A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why does putting someone's hand in warm water make them go to the bathroom?

June 28, 1991

Dear Cecil:

Can you explain why placing a sleeping person's hand in a pan of warm water makes them piddle in their pants? In my adolescence I was quite a prankster and this particular trick seemed infallible.

P.S.: Nobody sleeps over at my house anymore.

Cecil replies:

Lord knows I hate expounding on these loathsome subjects, but as a journalist I feel it is my holy duty. Insofar as it works at all, the pan trick depends on the power of suggestion — simply thinking about water, or in this case dreaming about it, makes you want to go to the bathroom.

The effectiveness of the stunt is a matter of debate. Some urologists scoff at the idea. But other medical types have been known to tell patients having a tough time urinating after rectal surgery to put their hands in warm water. Merely letting the water run in a nearby sink sometimes works, too. I tried it once without success, perhaps because my richly deserving would-be victim was dead drunk. But I've gotten too many testimonials from satisfied perpetrators to think the whole thing's a fraud.

The suggestion need not be tactile. Recently I heard a talk by an architect who was trying to deal with the problem of men unable to perform in public restrooms. His solution: mount pictures of waterfalls over the urinals.

Audio stimuli work too. I recall a meal I ate once on the upstairs veranda of a popular restaurant. It was delightful except for one thing: underneath the veranda a spigot tinkled steadily into a puddle. I could think of only one thing the entire time. My choices basically were to run to the bathroom every ten minutes or eat dinner with my legs crossed.

All of this makes me think it's lucky you and I never went to the same summer camp, Dave. How embarrassing if I had whizzed in my sleep. How tragic if you'd been strangled in yours.

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