Cognitive Sewage: All Water Has Been Pooped In

You know how it goes. NASA creates an amazing new water filtration system and the headline winds up reading Astronauts Drink Recycled Urine, and Celebrate. Try as we might, we just can’t think about that fresh glass of filtered space water without slapping a mental “WARNING: PEE-PEE” label on it.

No matter how much we purify it, we can’t quite eliminate the cognitive sewage—which is rather unfortunate given the looming world drinking water shortage.

Here’s the real kicker: According to The Big Thrust author Charles Fishman, any water you bring to your lips has been sewage before. That sparkling Perrier may be clean and refreshing now, but you can rest assured that the same water fell out of a dinosaur’s cloaca at some point in the past.

As NPR’s Alix Spiegel explores in Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds, this all comes down to psychological contagion. One thing comes into contact with another and the two become linked. It’s why family heirlooms are priceless and celebrity underwear sells for bank on eBay. Heck, it’s why there’s a piece of the “True Cross” on the International Space Station.

But psychological contagion also stands in the way of public support for reclaimed water, because our minds still attribute a certain “poopness” to the stuff. With the help of psychologists, University of California Environmental Studies Professor Brent Haddad conducted a study and found that 60 percent of people are unwilling to drink water that has had direct contact with sewage. Again, ignoring the fact that all water has.

What’s the fix? Haddard and company found that inserting a little nature between sewage and the drinking glass does the trick. We don’t think of that Perrier as recycled urine because the water filtered through rivers and groundwater.

But as Spiegel points out in the article, pumping treated, potable water through nature tends to degrade the water’s purity—even as it cognitively purifies it for the consumer.

Needless to say, we’ll have to clean up our act if we want a future with affordable, clean drinking water in it.

So there you have it! You can find the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast on iTunes, Zune and the RSS feed. And don’t forget the free HowStuffWorks App!

Image Source: Paul Everett/Creative Commons

Originally published at HSW: Cognitive Sewage: All Water Has Been Pooped In

Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter @blowthemind.


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