods of distress precipitated by personal loss (whether by death or the end of some long-enjoyed activity or relationship) can produce grief, but not all distress is grief, mourning or melancholy. It can also be produced by an accumulation of low-grade constant density stimuli, when the group of aches and pains that make up our day become large enough, we can feel like crying. Hence, mild illness, premenstrual discomfort, fatigue, or even uncomfortable weather can contribute to distress. Nevertheless, in adults, social training can alter or suppress the expression of affect. “Big boys don’t cry,” but big girls are also encouraged to avoid crying in public. Still, these rules can certainly vary, individually -- having a depressive father who cried easily made me less inhibited about doing so (despite it making others uncomfortable), subculturally -- I remember the concerted effort my ex-wife and her sisters made to hide teary eyes and avoid any display of grief at their father’s funeral, and certainly historically -- classical era warriors wept before battle.

We can also weep with joy. Most of us have cried at weddings or other happy ritual events, but tearing can be independent of facial displays of distress. They may be triggered by any overwhelming density of memory, of a lifetime of experiences of loneliness and reunion, of love lost or redeemed, of social failure and healing success. How many have ever felt “overwhelmed with emotion,” or been rendered unable to speak by the welling up of emotion, or the need to pause to “collect oneself.” The quality or meaning of the stimulus need have no connection to the affective response.

I pointed out the brain-stem proximity of the neural equipment for generating crying and laughing, and the similarities between a laugh and a sob. There are any number of times when, knowing my wife to be unwell or out of sorts, I will hear a sound that might be sobbing and crying, only to discover her gasping and guffawing at something she read that she thought hilarious. Distress may be produced by constant over-optimal stimulation, but relief from distress can easily produce a smile of enjoyment. It may be that the intensity of negative affect may provide important fuel to produce greater intensity in subsequent enjoyment, and the more sudden and dramatic the decrease in stimulus level, the more likely we are to laugh. A comedian’s timing may have as much to do with with pausing to produce an even greater decrease in stimulus level as to await comprehension. Laughter can also have a lot to do with violation of expectation as, sadly, may have been the case when an American president so over-reached the believability of his exaggerations that an international audience laughed at him during a speech at the United Nations.

We all value humor, and may happily pay to see comedy on stage or in film, though humor may be more difficult to produce than sheer excitement, and may work differently with different audiences, and may vary notoriously across cultures and history. “Sense of humor” is often near the top in preferred characteristics in both friends and lovers. I remember knowing when the couple in the college dorm room next door were making love, as there would always be a lot of laughter, and I find it sad that so many of my students, over a lifetime of college teaching, reported finding sex to be either threatening or goal-driven, rather than being a favored form of adult “play.” Still, “he made me laugh” is a not-infrequent reason for a romantic choice. George Orwell once wrote, “A thing is funny when -- in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening -- it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Ludwig Wittgenstein once posited that he thought good philosophy could be written entirely in jokes, and I have never been to a conclave of philosophers that didn’t nigh-require the sharing of jokes after hours.

Humor may often be produced by a kind of “cognitive shift” between thinking about a target from one perspective to thinking about it from another, but still appropriate, perspective. One standard example is the “lawyer joke:”

Q: How do you stop a lawyer from drowning?

A: Shoot him before he hits the water.

Switching the focus from trying to save the lawyer’s life to choosing the method of death. The premise is violated by the punch line. And while even lawyers find this joke funny, it does depend upon a willingness to consider a perspective from which killing a lawyer might be acceptable. But replace “lawyer” with any number of other occupations and the joke can become unfunny, or even offensive quite quickly. “Take my wife. Please,” in drawing on more common understandings of marital dissatisfaction, is probably safer. But the not so hidden aggression of comedians is well reflected in their satisfaction at having metaphorically “killed” an audience. As the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget made clear, learning often starts with the violation of expectation, but such violations aren’t automatically, or even often, funny. The problem is that surprise, produced by the square wave of a sudden rise and fall of stimulus density, requires a delicate balance. Fear is produced when information is less than that needed to produce surprise but at greater than optimal levels. Anger is produced like distress, but triggered by an even higher rate of steady-stimulus density. Orwell’s definition of funny as “upsetting the established order” also requires it to be neither offensive nor frightening, and the cognitive shift requires the shift to another but still appropriate perspective, and what is “appropriate” can be defined quite differently for different groups, and differently across time. Surgeons may quite happily and quite blithely discuss bodily interiors that those less inured to them may find disrupt their mealtime digestion. Stand-up comedians now find themselves increasingly unwilling to play college campuses, and violations of expectation which served my teaching purposes for 30 years, rather precipitously became unacceptable.

