The Jarmels were close to the truth. In their 1961 hit, they sang “a little bit of soap will never wash away my tears.” That was emotional pain. Now scientists are seeing how washing hands can in fact wash away this sort of pain—but that’s not always healthy.
Fans of bluesy soul style music remember “A Little Bit of Soap.” The Jarmels’ song reached #12 on the Billboard 100 in September 1961.
A little bit of soap
Will wash away your lipstick on my face
But a little bit of soap
Will never, never, never ever erase
The pain in my heart and my eyes
As I go through the lonely years
A little bit of soap
Will never wash away my tears
It turns out The Jarmels were close to the truth. Scientists have been exploring how our brains process pain. In some cases, the brain generates chemicals that create emotions to protect us. At other times however the same chemicals confuse our moral compass.
Healthy emotions are generated when you bite into a piece of rotten food. You sense revulsion because a brain region called the insula activates. It secretes a chemical that causes the eater to unconsciously wrinkle the nose and narrow eyes—protecting mouth, eyes and nasal cavities. The heart slows. A gagging response is generated, even vomiting.
But scientists have also studied what happens when a person contemplates something morally disgusting. It could be genocide, cruelty or an abhorrent practice alien to the subject’s culture. The same reaction occurs. The insula activates. It makes you feel sick to your stomach. In these instances, the brain’s response is helpful.
But responses change when an individual contemplates his or her own moral misdeeds. As reported in a 2006 paper in the journal Science, the insula still activates. But in this case, it creates what scientists call the “Macbeth” effect—something familiar to Shakespeare fans. Brooding on our moral misdeeds makes us feel dirty, so we seek to get rid of the stain by physically washing it away.
Some simple experiments uncovered this. Scientists interviewed two sets of subjects, asking the first to recount a moral transgression they had committed. The second set recounted a neutral event. The researchers then offered all participants either a pencil or a package of antiseptic handwipes as a token of thanks. Those who recounted a moral transgression were more likely to choose handwipes over pencils.
Another experiment asked subjects to recount moral failures. This made people more likely to help a stranger soon afterward—unless they had a chance to wash their hands, thereby also washing away their sense of moral responsibility.
This is a universal phenomenon with only slight cultural variations. German scientists have discovered that when subjects were instructed to speak or write a lie, they were more likely than honest subjects to opt afterward for cleansing products. In another study, European-Canadians, after contemplating their moral failings, tend toward hand-washing. Chinese-Canadians opt for face-washing—saving face by cleaning their own.
We’re seeing science catch up to scripture. Pontius Pilate believed Jesus to be an innocent man. But when he saw he couldn’t persuade the crowds, and that a riot was likely, Pilate took water and washed his hands in front of everyone. “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility” (Mt. 27:24).
Pilate probably felt better but he wasn’t innocent. I’ve counseled men who, after viewing porn or lying to their spouse, felt compelled to wash their hands or take a shower. They reported feeling better. That’s the brain blurring our moral sense.
Moral clarity requires going beyond neuroscience. The Greek word for beyond is meta, where we get our word metaphysics, a science that historically included the Christian religion. The Christian faith would say washing hands might be a pointer to something else—to a savior rather than merely a soap dish. Otherwise, we could fail to see why a little bit of soap often does wash away the wrong things.
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