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by Charles DarwinJanuary 22nd, 2023
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Laughter primarily the expression of joy—Ludicrous ideas—Movements of the features during laughter—Nature of the sound produced—The secretion of tears during loud laughter—Gradation from loud laughter to gentle smiling—High spirits—The expression of love—Tender feelings—Devotion. Joy, when intense, leads to various purposeless movements—to dancing about, clapping the hands, stamping, &c., and to loud laughter. Laughter seems primarily to be the expression of mere joy or happiness. We clearly see this in children at play, who are almost incessantly laughing. With young persons past childhood, when they are in high spirits, there is always much meaningless laughter. The laughter of the gods is described by Homer as “the exuberance of their celestial joy after their daily banquet.” A man smiles—and smiling, as we shall see, graduates into laughter—at meeting an old friend in the street, as he does at any trifling pleasure, such as smelling a sweet perfume.[8 Laura Bridgman, from her blindness and deafness, could not have acquired any expression through imitation, yet when a letter from a beloved friend was communicated to her by gesture-language, she “laughed and clapped her hands, and the colour mounted to her cheeks.” On other occasions she has been seen to stamp for joy.
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The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. JOY, HIGH SPIRITS, LOVE, TENDER FEELINGS, DEVOTION


Laughter primarily the expression of joy—Ludicrous ideas—Movements of the features during laughter—Nature of the sound produced—The secretion of tears during loud laughter—Gradation from loud laughter to gentle smiling—High spirits—The expression of love—Tender feelings—Devotion.

Joy, when intense, leads to various purposeless movements—to dancing about, clapping the hands, stamping, &c., and to loud laughter. Laughter seems primarily to be the expression of mere joy or happiness. We clearly see this in children at play, who are almost incessantly laughing. With young persons past childhood, when they are in high spirits, there is always much meaningless laughter. The laughter of the gods is described by Homer as “the exuberance of their celestial joy after their daily banquet.” A man smiles—and smiling, as we shall see, graduates into laughter—at meeting an old friend in the street, as he does at any trifling pleasure, such as smelling a sweet perfume.[8 Laura Bridgman, from her blindness and deafness, could not have acquired any expression through imitation, yet when a letter from a beloved friend was communicated to her by gesture-language, she “laughed and clapped her hands, and the colour mounted to her cheeks.” On other occasions she has been seen to stamp for joy.

Idiots and imbecile persons likewise afford good evidence that laughter or smiling primarily expresses mere happiness or joy. Dr. Crichton Browne, to whom, as on so many other occasions, I am indebted for the results of his wide experience, informs me that with idiots laughter is the most prevalent and frequent of all the emotional expressions. Many idiots are morose, passionate, restless, in a painful state of mind, or utterly stolid, and these never laugh. Others frequently laugh in a quite senseless manner. Thus an idiot boy, incapable of speech, complained to Dr. Browne, by the aid of signs, that another boy in the asylum had given him a black eye; and this was accompanied by “explosions of laughter and with his face covered with the broadest smiles.” There is another large class of idiots who are persistently joyous and benign, and who are constantly laughing or smiling. Their countenances often exhibit a stereotyped smile; their joyousness is increased, and they grin, chuckle, or giggle, whenever food is placed before them, or when they are caressed, are shown bright colours, or hear music. Some of them laugh more than usual when they walk about, or attempt any muscular exertion. The joyousness of most of these idiots cannot possibly be associated, as Dr. Browne remarks, with any distinct ideas: they simply feel pleasure, and express it by laughter or smiles. With imbeciles rather higher in the scale, personal vanity seems to be the commonest cause of laughter, and next to this, pleasure arising from the approbation of their conduct.

