In December 2019, a months-old post by the Facebook page “Words of Women” that purportedly showed a four-square collection of tears produced by grief, change, laughter, and cutting onions continued to circulate:
The status update read:
Someone recently told me that emotions are chemical levels in your brain and your body is constantly trying to maintain equilibrium. So if one emotion sky rockets, that chemical becomes flagged and signals the tear duct to open as an exit to release that emotion packaged neatly within a tear. It’s why we feel more stable after crying, as if whatever emotion we were feeling had been released and we were refreshed. This is also why tears from different emotions look different under an electron microscope. They’re literally made up of different things. According to Joseph Stromberg of the Smithsonian’s College of Arts and Sciences, happy tears are structurally different than sad tears than angry tears than overwhelmed tears etc. Different types of tears have distinct molecules. Emotional tears have protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, which is a natural painkiller that is released when we are stressed. (Photography by Rose-Lynn Fisher http://rose-lynnfisher.com/tears.html?fbclid=IwAR1GI_IvO75LUWDLqaELs_qcOtUSf8XPyXlaDgGwNcXl5k3okHf-eT_EvgA)
All four images appeared in a November 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article, credited to writer Joseph Stromberg. Stromberg himself did not capture the images, as the post indicated.
As the American Academy of Ophthalmology states, there are three distinct types of human tears. The first (basal tears) are protective and relatively constant, the second (reflex tears) are a response to irritants like “onion fumes,” and the third (emotional tears) span all states of emotion:
Basal tears are in your eyes all the time to lubricate, nourish and protect your cornea. Basal tears act as a constant shield between the eye and the rest of the world, keeping dirt and debris away.
Reflex tears are formed when your eyes need to wash away harmful irritants, such as smoke, foreign bodies or onion fumes. Your eyes release them in larger amounts than basal tears, and they may contain more antibodies to help fight bacteria.
Emotional tears are produced in response to joy, sadness, fear and other emotional states. Some scientists have proposed that emotional tears contain additional hormones and proteins not present in basal or reflex tears.
In Stromberg’s article, “The Microscopic Structures of Dried Human Tears,” he notes that photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher had published a book involving microscopic views of honeybees. Inspired by that project, Fisher moved on to the subject of human tears:
“I started the project about five years ago, during a period of copious tears, amid lots of change and loss — so I had a surplus of raw material,” Fisher says. After the bee project and one in which she’d looked at a fragment of her own hip bone removed during surgery, she’d come to the realization that “everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg, visually,” she explains. “So I had this moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder what a tear looks like up close?’”
Fisher said she captured and dried one of her own tears on a slide, causing her to become curious about whether human tears for different reasons might present differently in the same format. That led Fisher to use both her own tears and tears from a “handful of others.”
In the piece, that effort was not described as a project of science per se, nor one of strict protocols. Rather, it’s framed as something artistic and philosophical in nature:
This idle musing ended up launching a multi-year photography project in which Fisher collected, examined and photographed more than 100 tears from both herself an a handful of other volunteers, including a newborn baby.
Further into the article, Fisher explained that myriad variables caused tears of different types to look radically different to one another. For example, “grief tears” from two separate people or the same person on two separate occasions might appear somewhat different due to biological, environmental, or circumstantial factors, like hydration:
Additionally, because the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close. “There are so many variables — there’s the chemistry, the viscosity, the setting, the evaporation rate and the settings of the microscope,” Fisher says.
Selected images curated by Fisher for her book The Topography of Tears underscored the interpretive bent of her work. Individual slides are labeled with phrases such as “the irrefutable,” “what it meant long after a time forgotten,” “in the end it didn’t matter #65,” and “the brevity of time (out of order) losing you.” Based on those titles, the nature of the tears cried looked far more subjective than objective.
None of the tear slides curated by Fisher on the page seemed to exactly match the ones chosen in the Facebook post. Interestingly though, the snowflake-like “onion tears” were similar to one simply called “quiet ripening.” Blocky structures seen in “tears of change” were mirrored to some degree in “in the end it didn’t matter #65.” And the straight lines labeled on Facebook as “tears of grief” shared some characteristics with “timeless reunion (in an expanding field).”
Alongside the “tears of grief, tears of change, onion tears, and laughing tears” image, the “Words of Women” Facebook post claimed that “happy tears are structurally different than sad tears than angry tears than overwhelmed tears” and “different types of tears have distinct molecules.” It is possible that was the case, but the appended images were misleading. Those photographs were part of an artistic venture, not scientific research. Original images presented by the photographer bore far more abstract titles, and the creator of the images explained that innumerable variables (biological, environmental, and circumstantial among them) affected the actual structure of the observed tears.