Sympathy crying: insights from infrared thermal imaging on a female sample

Stephanos Ioannou, Paul Morris, Samantha Terry, Marc Baker, Vittorio Gallese, Vasudevi Reddy

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Sympathy crying is an odd and complex mixture of physiological and emotional phenomena. Standard psychophysiological theories of emotion cannot attribute crying to a single subdivision of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and disagreement exists regarding the emotional origin of sympathy crying. The current experiment examines sympathy crying using functional thermal infrared imaging (FTII), a novel contactless measure of ANS activity. To induce crying female participants were given the choice to decide which film they wanted to cry to. Compared to baseline, temperature started increasing on the forehead, the peri-orbital region, the cheeks and the chin before crying and reached even higher temperatures during crying. The maxillary area showed the opposite pattern and a gradual temperature decrease was observed compared to baseline as a result of emotional sweating. The results suggest that tears of sympathy are part of a complex autonomic interaction between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems, with the latter preceding the former. The emotional origin of the phenomenon seems to derive from subjective internal factors that relate to one’s personal experiences and attributes with tears arising in the form of catharses or as part of shared sadness.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0162749
JournalPLoS One
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2016


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