Tons of embarrassing things can happen when we travel — from mangling a foreign language to peeing on your sock using a squatty toilet. (Never you? OK, fancy.) But none are more universal, perhaps, than that feeling of weeping into your complimentary pillow and blanket while a passenger on an airplane in flight.
The phenomenon, in fact, is so common that Virgin Atlantic issued “emotional health warnings” before certain in-flight movies, like Toy Story 3 and The Blind Side, to warn passengers about tear-jerkers. The cheeky warnings came as the result of a U.K.-based survey, in which 55 percent of respondents said their emotions were heightened while flying.
So what's with the waterworks?
One theory speculates that crying is so common on airplanes because people feel powerless — since there is nothing they can do during the flight except trust in its crew. According to crying expert and professor at Tilburg University Ad Vingerhoets in The Atlantic, “Crying seems to occur in situations where action makes no sense, where (action) is not needed or where you can’t act because you feel hopeless or helpless.” As an example, he cites how when grieving after a death there’s nothing a person can do except work through their feelings.
Another theory supposes that the intimate setting created by planes — with personal screens and headphones — surrounded by strangers, makes you feel ready to shed tears. The intimacy creates a deep connection with a film in a space where you tend not have close connections, both with the people you are surrounded by and the plane itself. This is also compounded by the lack of distraction on planes, specifically there are no cell phones to tinker with when emotions feel too raw. (Well, at least fewer features to tinker with, when those phones are in airplane mode.)
But people aren't content with theories alone; they demand cold, hard science to explain why, exactly, The Lego Movie turned them into a blubbering mess. Luckily, science provides this explanation: There is a link between reduced cabin air pressure and altitude that could be the probable cause of you sobbing like Claire Danes during an especially trying episode of Homeland. This combination makes less oxygen to travel to your brain, which causes cognitive deficits and increases in reaction time, levels of anxiety and negative feelings. (Don’t worry, your pilot is fine, aviation regulations require that pilots wear oxygen masks at greater air pressure.)
All is not gloom and doom though: The same lack-of-oxygen phenomena can also make people feel happier, so you might just cry tears of joy as well as sadness up there.
The effects of flying really can do a number on your emotions. Hey, if they can make you crave tomato juice, they can surely make you cry too.
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