Published for The Washington Post, January 8th, 2013

Following the “Les Miserables” incident on Christmas Day, I suspect I will never persuade my teenage sons to attend a movie with me again. At various moments of high emotion — and there are few other kinds in the movie — their father was a sobbing, embarrassing mess. And I agree with them that weeping for the imaginary suffering of fictional characters played by highly paid actors requires explanation.

I could blame biology. There is a neurochemical basis for empathy. People who view a hand being touched respond with the same sensory portion of their brain as if they had been touched themselves. Humans have an extraordinary talent for feeling the distress expressed in other faces — particularly when Anne Hathaway’s gaunt, anguished face is two stories high, crying tears that could fill a baby pool. Hormones spike, unable to distinguish between real and imagined images. The lacrimal system produces and drains tears. Charles Darwin, that old sentimentalist, said that weeping is “an incidental result, as purposeless as the secretion of tears from a blow outside the eye.”

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