Feel Like a Good Cry? Go Ahead, Says a Scientist, Tears May Cleanse Body and Soul
There the matter might have rested but for the exertions of researchers like William Frey II, a biochemist at the St. Paul (Minn.) Ramsey Medical Center. In 1978 Frey decided to test an intriguing theory: that tears are a means by which the body rids itself of toxic chemicals produced under stress. Hoping to prove his point by experimentation, he placed an ad for volunteers in the University of Minnesota student newspaper, asking, "Will you cry for us?"
For $3 a head, students first had to sit through a weepy movie—Brian's Song and All Mine to Give, with Glynis Johns and Cameron Mitchell, proved to be the most effective—then later be exposed to freshly cut onions. (A local optical company tried to develop special eyeglasses with tiny troughs to collect the tears, but failed to produce a practical one-size-fits-all model. Thereafter volunteers usually collected their own tears in test tubes.) Though it is too soon for conclusive results, Frey says he has confirmed a chemical difference between "irritant tears"—those caused by a speck in the eye or by onions—and tears induced by an emotional experience. The emotional variety seems to contain more concentrated protein and albumen.
Frey believes that the higher incidence of peptic ulcers among men—in whom crying is socially discouraged—may be related to his findings. "If shedding tears does help relieve emotional stress, we may be susceptible to a variety of physical and psychological problems when we suppress our tears," he says. Skin eruptions, respiratory diseases, hay fever, colitis and cardiac problems may be just a few of the symptoms of such emotional blockage, he theorizes.
A native of Atlanta whose father was president of a chemical company and later headed a computer firm, Frey studied biochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Case Western Reserve in 1974 and moved to St. Paul Ramsey the following year. In 1972, at a time when his own life was undampened by sorrow ("I was really enjoying graduate school, and I even met my wife about that time"), he began to wonder about the reason for tears. "I couldn't accept the idea that crying as an emotional response would be favored by evolution if it was a purposeless process," he says.
Frey lives now in St. Paul with his wife, Barbara, and their daughter, Brandl, a 1979 New Year's Day baby. His work on crying is subsidized by a $4,000 grant while he also does research in brain biochemistry, dementia and other subjects. His labors are occasionally stressful, yet Frey admits, not without regret, that he can rarely shed an emotional tear himself. When he feels stress building up, he tries Transcendental Meditation or karate instead.
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