Did you ugly cry while watching Brazilian gymnasts Diego Hypolito and Arthur Nory convulse in tears of joy after bringing home medals in the men’s floor exercise last night? Weep as Chinese diver He Zi’s boyfriend disrupted the medal-awarding ceremony to propose to her after she won silver? Of course you did. Perhaps you’ve been sobbing since Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo’s girlfriend did the same last week.
That Olympics fans can even tell what is going on through their tears is a feat to be commended: The Games, after all, are essentially a rapid-fire test of empathy. When our feelings mirror the poignant displays of emotion we see on screen, we’re displaying the best vestiges of our evolutionary past — the traits that made it crucial to learn how to empathize.
For many of us, watching Nory and Hypolito break down in tears of joy after they were respectively awarded the gold and silver prompted the first hot prickle of tears. On the neurological level, it’s thought that mirror neurons — special cells in our brains that evolved to perceive the emotions and behaviors of others, and in turn modify our behavior — are becoming more active as we’re confronted with the full emotional wallop of a sobbing Brazilian gymnast winning his first Olympic medal.
Similar situations were recreated in a small study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2000, in which participants watching happy faces flashed on a screen were found to have increased activity in the muscles needed in order to smile, and, likewise, those watching angry faces had their facial muscles prepared to frown.
Some people might be more prone to Olympics-induced empathy than others. One study, published in 2014 in the journal Brain and Behavior, suggested the existence of a class of “highly sensitive people,” who had more activity in certain regions of their brain when looking at the faces of their loved ones than people who had just average levels of sensitivity.
While scientists don’t fully understand what’s going on at the neurological level when we mirror the emotions we see, theories explaining why we evolved this behavior tend to point in one direction: Human development from infancy to adulthood involves a lot of mimicry, and understanding the emotions of others makes it easier to learn and maintain what we consider appropriate responses to emotional situations. Empathy makes being a human easier — and, arguably, more rewarding.
In the case of Hypolito, who was awarded his first Olympic medal last night after falling short at both the Beijing and London Games, the appropriate response was obvious. As he ugly cried, we ugly cried with him. And as it felt great for him, it was great for us as well.