Any of you who saw the end of the Women’s British Open last Sunday witnessed one of the great pressure golf shots of all time. 31 year old Mo Martin hit a three wood 240 yard to within six feet of the pin on the par 5 last hole. She then sank the putt for an eagle 3. She had to wait while two contenders, playing after her, had opportunities to tie or beat her. In a stroke of directorial brilliance, the camera honed in on Martin’s face just as she learned that they had failed and her caddie relayed the news. “You won!” The pure joy on her face brought tears to my eyes and, as freely admitted, the broadcasters in the booth. Why?
I never heard of Mo Martin. Why would some neurotransmitters in my limbic system, the seat of emotions and memory deep in the brain, rev up because someone I don’t know over 4000 miles away was happy? And why would I cry?
There is a lot of information about the neurophysiology of tears. The roles of the Trigeminal nerve and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems* are well established. But I can find nothing expaining how an external event starts the cascade that ends in tears of joy or sympathy. There are evolutionary explanations involving tears as a sign to others of surrender or a signal of a need for help and support, but what is the initial stimulus?
My guess is that it has to do with consciousness, that intersection of brain and mind. There is something in us that is non-linear and to my mind other worldly that we do not, and will never, understand. I think consciousness is the junction between this world and the other. My friend and former partner Dr. Larry Dossey has written extensively about evidence for a universal consciousness, a modern day take on Jung’s collective consciousness. Just as Aspen trees share a common root system so too we may share a subliminal awareness of our interconnectedness. In a way when one suffers we all suffer. When one of us is joyful we all participate, even briefly, in that joy. And if the joy is intense enough, tears flow.
I reject the opinion that I am just a crybaby. Our tears have a much more noble origin!
* The Trigeminal is the fifth of twelve cranial nerves responsible for facial sensation and biting and chewing. The autonomic nervous system, with sympathetic and parasympathetic components, acts below consciousnes to control bodily functions like heart rate and breathing.