With grown-up persons laughter is excited by causes considerably different from those which suffice during childhood; but this remark hardly applies to smiling. Laughter in this respect is analogous with weeping, which with adults is almost confined to mental distress, whilst with children it is excited by bodily pain or any suffering, as well as by fear or rage. Many curious discussions have been written on the causes of laughter with grown-up persons. The subject is extremely complex. Something incongruous or unaccountable, exciting surprise and some sense of superiority in the laugher, who must be in a happy frame of mind, seems to be the commonest cause. The circumstances must not be of a momentous nature: no poor man would laugh or smile on suddenly hearing that a large fortune had been bequeathed to him. If the mind is strongly excited by pleasurable feelings, and any little unexpected event or thought occurs, then, as Mr. Herbert Spencer remarks, “a large amount of nervous energy, instead of being allowed to expend itself in producing an equivalent amount of the new thoughts and emotion which were nascent, is suddenly checked in its flow.”... “The excess must discharge itself in some other direction, and there results an efflux through the motor nerves to various classes of the muscles, producing the half-convulsive actions we term laughter.” An observation, bearing on this point, was made by a correspondent during the recent siege of Paris, namely, that the German soldiers, after strong excitement from exposure to extreme danger, were particularly apt to burst out into loud laughter at the smallest joke. So again when young children are just beginning to cry, an unexpected event will sometimes suddenly turn their crying into laughter, which apparently serves equally well to expend their superfluous nervous energy.

The imagination is sometimes said to be tickled by a ludicrous idea; and this so-called tickling of the mind is curiously analogous with that of the body. Every one knows how immoderately children laugh, and how their whole bodies are convulsed when they are tickled. The anthropoid apes, as we have seen, likewise utter a reiterated sound, corresponding with our laughter, when they are tickled, especially under the armpits. I touched with a bit of paper the sole of the foot of one of my infants, when only seven days old, and it was suddenly jerked away and the toes curled about, as in an older child. Such movements, as well as laughter from being tickled, are manifestly reflex actions; and this is likewise shown by the minute unstriped muscles, which serve to erect the separate hairs on the body, contracting near a tickled surface. Yet laughter from a ludicrous idea, though involuntary, cannot be called a strictly reflex action. In this case, and in that of laughter from being tickled, the mind must be in a pleasurable condition; a young child, if tickled by a strange man, would scream from fear. The touch must be light, and an idea or event, to be ludicrous, must not be of grave import. The parts of the body which are most easily tickled are those which are not commonly touched, such as the armpits or between the toes, or parts such as the soles of the feet, which are habitually touched by a broad surface; but the surface on which we sit offers a marked exception to this rule. According to Gratiolet, certain nerves are much more sensitive to tickling than others. From the fact that a child can hardly tickle itself, or in a much less degree than when tickled by another person, it seems that the precise point to be touched must not be known; so with the mind, something unexpected—a novel or incongruous idea which breaks through an habitual train of thought—appears to be a strong element in the ludicrous.

The sound of laughter is produced by a deep inspiration followed by short, interrupted, spasmodic contractions of the chest, and especially of the diaphragm. Hence we hear of “laughter holding both his sides.” From the shaking of the body, the head nods to and fro. The lower jaw often quivers up and down, as is likewise the case with some species of baboons, when they are much pleased.

During laughter the mouth is opened more or less widely, with the corners drawn much backwards, as well as a little upwards; and the upper lip is somewhat raised. The drawing back of the corners is best seen in moderate laughter, and especially in a broad smile—the latter epithet showing how the mouth is widened. In the accompanying figs. 1-3, Plate III., different degrees of moderate laughter and smiling have been photographed. The figure of the little girl, with the hat is by Dr. Wallich, and the expression was a genuine one; the other two are by Mr. Rejlander. Dr. Duchenne repeatedly insists that, under the emotion of joy, the mouth is acted on exclusively by the great zygomatic muscles, which serve to draw the corners backwards and upwards; but judging from the manner in which the upper teeth are always exposed during laughter and broad smiling, as well as from my own sensations, I cannot doubt that some of the muscles running to the upper lip are likewise brought into moderate action. The upper and lower orbicular muscles of the eyes are at the same time more or less contracted; and there is an intimate connection, as explained in the chapter on weeping, between the orbiculars, especially the lower ones and some of the muscles running to the upper lip. Henle remarks on this head, that when a man closely shuts one eye he cannot avoid retracting the upper lip on the same side; conversely, if any one will place his finger on his lower eyelid, and then uncover his upper incisors as much as possible, he will feel, as his upper lip is drawn strongly upwards, that the muscles of the lower eyelid contract. In Henle’s drawing, given in woodcut, fig. 2, the musculus malaris (H) which runs to the upper lip may be seen to form an almost integral part of the lower orbicular muscle.

