Cook: You mention "theory of mind" and crying. Can you tell me more about the connection between the two?
Trimble: Theory of mind refers to an area of social cognition which has developed hugely in humans, although similar abilities in much more limited forms have been shown in chimpanzees. The ability to feel compassion, the embodiment of which relates to our capacity for empathy, is triggered by what the neurologist Antonio Damasio refers to as emotionally competent stimuli. The responses are automatic, unconscious and bound in with our personal memories. Seeing facial expressions of sadness trigger the neuronal circuits related to theory of mind and empathy, which to some extent overlap, and involve, in part, those brain areas that give us our visceral, emotional feelings noted above. The tear, as part of the expression of suffering, became an emblem embroidering the expression. The tear, mythological linked with purity with a pearl shape has provided an image which, over time, has come by itself to symbolise sadness, grief, but also joy in music, poetry and the visual arts.
Cook: What lesson do you think this holds for us?
Trimble: Tears are a natural response to not only suffering, but also to feeling compassion for someone who is shedding tears. There has been much reluctance, especially on behalf of men, to admit to crying, and to crying in public. Yet Greek heroes such as Agamemnon and Achilles cried, and 2012 has seen many public tears, from the winners and losers in the Olympic games, to President Obama who cried after his re-election victory. We should not be afraid of our emotions, especially those related to compassion, since our ability to feel empathy and with that to cry tears, is the foundation of a morality and culture which is exclusively human.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.