04(15): A medical condition in which you shed crocodile tears


The animated film Tarzan (1999) by Disney is one of the many animated productions that I watched fondly as a kid. The film chronicles the tale of a man raised by apes and must decide where he really belongs when he learns that he is a human. Famous soundtrack from the film include You’ll Be In My Heart by Phil Collins. In the first half of Tarzan, we are shown a scene of monkeys starting to cry, to which Jane Porter the female protagonist responds: “No, no, don’t give me those crocodile tears.

In common parlance, the term ‘crocodile tears’ is used to suggest that a person may not be sincere with respect to his tears or expressions of sorrow. An example sentence would be as follows: “They weep crocodile tears for the poor and disadvantaged, but are basically happy with things as they are” (obtained from Google Dictionary).

This expression which has wended its way into our language is apparently derived from the ancient belief that crocodiles shed tears after killing their victims.

While crocodiles can and do generate tears, there is a lack of evidence to suggest that such tears are linked to emotion. This runs in contrast to that of us humans, who can and do shed tears for a myriad of reasons. Classically, we shed tears as an overwhelming emotional response to a particular situation. This emotion could be that of joy (thus giving rise to the well-known expression “tears of joy”). This can occur when mothers hold their neonates for the first time shortly after birth, when athletes finally clinch the long-desired Olympic gold medal, when one achieves one’s desired academic performance in an exam. Of course, joy is not the only emotion that can give rise to tears. Immense sorrow resulting from receiving the news of the death of a loved one can also move someone to tears. Additionally, touching Thai advertisements, Korean dramas, and even movies such as ‘The Notebook’ that are highly popular with the fairer sex are also all known to move people to tears.

It is challenging to determine the precise origin of this particular belief on crocodile tears, but one can see why such a belief might have propagated and stood the test of time. According to Adam Britton, an Australian zoologist and a crocodile specialist, “for an apparently remorseless creature such as a crocodile to actually weep over its victims is a memorable irony which has inspired considerable prose“.

Let’s now see how the phenomenon has found its way within an alternative descriptive term of the eponymous Borogad syndrome, the medical condition in which one sheds ‘crocodile tears’.

Crocodile tears syndrome

Crocodile tears syndrome, also known as Borogad syndrome, is the shedding of tears while eating or drinking in patients recovering from Bell’s Palsy. It is also referred to as gustatory lacrimation.

The eponymous syndrome is named after Russian neurologist F. A. Bogorad, who described the condition in a case report entitled “Das syndrom der krokodilstränen” that was published in Vrach Delo in 1928. In the words of Austin Seckersen, who offered his translation of Bogorad’s article many decades later on New Year’s day of 1979 in an article published in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, “Borogad’s paper is not of easy access” and “it was written in Russian and was published at a somewhat disturbed period in Soviet history“. As such, Seckersen thought “it might be of value to produce a translation of it“.

Pretty interesting, I must say. I wouldn’t have been able to learn about crocodile tears syndrome if not for Seckersen’s introduction and translation of Borogad’s work that was originally published a few decades earlier.

Bell’s palsy is basically idiopathic facial nerve palsy. For a previous blog post where I discussed Justin Bieber’s relatively recent journey with facial nerve palsy, click here.

Have a great day ahead!

8 Oct 2022

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