It'll Make You Feel So Much Better
By Lisa Botwright
I do enjoy a well-written book that has the power to induce tears. And I also love to have a good cry at the end of a sad film. Or an emotionally-charged TV drama… or even one of those minute-long YouTube clips about orphan ducklings being adopted by broody cats. I think you get the message.
I may be a self-confessed cry-baby, but for me, there’s nothing like being so immersed in the compelling pull of a story that I find myself transported to another world. I love the quote that says “I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place” because I see stories as magical escapism; I become so involved that I absorb the emotions and high drama of the protagonists. Hence all the tears.
There is a link – for women especially – between memories and emotion, meaning that memories become more powerful and more easily accessed if they are created while the brain is in an emotional state. Perhaps this is why I have such vivid memories of curling up and sobbing over a good book? I can happily look back over a tearful trajectory of literary indulgence: the death of Matthew in 'Anne of Green Gables', the sudden illness of Beth in 'Little Women', a borrowed copy of my mum’s 'Love Story' (remember the film with Ali McGraw? It was the 1970s version of the amazing current teen favourite 'The Fault in Our Stars'.) As an adult, I have been floored by the bleakness of 'The Road', marvelled at the monstrousness of 'Never Let Me Go' and gasped and gulped in THAT chapter of One Day. In fact I’m going to have to stop writing now… I can feel the tears pricking and I have a lump in my throat at just the thought of Em and Dex.
And, as I said, it’s not just books, but films too. When I was about 8, my mother had to take me out of the cinema because I became too upset to carry on watching 'ET'. (She’d already banned me from 'Bambi' and 'Watership Down' – I’ve still never seen either of them.)
I’m not alone. Crying in the cinema is so common that Jeffrey M Zacks, a Professor of Psychology, has written about the science behind this in a book called 'Flicker: Your Brain on Movies'. He describes ‘the Mirror Rule’ – a biological imperative to mirror others’ emotions around us: friendliness, with friendliness, aggression with aggression; ultimately, all of the four central human emotions of happiness, sadness, fear and anger.
The latest summer family blockbuster is all about emotion. Disney Pixar’s 'Inside Out' is a masterly, emotionally manipulative story about a little girl called Riley, with the emotions inside her head taking centre stage as anthropomorphised cartoon characters. Disney have boldly made the character of Sadness wise and empathetic to counter the annoying cheeriness of Joy, cleverly giving a generation of children permission to acknowledge the importance of all their emotions, the sad as well as the happy…
…because having a good cry is really good for you. Studies have shown that it releases toxins from the body, relieving the negative impact of stress; it lowers blood pressure and is generally highly cathartic. But someone needs to tell my husband and daughter this. When I had children I soon discovered that the sensitive gene definitely appears to be hereditary. My daughter takes after her father and is very sporty. While I process my emotions within an imaginary world, they live for the physical. Their drama is the competitive thrill of the next match, the high of a goal achieved.
The difference in all our personalities was borne out when we took our daughter and her younger brother to the cinema a few years ago, when they were little, to watch 'Hotel for Dogs' – a kind of canine Annie, where the children care for unloved orphan dogs, while the grown-ups meddle unsympathetically. At the critical point where the dogs were in peril, I looked over at my children for support. My daughter was sitting in the middle, with a wry, slightly embarrassed smile on her lips, utterly dry-eyed, just like her father. My son, on the other hand, was a wreck, He leaned across his stoic sister and we fell into a damp embrace. I was so proud.