top of page

The Science of Tears and How NOT to Cry on Cue

By Faith Hibbs-Clark

As an actor, you may find yourself in a situation where you need to cry on cue. This can be a difficult task, especially if you want it to look genuine and not overly dramatic. To help you master this skill, it's important to understand the science of tears and why certain methods just don't cut it!

The Complex Nature of Tears

Tears are often associated with sadness, but they are actually a complex response to various emotions and brain functions. There are three types of tears:

  1. Basal tears: These are constantly produced to keep our eyes lubricated.

  2. Reflex tears: These are produced as a response to irritants, like dust or smoke.

  3. Emotional tears: These are the tears we shed when we experience strong emotions, such as sadness, joy, pain, or frustration.

Emotional tears contain hormones and natural painkillers, which is why crying can sometimes make us feel better. They are triggered by the Limbic system, which is responsible for regulating our emotions. When we experience strong emotions, our brain sends signals to the tear glands, telling them to produce tears.

Spotting the difference between an emotional tear and basal or reflex tears can be a subtle but crucial aspect in determining the authenticity of an actor's performance. Emotional tears tend to be more viscous (thick, sticky consistency) and have a higher protein content than basal or reflex tears. While it may be challenging to identify these differences visually, emotional tears often manifest alongside other indicators of genuine emotion, such as facial expressions, vocal tone, and body language. Emotional tears are typically accompanied by reddening of the eyes, swelling, and a more pronounced quivering of the lower eyelid. In contrast, basal and reflex tears usually lack these accompanying emotional cues. They may appear more transparent and less substantial, primarily serving their purpose of lubricating or protecting the eyes from irritants. Paying attention to these subtle differences and the overall emotional context can help distinguish between believable and fake tears from an actor.

Showing Emotions Without Tears

Before diving into how to "cry on cue," let's remember that emotions can be expressed in many different ways. As an actor, you should explore various techniques to convey emotions without relying solely on tears. Facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone can all be powerful tools for communicating a broad range of emotions.

Methods Actors Use to Cry That Don't Work

Actors have developed all kinds of ineffective ways to cry on cue. As a casting director for 25-plus years, believe me when I say I have seen it all! I once had an actor clasp a thumb tack in his hand to cause him enough pain to trigger tears. When I told him to stop, he replied defensively, "My acting coach told me to do that." I told him to get a new acting coach.

1) Using physical pain: Some actors resort to inflicting physical pain on themselves in order to make themselves cry.

Why it doesn't work: Using physical pain to induce tears may not be an effective method for producing genuine emotional tears because the brain processes pain and emotions through different neural pathways. While physical pain can activate the release of stress hormones and trigger a reflexive tear response, it does not engage the limbic system, which is responsible for regulating emotions and generating emotional tears. As a result, the tears produced through physical pain may lack the emotional authenticity needed for a convincing performance. Furthermore, resorting to self-inflicted pain can have negative consequences on your physical and mental well-being, making it an unsustainable and potentially harmful approach to eliciting tears.

But even less extreme methods fall short when it comes to crying on cue. Here are two more techniques that don't work and the science for why they are not that effective.

2) Recalling personal memories: By thinking about a sad or emotional event from your past, you can trigger genuine tears.

Why it doesn't work: Recalling personal memories to trigger genuine tears may not always work due to the brain's ability to adapt and process emotions over time. As we experience and cope with emotional events, our brain creates new neural pathways, allowing us to regulate and manage our emotional responses more effectively. This means that revisiting a past sad memory might not evoke the same intensity of emotion as it once did, making it difficult for you to consistently generate tears on cue using this method. Furthermore, the brain can distinguish between real-life situations and acting scenarios, which may hinder the emotional response when attempting to recall personal memories in an artificial context.

3. Using physical triggers: Some actors use tricks like yawning, looking at bright lights, or even using menthol-based products to stimulate tear production.

Why it doesn't work: Using physical triggers to stimulate tear production may not be effective in producing genuine emotional tears because these methods primarily induce reflex tears, which are different from emotional tears in terms of composition and purpose. Reflex tears are a response to irritants or external stimuli, whereas emotional tears are triggered by the limbic system, which regulates our emotions. Since the brain can differentiate between these types of tears, relying on physical triggers may result in tears that lack the emotional weight and authenticity required for a convincing performance. Additionally, these methods might cause discomfort or irritation, which could distract you from fully immersing yourself in your character's emotional state.

Crocodile Tears Won't Cut I

Emotional tears form as a result of a complex response that physical triggers or forced memories can't easily replicate and may result in an actor forming fake-looking "Crocodile tears."

Crocodile tears is a term derived from the ancient belief that crocodiles wept while consuming their prey and refers to insincere or feigned emotional displays in humans. The science behind crocodile tears can be traced to the involuntary activation of the facial nerve (cranial nerve VII), which controls tear production and facial expressions. In certain situations, such as when a person is trying to manipulate others or mask their true emotions, the brain may send mixed signals to the facial nerve, resulting in an incongruent emotional display, such as shedding tears without genuine sadness. In psychology, crocodile tears symbolize emotional deception and highlight the complex interplay between the brain, emotions, and social interactions.

In conclusion, understanding the science of tears and why other "cry on cue" methods don't work is the first step in learning to cry on cue without looking fake or overly dramatic.

Want to learn a safe yet effective neuroscience approach to crying on cue?

CALL TO ACTION: Don't miss out on this month's special topic class: "Science of Crying on Cue." Join us for a 2.5-hour live online workshop where you'll discover a safe, scientifically proven method to generate tears and cry on cue effectively. Delve into a range of emotionally charged scripts and learn how to convey those emotions in a believable and captivating manner. Enhance your acting skills and elevate your performances by mastering the art of authentic emotional expression. Sign up now and unlock your full potential as an actor with the "Acting Science" method!


About Faith Hibbs-Clark

Faith is a body language expert who specialized in deception detection before becoming a casting director and working in the film industry for over 25 years. She is the creator and founder of the Communication Method for Actors, LLC.

529 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Jun 05, 2023

The post on “Crying on Cue” and the science and physiological response we have to different stimuli is absolutely BRILLIANT @Faith Hibbs-Clark

I had no idea that “crocodile tears“ came from that origin- read the article if you don’t know what I’m referring to😉

See you in class and Thank You for sharing this story and subject matter!

bottom of page