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Tears Can Trump Aggression

Male Rage Reduced by A Sniff

Tears contain chemicals that block aggression.

By John Salak –

Famed author Washington Irving apparently was on to something when he wrote: “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.” Given that Irving was the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the creator of the dreaded headless Hessian horseman, it would be easy to assume he had a decent fix on power.

Now, almost 200 years later, this writer’s position on tears appears to have been validated by a team of Israeli researchers. The Weizmann Institute of Science reports that a woman’s tears contain chemicals that block aggression in men.

More specifically, the Institute found that sniffing these tears leads to reduced brain activity related to aggression, which results in less aggressive behavior. This reaction is an example of social chemosignaling, a process that is common in animals but less common and understood in humans.

Researchers have long suspected that male aggression in rodents can be blocked or reduced when they smell female tears. The Israeli study sought to determine whether a woman’s tears would have the same impact on men.

The researchers achieved this by exposing a group of men to either women’s emotional tears or saline while they played a two-person game that was designed to elicit aggressive behavior against the other player, whom the men were led to believe was cheating. These players had the opportunity to get revenge on the perceived cheater by causing them to lose money.

The players never knew if they were exposed to tears or saline, but revenge-seeking aggressive behavior dropped more than 40 percent when men sniffed women’s emotional tears.

When repeated in an MRI scanner, functional imaging showed two aggression-related brain regions—the prefrontal cortex and anterior insula—that became more active when the men were provoked during the game but did not become as active in the same situations when the men were sniffing the tears.

The findings not only established the impact of a woman’s tears, but they also implied that social chemosignaling is a factor in human aggression. It is not simply an animal curiosity.

“We found that just like in mice, human tears contain a chemical signal that blocks conspecific male aggression. This goes against the notion that emotional tears are uniquely human,” reported study author Shani Agron.

It also shows Washington Irving was ahead of his time.





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