Dr. Duchenne has given a large photograph of an old man (reduced on Plate III. fig 4), in his usual passive condition, and another of the same man (fig. 5), naturally smiling. The latter was instantly recognized by every one to whom it was shown as true to nature. He has also given, as an example of an unnatural or false smile, another photograph (fig. 6) of the same old man, with the corners of his mouth strongly retracted by the galvanization of the great zygomatic muscles. That the expression is not natural is clear, for I showed this photograph to twenty-four persons, of whom three could not in the least tell what was meant, whilst the others, though they perceived that the expression was of the nature of a smile, answered in such words as “a wicked joke,” “trying to laugh,” “grinning laughter.... half-amazed laughter,” &c. Dr. Duchenne attributes the falseness of the expression altogether to the orbicular muscles of the lower eyelids not being sufficiently contracted; for he justly lays great stress on their contraction in the expression of joy. No doubt there is much truth in this view, but not, as it appears to me, the whole truth. The contraction of the lower orbiculars is always accompanied, as we have seen, by the drawing up of the upper lip. Had the upper lip, in fig. 6, been thus acted on to a slight extent, its curvature would have been less rigid, the naso-labial farrow would have been slightly different, and the whole expression would, as I believe, have been more natural, independently of the more conspicuous effect from the stronger contraction of the lower eyelids. The corrugator muscle, moreover, in fig. 6, is too much contracted, causing a frown; and this muscle never acts under the influence of joy except during strongly pronounced or violent laughter.

By the drawing backwards and upwards of the corners of the mouth, through the contraction of the great zygomatic muscles, and by the raising of the upper lip, the cheeks are drawn upwards. Wrinkles are thus formed under the eyes, and, with old people, at their outer ends; and these are highly characteristic of laughter or smiling. As a gentle smile increases into a strong one, or into a laugh, every one may feel and see, if he will attend to his own sensations and look at himself in a mirror, that as the upper lip is drawn up and the lower orbiculars contract, the wrinkles in the lower eyelids and those beneath the eyes are much strengthened or increased. At the same time, as I have repeatedly observed, the eyebrows are slightly lowered, which shows that the upper as well as the lower orbiculars contract at least to some degree, though this passes unperecived, as far as our sensations are concerned. If the original photograph of the old man, with his countenance in its usual placid state (fig. 4), be compared with that (fig. 5) in which he is naturally smiling, it may be seen that the eyebrows in the latter are a little lowered. I presume that this is owing to the upper orbiculars being impelled, through the force of long-associated habit, to act to a certain extent in concert with the lower orbiculars, which themselves contract in connection with the drawing up of the upper lip.

The tendency in the zygomatic muscles to contract under pleasurable emotions is shown by a curious fact, communicated to me by Dr. Browne, with respect to patients suffering from GENERAL PARALYSIS OF THE INSANE. “In this malady there is almost invariably optimism—delusions as to wealth, rank, grandeur—insane joyousness, benevolence, and profusion, while its very earliest physical symptom is trembling at the corners of the mouth and at the outer corners of the eyes. This is a well-recognized fact. Constant tremulous agitation of the inferior palpebral and great zygomatic muscles is pathognomic of the earlier stages of general paralysis. The countenance has a pleased and benevolent expression. As the disease advances other muscles become involved, but until complete fatuity is reached, the prevailing expression is that of feeble benevolence.”

As in laughing and broadly smiling the cheeks and upper lip are much raised, the nose appears to be shortened, and the skin on the bridge becomes finely wrinkled in transverse lines, with other oblique longitudinal lines on the sides. The upper front teeth are commonly exposed. A well-marked naso-labial fold is formed, which runs from the wing of each nostril to the corner of the mouth; and this fold is often double in old persons.

