The science of sad art


Words by Ed Hirst | @edhirsty

Images by Portia Sarris

My favourite book is The Catcher in the Rye. My favourite band is The Smiths. I can barely leave the house without a copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in my backpack. I get it. I am a Sad Boy. Sad songs, sad films, sad books, sad paintings…I love them all, and I’m addicted to these melancholy forms of art. So why exactly does a case of ‘the feels’ feel so good?

It’s a safe bet that we’ve all had a good cry at least once in our lives—perhaps whilst watching The Notebook or maybe even The Land Before Time (orphaned dinosaurs are totally my weakness). Whatever the case, the moment usually is quite an intense oneit feels undeniably ‘sad’, but then there’s also a subdued notion of euphoria and sense of letting go. According to neurologist Michael Trimble, surveys estimate that 85 per cent of women and 73 per cent of men report feeling better after shedding tears—so cry away!

For those of you who are yet to experience such outbursts of melancholy, research has uncovered that sad feelings become more prevalent as you get older; if you don’t have ‘the feels’ now, you might be in for quite an emotional rollercoaster later in life (how exciting though!)

There are two types of tears that we cry: irritant tears and psychic tears. Irritant tears are the result of cutting onions or, in my case, hitting my head on the clothesline as I leave the house each day. Psychic tears arise through periods of intense emotion, such as sadness and grief but also laughter and joy. The properties of these two types of tears are identical aside from one key difference: psychic tears contain a high concentration of the hormone prolactin.

Prolactin is most commonly associated with the production of milk during pregnancy, although the hormone plays other important roles in the body. Most notably, prolactin gives off feelings of calmness, consolation and wellbeing—a bit of a feel-good high. When hurt physically or psychologically, the hormone is released to provide a soothing sensation and ease pain.

Prolactin is not just triggered when crying though, but also when sad in general. It can also be induced empathetically; therefore if the brain is fooled into being hurt, then these hormones are released, providing a natural high with an absence of ‘real’ pain. It isn’t just prolactin that is released throughout such episodesthe so-called ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is also prevalent.

Studies have shown that sad films can bring joy to viewers by training the brain to empathise with the characters’ on-screen turmoil. This empathetic response then releases oxytocin into our bodies, which makes us feel attached and compelled to watch the rest of the film. This same concept applies to any other medium that evokes an empathic response too—books, songs, paintings, etc!

It is suggested that this exercise of empathy helps us relate on a social level to those around us and therefore helps develop our ability to cope with difficult situations in the future. Research has shown that compared to happiness, sadness promotes goal-focused thinking, greater memory callback, less judgment bias and less reliance on stereotypes. In short, it keeps us on our toes. Our mind is constantly in ‘survival mode’, so we feel the need to go back and watch another movie, read another book, listen to another song in order to absorb these new experiences and stimulate these parts of the brain.

We obviously want to be happy as frequently as possible, but what’s worth noting is that we can’t sustain that feeling all the time. Day-to-day life is typically characterised by a sense of optimism and a series of both short-term and long-term goals that aren’t always attainable nor entirely realistic. A mental process termed “depressive realism” works to provide a ‘reality check’ when these set goals are too ambitious. Sad art evokes the same endorphins as a fit of “depressive realism” and therefore keeps us grounded and less likely to be hurt or disappointed in future! It’s easy to think of it as emotional armour.  

So there you have it, sad art basically cons your brain into letting off a natural high, plus really just preparing you for the inevitable pain that you’ll experience across your painful and tragic life—thank you, science! Now, please excuse me as I withdraw back to my bedroom and listen to Sufjan Stevens whilst crying myself to sleep.


Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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