For a new generation of students, communicative technology reduced social intercourse to text-based exchanges, abstracting away all the expressive signs and facial emotion of face-to-face interchange. It has become harder to understand non-literal discourse, including a lot of what once might have been tongue-in-cheek, or ironic communication, as well as nonverbal humor. Puns, bathroom humor, dirty jokes, ethnic jokes, and slapstick is either lost on them or found tasteless, rude, or offensive to sensibilities not formed in the give and take, the failures, embarrassments, or boundary-violations that are so much part of normal life, especially amongst youthful peers. Much comedy requires shared cultural reference points or personal attitudes that have become increasingly difficult to negotiate. Much of what might have been shared in youthful friendship exchanges, including provocative, rebellious rock-and-roll sensibilities, can be now be found offensive. “Bad boys" might increasingly be seen as immoral and puerile. Amusement also depends heavily on the teller, and you tend to enjoy another’s humor if you like the teller. Humor is a way to indicate an interest in a friendly relationship. If you don’t like your professor, you won’t like his or her humor, either. Ethnic humor is particularly fragile, like the use of the “N” word by African Americans, when its use by outsiders is often seen as offensive. Humor depends heavily on background assumptions, increasingly unshared by the information bubbles that communicative technology, particularly social media, has not only made possible but likely. Without shared assumptions, humor can fall flat or even offend.

Laughter also is communicative, and occurs mostly in face-to-face social settings, where even a preverbal child can indicate delight in what you are doing. It is a way for one adult to tell another that he or she is enjoying your company. People both smile and laugh a great deal more in face-to-face social settings. Friends who are laughing make you laugh, too, something well-understood by those employing laugh-tracks in broadcasting. Moreover "unvoiced” laughs produce little response in a listener. Voiced laughs include puffs of “ha,” “ho,” or “he,” and normally continue with the sound with which you started, each puff lasting about 1/15 of a second, with a 1/5 second delay between them, probably part of species-wide equipment, found even among the deaf. I do find it amusing that my Hispanic friends will sometimes text “je, je, je” to indicate laughter. But just as you won’t laugh merely to written indicators, so you won’t imitate laughs that don’t fit the pattern (sometimes used on purpose to indicate that something is not funny -- “hah...hah...hah”). Interestingly, most laughter occurs while we are talking, rather than in response to someone else, and often occurs after something that is actually not amusing, as in “I’ll see you guys later. Ha! Ha! Ha!” So laughter may really be used primarily to provide social support, and, while men tell more jokes, women laugh more. Both laughter and smiling make others feel comfortable, understood, and appreciated. I suspect merely texting LOL doesn’t have the same effect.

So, finally, one of the most important behaviors holding our social fabric together, and reducing our anxiety, may simply be unavailable in text-based communication, except in attenuated form. Who can you hear laughing, and who does it make feel better to hear your laughter? Even 25 years ago, Donald Nathanson wondered, in Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self about the possibilities of information overload in a technological society. “The tearful response to such overload may very well be a major affective experience for the humans of our future.” When we use a communication medium which renders it difficult to share our tears, attenuated in any case by our social training, and all but eliminate the social interweaving made possible by the contagion of laughter, we may feel safer and less vulnerable (why young people today prefer texting to talking, even to their friends), but we are likely to also feel not only disconnected and more anxious, but sadder. Just as we may reduce our sadness by articulating it, we increase our enjoyment when someone hears us laughing out loud, or we hear them. Imagine what might happen, in our increasingly polarized society, if we could laugh together.