A bright and sparkling eye is as characteristic of a pleased or amused state of mind, as is the retraction of the corners of the mouth and upper lip with the wrinkles thus produced. Even the eyes of microcephalous idiots, who are so degraded that they never learn to speak, brighten slightly when they are pleased. Under extreme laughter the eyes are too much suffused with tears to sparkle; but the moisture squeezed out of the glands during moderate laughter or smiling may aid in giving them lustre; though this must be of altogether subordinate importance, as they become dull from grief, though they are then often moist. Their brightness seems to be chiefly due to their tenseness, owing to the contraction of the orbicular muscles and to the pressure of the raised cheeks. But, according to Dr. Piderit, who has discussed this point more fully than any other writer, the tenseness may be largely attributed to the eyeballs becoming filled with blood and other fluids, from the acceleration of the circulation, consequent on the excitement of pleasure. He remarks on the contrast in the appearance of the eyes of a hectic patient with a rapid circulation, and of a man suffering from cholera with almost all the fluids of his body drained from him. Any cause which lowers the circulation deadens the eye. I remember seeing a man utterly prostrated by prolonged and severe exertion during a very hot day, and a bystander compared his eyes to those of a boiled codfish.

To return to the sounds produced during laughter. We can see in a vague manner how the utterance of sounds of some kind would naturally become associated with a pleasurable state of mind; for throughout a large part of the animal kingdom vocal or instrumental sounds are employed either as a call or as a charm by one sex for the other. They are also employed as the means for a joyful meeting between the parents and their offspring, and between the attached members of the same social community. But why the sounds which man utters when he is pleased have the peculiar reiterated character of laughter we do not know. Nevertheless we can see that they would naturally be as different as possible from the screams or cries of distress; and as in the production of the latter, the expirations are prolonged and continuous, with the inspirations short and interrupted, so it might perhaps have been expected with the sounds uttered from joy, that the expirations would have been short and broken with the inspirations prolonged; and this is the case.

It is an equally obscure point why the corners of the mouth are retracted and the upper lip raised during ordinary laughter. The mouth must not be opened to its utmost extent, for when this occurs during a paroxysm of excessive laughter hardly any sound is emitted; or it changes its tone and seems to come from deep down in the throat. The respiratory muscles, and even those of the limbs, are at the same time thrown into rapid vibratory movements. The lower jaw often partakes of this movement, and this would tend to prevent the mouth from being widely opened. But as a full volume of sound has to be poured forth, the orifice of the mouth must be large; and it is perhaps to gain this end that the corners are retracted and the upper lip raised. Although we can hardly account for the shape of the mouth during laughter, which leads to wrinkles being formed beneath the eyes, nor for the peculiar reiterated sound of laughter, nor for the quivering of the jaws, nevertheless we may infer that all these effects are due to some common cause. For they are all characteristic and expressive of a pleased state of mind in various kinds of monkeys.

A graduated series can be followed from violent to moderate laughter, to a broad smile, to a gentle smile, and to the expression of mere cheerfulness. During excessive laughter the whole body is often thrown backward and shakes, or is almost convulsed; the respiration is much disturbed; the head and face become gorged with blood, with the veins distended; and the orbicular muscles are spasmodically contracted in order to protect the eyes. Tears are freely shed. Hence, as formerly remarked, it is scarcely possible to point out any difference between the tear-stained face of a person after a paroxysm of excessive laughter and after a bitter crying-fit.It is probably due to the close similarity of the spasmodic movements caused by these widely different emotions that hysteric patients alternately cry and laugh with violence, and that young children sometimes pass suddenly from the one to the other state. Mr. Swinhoe informs me that he has often seen the Chinese, when suffering from deep grief, burst out into hysterical fits of laughter.

