Why Does the Sound of Running Water Make You Have to Pee?

Reader Bill wrote in to ask, “Why does the sound of running water make me want to pee—and sometimes badly?”

Faucet image via Shutterstock

The quirk behind the burning need to pee when we hear rainstorms, waterfalls and babbling brooks seems to be all tied up in the power of suggestion.

Most of you are familiar with the name Pavlov, and know that he had something to do with dogs. That something is an experiment where the Russian doctor showed that autonomic responses (visceral reflexes that occur automatically and unconsciously under the control of the autonomic nervous system) could be triggered by outside stimuli.

Dog owners will attest that when a pooch gets its mouth on a piece of meat, they usually produce a river of saliva. In his experiment, Pavlov give dogs some meat powder, which caused them to salivate, right after ringing a bell. After months of repetition, he was able to ring the bell without any meat powder in sight, and the dogs would salivate because they’d been conditioned to associate the bell with food. For another example of classical conditioning in action, see this clip from The Office.

Pavlov thought that a lot of this automatic and unconscious learning happens all the time to people, and you can probably think of a few cases from your own life where you reflexively react a certain way to a seemingly unrelated stimulus. Having to pee at the sound of running water appears to be the same sort of conditioned response. The sound of running water not only mimics the sound of urination itself to create a Pavlovian association, but flushing and washing one's hands also produce that same sound and are closely associated with urinating and further strengthen the connection.

The catch is that this is just hypothetical right now. While many urologists and psychologists think that this is what’s happening, and have said as much in venues like The New England Journal of Medicine, there hasn’t been to my knowledge any published, peer-reviewed research on the underlying reason for the water-pee connection. There’s no denying that it’s there for a lot of people, though, even if we haven’t quite worked out the cause for it.

Plenty of nursing and psychology texts and parenting books advise running water in the sink for situations as varied as potty-training toddlers, helping people with paruresis (shy bladder), and patients fresh out of prostate surgery, who all may have trouble getting the waterworks started unassisted. In the early 1970s, one hospital in New York even gave select patients a tape recorder with headphones and a 30-minute tape of water sounds to ease their bathroom experience. The “audio catheter,” as it was dubbed, made a real splash with the patients and was a huge success.

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February 29, 2012 - 10:58am
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