Sobbing at an in-flight movie is one of the more stranger experiences of air travel, but we all do it. One writer reveals his own damning experiences and asks why…
I’ve never been much of a sobber.
Viral videos of US marines being jumped on by their pets? It barely raises a sniffle. Breakups? No biggie. As stifling emotion goes, I happen to be very bloody good at it. Except, that is, on planes – my social Kryptonite.
Slumped in the seat watching a film mid-flight, a scene gets vaguely heart-warming and before I know it the waterworks have started and I’m madly attempting to screw the faucet back into place. You name the coping mechanism – folding arms; pinching myself tightly; focusing on a part of the screen without humans in it; taking a long sip of a drink every time something swells up inside – I’ve tried it and it’s failed, so powerless am I to stop being hit in the feels.
I’m not immune to moving cinematic drama – the father and son catch scene in Field of Dreams never fails to put a softball-sized lump in my throat – but put me 30,000ft in the air with a small screen and I’ll turn into a lump of goo watching anything. Literally, anything. Arrival, Zootopia, The Nice Guys, Inside Out, Love Actually, Paddington 2 (oh man, my heartstrings have never been tugged tighter) are just a few recent offenders of my own personal ‘mile cry club’.
I’m far from alone, either. Back in August of last year, a study by Virgin Atlantic found that 55 per cent of travellers had experienced heightened emotions when flying, with 41 per cent of men on airplanes admitting to “burying themselves in blankets to hide tears from other passengers.” And that’s just the men who *try* and hide it.
So, what’s the reasoning behind grownups stepping onto a plane being impervious to emotion one minute then bawling their eyes out alongside strangers the next? It’s not the films – they’re just a catalyst. One answer could involve cabin pressure. This is a giant steel tube floating in the clouds, after all, so surely you would imagine there’s some correlation between this atmosphere and heightened emotions, right? Well perhaps not: scientists have long speculated over this connection but the theory remains as yet unfounded. Professor Drew Dawson of Central Queensland University spoke to Huffington Post Australia about the topic in 2015, revealing that it may be the lower oxygen levels that impair judgement. He also added that it could even be a reduction in saturated oxygen levels in the blood system, but conceded: “It’s only a hypothesis, I have no evidence to this. But it might explain it.”
Telly’s Professor Brian Cox is no stranger to the phenomenon himself, once telling the BBC the last time he cried was watching a film on a flight. “I get very emotional watching films on planes,” he said. But forgetting the dropping oxygen levels, what if there’s an overriding emotion, prime and ready to go at any moment, built into us all and released when our brain attempts to compute the unique scenario it finds itself in.
Meanwhile, many psychologists who’ve written on the topic of blubbing actually believe we’re more likely to cry on planes because flying puts us in a vulnerable state, triggering the primitive side of our brain that craves comfort and companionship. As part of a study into crying among adults, psychologists JJM Vingerhoets and Lauren Bylsma, found “the most common emotional trigger [for tears] is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness”, and it’s easy to see how that could affect air travellers.
In my personal experience, the smaller the world feels, or indeed looks, the bigger the heart grows. One bleary-eyed glance at that luminous rock we call earth, entire cities are reduced to small specks under your window blind, and we see our sentimental attachments down on it, thoughts of ex-girlfriends, friends of old, family members lost and gone, all suddenly rushing back at once. And then there’s your own direction in life – your career, your hopes, your dreams.‘Where is it you’re really going?’ your consciousness asks. Are you escaping something or waiting for fate’s warm grip to guide you to your chosen destination? Sometimes, it’s only being above the world that allows you to comprehend your place in it.
Throw a few complimentary G&Ts into the mix, the fact you’re hurtling above the planet at hundreds of miles per hour alone, leaving loved ones behind or meeting them on the other side, and by the time you put back on your headphones you catch the end of Love Actually when the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows‘ comes in – oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got you going haven’t I?
Welcome to the club.