I was anxious to know whether tears are freely shed during excessive laughter by most of the races of men, and I hear from my correspondents that this is the case. One instance was observed with the Hindoos, and they themselves said that it often occurred. So it is with the Chinese. The women of a wild tribe of Malays in the Malacca peninsula, sometimes shed tears when they laugh heartily, though this seldom occurs. With the Dyaks of Borneo it must frequently be the case, at least with the women, for I hear from the Rajah C. Brooke that it is a common expression with them to say “we nearly made tears from laughter.” The aborigines of Australia express their emotions freely, and they are described by my correspondents as jumping about and clapping their hands for joy, and as often roaring with laughter. No less than four observers have seen their eyes freely watering on such occasions; and in one instance the tears rolled down their cheeks. Mr. Bulmer, a missionary in a remote part of Victoria, remarks, “that they have a keen sense of the ridiculous; they are excellent mimics, and when one of them is able to imitate the peculiarities of some absent member of the tribe, it is very common to hear all in the camp convulsed with laughter.” With Europeans hardly anything excites laughter so easily as mimicry; and it is rather curious to find the same fact with the savages of Australia, who constitute one of the most distinct races in the world.

In Southern Africa with two tribes of Kafirs, especially with the women, their eyes often fill with tears during laughter. Gaika, the brother of the chief Sandilli, answers my query on this head, with the words, “Yes, that is their common practice.” Sir Andrew Smith has seen the painted face of a Hottentot woman all furrowed with tears after a fit of laughter. In Northern Africa, with the Abyssinians, tears are secreted under the same circumstances. Lastly, in North America, the same fact has been observed in a remarkably savage and isolated tribe, but chiefly with the women; in another tribe it was observed only on a single occasion.

Excessive laughter, as before remarked, graduates into moderate laughter. In this latter case the muscles round the eyes are much less contracted, and there is little or no frowning. Between a gentle laugh and a broad smile there is hardly any difference, excepting that in smiling no reiterated sound is uttered, though a single rather strong expiration, or slight noise—a rudiment of a laugh—may often be heard at the commencement of a smile. On a moderately smiling countenance the contraction of the upper orbicular muscles can still just be traced by a slight lowering of the eyebrows. The contraction of the lower orbicular and palpebral muscles is much plainer, and is shown by the wrinkling of the lower eyelids and of the skin beneath them, together with a slight drawing up of the upper lip. From the broadest smile we pass by the finest steps into the gentlest one. In this latter case the features are moved in a much less degree, and much more slowly, and the mouth is kept closed. The curvature of the naso-labial furrow is also slightly different in the two cases. We thus see that no abrupt line of demarcation can be drawn between the movement of the features during the most violent laughter and a very faint smile.

A smile, therefore, may be said to be the first stage in the development of a laugh. But a different and more probable view may be suggested; namely, that the habit of uttering load reiterated sounds from a sense of pleasure, first led to the retraction of the corners of the mouth and of the upper lip, and to the contraction of the orbicular muscles; and that now, through association and long-continued habit, the same muscles are brought into slight play whenever any cause excites in us a feeling which, if stronger, would have led to laughter; and the result is a smile.

Whether we look at laughter as the full development of a smile, or, as is more probable, at a gentle smile as the last trace of a habit, firmly fixed during many generations, of laughing whenever we are joyful, we can follow in our infants the gradual passage of the one into the other. It is well known to those who have the charge of young infants, that it is difficult to feel sure when certain movements about their mouths are really expressive; that is, when they really smile. Hence I carefully watched my own infants. One of them at the age of forty-five days, and being at the time in a happy frame of mind, smiled; that is, the corners of the mouth were retracted, and simultaneously the eyes became decidedly bright. I observed the same thing on the following day; but on the third day the child was not quite well and there was no trace of a smile, and this renders it probable that the previous smiles were real. Eight days subsequently and during the next succeeding week, it was remarkable how his eyes brightened whenever he smiled, and his nose became at the same time transversely wrinkled. This was now accompanied by a little bleating noise, which perhaps represented a laugh. At the age of 113 days these little noises, which were always made during expiration, assumed a slightly different character, and were more broken or interrupted, as in sobbing; and this was certainly incipient laughter. The change in tone seemed to me at the time to be connected with the greater lateral extension of the mouth as the smiles became broader.

