As a doctor working for KLM Health Services, I get asked all sorts of questions at work and in my private life. Most of these questions relate to aero-medical issues or to travelling in general. Some of these questions are more surprising than other. Someone recently asked: “Why do I always cry more easily when watching inflight movies?” Swiftly adding: “Movies usually don’t make me cry.”
There are three reasons why we cry more often or easily when watching movies aboard a plane
With the festive season approaching, this seemed like an interesting question to investigate. December can be a rather emotional period for some people. We don’t only look back on the past year, but also forward to what the future might bring? We also spend more time travelling to visit friends and relatives, celebrating Christmas, New Year and other holidays together.
That said, is it really true that people cry more easily when watching movies on a plane? And if so, why is that the case?
Crying is usually a response to emotions and/or behaviour. It is often prompted by grief or helplessness. Scientifically, there is currently little proof that people cry more easily on board. Nevertheless, it seems to be a familiar experience for many travellers. Most of us can remember someone crying during a flight…
So what might the underlying reasons be?
1) Departure to the unknown
Travel is a stressful experience for many people. But stress may also be positive, because you’re off to explore the unknown or because you’re going to be reunited with people and places you know and love. In all instances, you will have spent time making all sorts of arrangements in advance. After checking in, dropping off your baggage and passing through security, you can finally step on board. This is a moment of relief and relaxation, which may contribute to people crying more easily for whatever reason. Many studies confirm that crying is actually a form of stress relief.
It’s also interesting to note, in this regard, that humans are the only creatures that actually cry. Other animals may experience emotions, but they don’t cry in response. They do cry to keep their tear ducts clean.
2) The effects of the cabin environment
You’re stuck in a metal tube full of strangers, flying at an altitude of 10 kilometres. You’re gazing at a low-resolution TV screen relatively close up, and you’re using earphones. You’re also flying long distance and there are few other distractions. This helps to put you in a state where films are likely to have a bigger impact. The earphones also ensure that you are more committed to the film.
You could say that your focus is turned inwards, allowing you to access your emotions more easily. There is also a sense of intimacy in being alone in an unfamiliar place, where you have plenty of time to think, especially on longer flights. Sources suggest that crying at movies aboard a plane may have more to do with relief than with grief.
On top of that, you are more likely to watch movies you might not ordinarily choose, offering all sorts of unfamiliar food for thought.
3) The effects of flying itself
The air pressure in an aircraft cabin is equal to that at 2,000 metres on the ground. Moreover, the air is relatively dry. Healthy people will hardly notice this, but the humidity levels can contribute to noticeable changes in mood and behaviour, especially on longer flights. Psychologically, you are likely to be more sensitive, which means you may be more likely to cry. When watching films, for instance.
That said, you can compensate for the relatively low cabin humidity by drinking plenty of water when flying, and by avoiding drinks containing caffeine and alcohol (See my blog on What happens when you drink alcohol on a plane).
Returning to the question as to why people feel they cry more quickly when watching movies on board: I was unable to find any hard scientific evidence, but there seem to be plenty of potential factors that may contribute to this perceived phenomenon.
You could say there’s always something in the air – literally and figuratively.