In the age of smartphones, it’s a rare but nightmarish scenario to be stranded in a bathroom, taking a dump, without any reading material nearby — not a heavily illustrated shitter book, not a gently used crossword puzzle laying in the trash, not even the back of a shampoo bottle. When this happens, it feels like being stranded without toilet paper (appropriate, since we once used newspapers, Sears catalogs and other reading materials to cleanse our butts, and it would’ve been wasteful and uncivilized to not at least skim the material before smearing poop on it).
The tradition of reading on the toilet may be as old as wiping our asses, but as we’ve stopped using newspapers and catalogs to clean ourselves with, why have we continued to find new ways to read on the toilet?
Experts suspect there may be several reasons for this, most notably that there might be a type of muscle memory with reading that gets our bowels moving. At the very least, reading helps poopers distract themselves and potentially relax. “With nothing to preoccupy them on the toilet, some people tense up or strain, overthinking about going and not allowing their bowels to relax,” family physician Peter Bailey explains. “This relaxation of the pelvic floor is key to easily passing stool.”
This may be particularly important for people who tend to be more stressed or anxious. “For people who are high-strung, reading probably does help them poop more easily,” Ben Tanner, a physician assistant, tells me. “That’s because it kind of distracts them, and relieves their anxiety a bit to be reading the book.”
More importantly, the distraction might be why we don’t think our own shit stinks. “In addition, reading can have the ability to distract you from the odor while going, though this is a minor benefit,” Bailey says.
While this doesn’t appear to be a topic that’s been scientifically studied in detail, Bailey isn’t the only expert to connect these ideas. David Rosenbaum, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, raised the question of why we can tolerate our smell enough to finish an article or page. In a 2017 piece for Psychology Today, Rosenbaum concluded we probably can read through our shit smell for the same reason we don’t feel as ticklish if we tickle ourselves: Our self-perceptions are generally less accurate than our perceptions of others because our brains engage in some level of automatic suppression of stimuli we produce. This is best understood when it comes to visual information, in the sense that what people see in the mirror is at least slightly skewed from how others view them.
“Given that auto-suppression characterizes vision and touch, it’s not surprising that it might arise in other domains,” Rosenbaum wrote. “If your brain makes you blind to the predictable visual inputs you produce, and if your brain makes you tactually insensitive to the predictable touches you generate, then it probably also attenuates the smells you manufacture.”
As much as this explains why we can tolerate reading on the toilet, the reason why we seem to prefer it could come down to the gut-brain connection. “The latest research shows that our guts can have a direct impact on our brains,” says nutritionist Alicia Harper. “Some scientists would go as far as calling our gut our second brain because of these studies.”
Harper also notes that pooping can stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous symptom and promotes a sense of calm, an effect researchers refer to as “poo-phoria.” “Some might think that reading helps you poop, but it may be the other way round,” Harper says. “Pooping might help your brain to concentrate and read more easily. That’s why it feels so relaxing for everyone.”
At first this sounded like some weird notion of scat-Buddhism, or a line from a poop-obsessed Yoda, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made: Reading might help you poop, but pooping might help you read.
Regardless, it’s objectively a bad idea to combine the two pastimes for too long, as you run the risk of developing hemorrhoids. “The main downside of reading on the toilet is that you might sit there a little too long,” Tanner warns. “For most people, this is no big deal. But it could contribute to hemorrhoids by giving more time for the blood to accumulate in those veins.”
Since hemorrhoids are a bloody, uncomfortable mess, doctors recommend keeping dumps limited to 10 minutes or less. But if Harper’s theory is correct, then you should be able to get plenty of reading done in that time frame — with the help of your shit.