Don’t cry for me, North Korea. Seriously – don’t.

I couldn’t help making a mental note last week, as all the displays of state-sponsored grief for Kim Jong Il played out on television, not to die in North Korea.

For my money I didn’t see single mourner who seemed to really mean it.  And as a lifelong fan of “Truth Funerals” – you know, the kind where people get up and say X was a sonofabitch, which is always kind of existentially thrilling – I always told myself I’d rather have those around my casket authentically relieved than falsely sad.

Not so, apparently, the Dear Leader.  Because if you watch the clip below – which was the best that State TV could come up with – and let all the doth protesting wash over you (particularly if you turn off the sound, given how easy it is to verbally mimic sorrow), you will find yourself not buying it.

Nobody really seems sad.  Not here

Got tears?

Or here

Got tears?

or here

Got tears?

Or, really, anywhere else.

This leaves us with a sort of neuroscientific whodunnit.  Who killed the sadness?  And that’s when the forensic neuroscience needs to kick in, and ride to the explanatory rescue.  In my own mind, it arrived on the most unusual substance. Because if you’re anything like me, once you start trying to figure out why you’re not buying it, you find yourself blurting out:

“Hey! What are they doing with their mucus?”

The point being: nothing. They don’t have any mucus. Which is to say, that what you’ve noticed is that after seeing these panning shots of hundreds and hundreds of mourners is that there simply aren’t any tissues.

What’s North Korea missing?

There should be. It is a human universal (so far as the cross-cultural literature shows, and as known by anyone whose flown anywhere with babies from any human culture on a plane): when the human organism is sad, the human brain sends a parasympathetic signal up the seventh cranial nerve…

The Seventh Cranial Nerve (CN VII, aka The Facial Nerve)

…to the lacrimal gland, contracts the tiny muscles there, and exudes from the plasma of the blood that clear saline fluid we call tears.

But those tears don’t just, you know, evaporate. Especially in freezing weather, like they just had in North Korea. I’m sure the Dear Leader Lovers may claim that, in his case, they do, but actually that’s just the last lie of his long lying dictatorship. They don’t.

What tears do – what real tears, the kind made out of water, do – is collect in the inner corners of the human eye, and then drain through the tiny holes that you will see if you look carefully in the mirror into your nose. These holes are called puncta, and they are the drainholes to your eye’s sewage system

Lacrimal gland (source) and puncta (sinks)

(Sidenote: you may have noticed excessive tearing in some elderly people; this is because the puncta are “clogged,” and this is why drainage inserts can be so helpful).

Someplace Only Tears Go

Overflow – tears produced at the lacrimal gland source faster than the puncta can drain them – spill down our lashes onto our cheeks, and make us want to kiss them.  But the vast majority of tears drain down your puncta into your nose. And in your nose the tears mix with mucus, and produce the copious discharge that even the North Korean human organism must somehow deal with. In the West we tend to use tissues; that’s why western psychiatrists like me always keep a box of them always sitting on the tables by our patients’ chairs.

But if you review carefully these films, you will not see any of the hundreds of indentured mourners using tissues. Nor pulling any Farmer Johns (see definition #2). Nor stealthily engaging in any sleeve-wipes. And therefore, unless the North Korean parasympathetic nervous system has been rewired en masse, correlating with all the gesticulations shown on State TV, there should be copious snot running down all these mourners’ upper lips and then freezing in the cold. Which is to say, they should all look like every four year old you’ve ever seen when Spongebob gets turned off. This:

What the North Koreans *should* have looked like
But that’s not happening, is it? You’re seeing a lot of voluntary motor behavior – tons of it.  Lots of facial grimacing, bowing, fist-thumping, and so forth as the cameras fix on them – the grief equivalent of teens outside the studies of MTV shouting wooooooooooo (wait, is TRL even still around?)  I’m sure they’re doing their best to seem like they’re wiping away tears from their eyes.
But that’s where the mucus comes in: wiping your eyes is never enough to feign crying. If someone you know and love ever seems to be crying, but doesn’t have to blow their nose, it’s time to reconsider the nature of your relationship. Because they aren’t having parasympathetic discharge, and as we’ll see, parasympathetic discharge is the tell of true sadness.  Don’t be fooled by the hands or lungs or eyes of the sad person. The giveaway of sadness is never the eyes.
It is the nose.
The nose don’t lie
(In the next post, I’ll explore a neuroself framework for thinking about the neuroanatomy of grief).


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