In a second infant the first real smile was observed at about the same age, viz. forty-five days; and in a third, at a somewhat earlier age. The second infant, when sixty-five days old, smiled much more broadly and plainly than did the one first mentioned at the same age; and even at this early age uttered noises very like laughter. In this gradual acquirement, by infants, of the habit of laughing, we have a case in some degree analogous to that of weeping. As practice is requisite with the ordinary movements of the body, such as walking, so it seems to be with laughing and weeping. The art of screaming, on the other hand, from being of service to infants, has become finely developed from the earliest days.

High spirits, cheerfulness.—A man in high spirits, though he may not actually smile, commonly exhibits some tendency to the retraction of the corners of his mouth. From the excitement of pleasure, the circulation becomes more rapid; the eyes are bright, and the colour of the face rises. The brain, being stimulated by the increased flow of blood, reacts on the mental powers; lively ideas pass still more rapidly through the mind, and the affections are warmed. I heard a child, a little under four years old, when asked what was meant by being in good spirits, answer, “It is laughing, talking, and kissing.” It would be difficult to give a truer and more practical definition. A man in this state holds his body erect, his head upright, and his eyes open. There is no drooping of the features, and no contraction of the eyebrows. On the contrary, the frontal muscle, as Moreau observes,tends to contract slightly; and this smooths the brow, removes every trace of a frown, arches the eyebrows a little, and raises the eyelids. Hence the Latin phrase, exporrigere frontem—to unwrinkle the brow—means, to be cheerful or merry. The whole expression of a man in good spirits is exactly the opposite of that of one suffering from sorrow. According to Sir C. Bell, “In all the exhilarating emotions the eyebrows, eyelids, the nostrils, and the angles of the mouth are raised. In the depressing passions it is the reverse.” Under the influence of the latter the brow is heavy, the eyelids, cheeks, mouth, and whole head droop; the eyes are dull; the countenance pallid, and the respiration slow. In joy the face expands, in grief it lengthens. Whether the principle of antithesis has here come into play in producing these opposite expressions, in aid of the direct causes which have been specified and which are sufficiently plain, I will not pretend to say.

With all the races of man the expression of good spirit appears to be the same, and is easily recognized. My informants, from various parts of the Old and New Worlds, answer in the affirmative to my queries on this head, and they give some particulars with respect to Hindoos, Malays, and New Zealanders. The brightness of the eyes of the Australians has struck four observers, and the same fact has been noticed with Hindoos, New Zealanders, and the Dyaks of Borneo.

Savages sometimes express their satisfaction not only by smiling, but by gestures derived from the pleasure of eating. Thus Mr. Wedgwood quotes Petherick that the negroes on the Upper Nile began a general rubbing of their bellies when he displayed his beads; and Leichhardt says that the Australians smacked and clacked their mouths at the sight of his horses and bullocks, and more especially of his kangaroo dogs. The Greenlanders, “when they affirm anything with pleasure, suck down air with a certain sound;” and this may be an imitation of the act of swallowing savoury food.

Laughter is suppressed by the firm contraction of the orbicular muscles of the mouth, which prevents the great zygomatic and other muscles from drawing the lips backwards and upwards. The lower lip is also sometimes held by the teeth, and this gives a roguish expression to the face, as was observed with the blind and deaf Laura Bridgman. The great zygomatic muscle is sometimes variable in its course, and I have seen a young woman in whom the depressores anguli oris were brought into strong action in suppressing a smile; but this by no means gave to her countenance a melancholy expression, owing to the brightness of her eyes.

Laughter is frequently employed in a forced manner to conceal or mask some other state of mind, even anger. We often see persons laughing in order to conceal their shame or shyness. When a person purses up his mouth, as if to prevent the possibility of a smile, though there is nothing to excite one, or nothing to prevent its free indulgence, an affected, solemn, or pedantic expression is given; but of such hybrid expressions nothing more need here be said. In the case of derision, a real or pretended smile or laugh is often blended with the expression proper to contempt, and this may pass into angry contempt or scorn. In such cases the meaning of the laugh or smile is to show the offending person that he excites only amusement.

