Do tears of grief look different from onion tears under a microscope?

Illustration for article titled Do tears of grief look different from onion tears under a microscope?

You may joke that, when something sad brings a tear to your eye, someone is chopping onions in the room. But if you compared those two types of tears under a microscope, would they look similar?


Rose-Lynn Fisher's photographic project "Topography of Tears" captures the abstract landscapes contained within dried human tears. She began the project during a period of personal turmoil, when she began to wonder about the form of her tears and whether her tears of grief were different from her tears of happiness. She began to dry and catalog her tears, photographing them under a standard light microscope. Eventually, she began collecting the tears of others, collecting a series of 100 tear studies. On her website, she explains the appeal of the abstract views of the tears combined with knowledge of their chemistry:

The random compositions I find in magnified tears often evoke a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain. Although the empirical nature of tears is a chemistry of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, antibodies and enzymes, the topography of tears is a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series ls like an ephemeral atlas.


Above, you can see a crop of "Onion tears" on the left and "Tears of grief" on the right. You can see full-sized images at her website and at the Smithsonian's Collage of Arts and Science blog. Certainly basal tears—like those that issue when chopping onions—have a different chemical component than psychic tears—like tears of joy and grief. For example, the former contains enzymes like lysozyme, which fights bacteria, and the latter contains leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller. But there's a certain poetry to Fisher's comparisons. There aren't enough images up—and her process for drying and handling tears isn't described well enough—to make thorough visual comparisons between the types of tears across human beings, but perhaps Fisher will eventually collect them in a book. Last year, she released Bee, a collection of her fascinating bee photographs of bees photographed under an electron microscope.

The Topography of Tears [Rose-Lynn Fisher] The Microscopic Structures of Dried Human Tears [Smithsonian via Neatorama]

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Hmm - I guess it makes sense. Protective (i.e. onion tears) have a specific function, whereas as emotional tears are just there to embarrass you at the cinema in front of your friends.