Love, tender feelings, &c.—Although the emotion of love, for instance that of a mother for her infant, is one of the strongest of which the mind is capable, it can hardly be said to have any proper or peculiar means of expression; and this is intelligible, as it has not habitually led to any special line of action. No doubt, as affection is a pleasurable sensation, it generally causes a gentle smile and some brightening of the eyes. A strong desire to touch the beloved person is commonly felt; and love is expressed by this means more plainly than by any other. Hence we long to clasp in our arms those whom we tenderly love. We probably owe this desire to inherited habit, in association with the nursing and tending of our children, and with the mutual caresses of lovers.

With the lower animals we see the same principle of pleasure derived from contact in association with love. Dogs and cats manifestly take pleasure in rubbing against their masters and mistresses, and in being rubbed or patted by them. Many kinds of monkeys, as I am assured by the keepers in the Zoological Gardens, delight in fondling and being fondled by each other, and by persons to whom they are attached. Mr. Bartlett has described to me the behaviour of two chimpanzees, rather older animals than those generally imported into this country, when they were first brought together. They sat opposite, touching each other with their much protruded lips; and the one put his hand on the shoulder of the other. They then mutually folded each other in their arms. Afterwards they stood up, each with one arm on the shoulder of the other, lifted up their heads, opened their mouths, and yelled with delight.

We Europeans are so accustomed to kissing as a mark of affection, that it might be thought to be innate in mankind; but this is not the case. Steele was mistaken when he said “Nature was its author, and it began with the first courtship.” Jemmy Button, the Fuegian, told me that this practice was unknown in his land. It is equally unknown with the New Zealanders, Tahitians, Papuans, Australians, Somals of Africa, and the Esquimaux. But it is so far innate or natural that it apparently depends on pleasure from close contact with a beloved person; and it is replaced in various parts of the world, by the rubbing of noses, as with the New Zealanders and Laplanders, by the rubbing or patting of the arms, breasts, or stomachs, or by one man striking his own face with the hands or feet of another. Perhaps the practice of blowing, as a mark of affection, on various parts of the body may depend on the same principle.

The feelings which are called tender are difficult to analyse; they seem to be compounded of affection, joy, and especially of sympathy. These feelings are in themselves of a pleasurable nature, excepting when pity is too deep, or horror is aroused, as in hearing of a tortured man or animal. They are remarkable under our present point of view from so readily exciting the secretion of tears. Many a father and son have wept on meeting after a long separation, especially if the meeting has been unexpected. No doubt extreme joy by itself tends to act on the lacrymal glands; but on such occasions as the foregoing vague thoughts of the grief which would have been felt had the father and son never met, will probably have passed through their minds; and grief naturally leads to the secretion of tears. Thus on the return of Ulysses:—

The vivid recollection of our former home, or of long-past happy days, readily causes the eyes to be suffused with tears; but here, again, the thought naturally occurs that these days will never return. In such cases we may be said to sympathize with ourselves in our present, in comparison with our former, state. Sympathy with the distresses of others, even with the imaginary distresses of a heroine in a pathetic story, for whom we feel no affection, readily excites tears. So does sympathy with the happiness of others, as with that of a lover, at last successful after many hard trials in a well-told tale.

Sympathy appears to constitute a separate or distinct emotion; and it is especially apt to excite the lacrymal glands. This holds good whether we give or receive sympathy. Every one must have noticed how readily children burst out crying if we pity them for some small hurt. With the melancholic insane, as Dr. Crichton Browne informs me, a kind word will often plunge them into unrestrained weeping. As soon as we express our pity for the grief of a friend, tears often come into our own eyes. The feeling of sympathy is commonly explained by assuming that, when we see or hear of suffering in another, the idea of suffering is called up so vividly in our own minds that we ourselves suffer. But this explanation is hardly sufficient, for it does not account for the intimate alliance between sympathy and affection. We undoubtedly sympathize far more deeply with a beloved than with an indifferent person; and the sympathy of the one gives us far more relief than that of the other. Yet assuredly we can sympathize with those for whom we feel no affection.

Why suffering, when actually experienced by ourselves, excites weeping, has been discussed in a former chapter. With respect to joy, its natural and universal expression is laughter; and with all the races of man loud laughter leads to the secretion of tears more freely than does any other cause excepting distress. The suffusion of the eyes with tears, which undoubtedly occurs under great joy, though there is no laughter, can, as it seems to me, be explained through habit and association on the same principles as the effusion of tears from grief, although there is no screaming. Nevertheless it is not a little remarkable that sympathy with the distresses of others should excite tears more freely than our own distress; and this certainly is the case. Many a man, from whose eyes no suffering of his own could wring a tear, has shed tears at the sufferings of a beloved friend. It is still more remarkable that sympathy with the happiness or good fortune of those whom we tenderly love should lead to the same result, whilst a similar happiness felt by ourselves would leave our eyes dry. We should, however, bear in mind that the long-continued habit of restraint which is so powerful in checking the free flow of tears from bodily pain, has not been brought into play in preventing a moderate effusion of tears in sympathy with the sufferings or happiness of others.

Music has a wonderful power, as I have elsewhere attempted to show, of recalling in a vague and indefinite manner, those strong emotions which were felt during long-past ages, when, as is probable, our early progenitors courted each other by the aid of vocal tones. And as several of our strongest emotions—grief, great joy, love, and sympathy—lead to the free secretion of tears, it is not surprising that music should be apt to cause our eyes to become suffused with tears, especially when we are already softened by any of the tenderer feelings. Music often produces another peculiar effect. We know that every strong sensation, emotion, or excitement—extreme pain, rage, terror, joy, or the passion of love—all have a special tendency to cause the muscles to tremble; and the thrill or slight shiver which runs down the backbone and limbs of many persons when they are powerfully affected by music, seems to bear the same relation to the above trembling of the body, as a slight suffusion of tears from the power of music does to weeping from any strong and real emotion.

Devotion.—As devotion is, in some degree, related to affection, though mainly consisting of reverence, often combined with fear, the expression of this state of mind may here be briefly noticed. With some sects, both past and present, religion and love have been strangely combined; and it has even been maintained, lamentable as the fact may be, that the holy kiss of love differs but little from that which a man bestows on a woman, or a woman on a man. Devotion is chiefly expressed by the face being directed towards the heavens, with the eyeballs upturned. Sir C. Bell remarks that, at the approach of sleep, or of a fainting-fit, or of death, the pupils are drawn upwards and inwards; and he believes that “when we are wrapt in devotional feelings, and outward impressions are unheeded, the eyes are raised by an action neither taught nor acquired.” and that this is due to the same cause as in the above cases. That the eyes are upturned during sleep is, as I hear from Professor Donders, certain. With babies, whilst sucking their mother’s breast, this movement of the eyeballs often gives to them an absurd appearance of ecstatic delight; and here it may be clearly perceived that a struggle is going on against the position naturally assumed during sleep. But Sir C. Bell’s explanation of the fact, which rests on the assumption that certain muscles are more under the control of the will than others is, as I hear from Professor Donders, incorrect. As the eyes are often turned up in prayer, without the mind being so much absorbed in thought as to approach to the unconsciousness of sleep, the movement is probably a conventional one—the result of the common belief that Heaven, the source of Divine power to which we pray, is seated above us.

A humble kneeling posture, with the hands upturned and palms joined, appears to us, from long habit, a gesture so appropriate to devotion, that it might be thought to be innate; but I have not met with any evidence to this effect with the various extra-European races of mankind. During the classical period of Roman history it does not appear, as I hear from an excellent classic, that the hands were thus joined during prayer. Mr. Rensleigh Wedgwood has apparently given the true explanation, though this implies that the attitude is one of slavish subjection. “When the suppliant kneels and holds up his hands with the palms joined, he represents a captive who proves the completeness of his submission by offering up his hands to be bound by the victor. It is the pictorial representation of the Latin dare manus, to signify submission.” Hence it is not probable that either the uplifting of the eyes or the joining of the open hands, under the influence of devotional feelings, are innate or truly expressive actions; and this could hardly have been expected, for it is very doubtful whether feelings, such as we should now rank as devotional, affected the hearts of men, whilst they remained during past ages in an uncivilized condition.

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This book is part of the public domain. Charles Darwin (1998). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022, from

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