On Pleasure

Bibliologue / by Maywa Montenegro /

In How Pleasure Works, Paul Bloom argues that understanding why we like what we do—from food and sex to art, science, and religion—is critical to comprehending the human experience.


Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom is fascinated by how human beings make sense of the world around them—physical and social environs alike. Working with kids, he has explored seemingly simple questions like, What makes a dog a dog? What makes a fork a fork? Over and over, he says, their answers suggest that even for very young children, what something is cannot easily be reduced to how it looks. A child can understand, for instance, that something might look like a tiger but actually be a lion. Something might look like a picture of one person, but actually be another. Children, says Bloom, give us a clear glimpse into “essentialism”—a belief that there’s a deeper nature to things that makes them what they are.

Intrigued by the notion that essentialism might affect more than the cold-blooded activities of naming and categorization, Bloom set out to determine if it might apply more generally to how we respond to things, to what moves us—in other words, to pleasure. In his newly published book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Bloom delves into pleasures both sophisticated and gauche, universal and unique, real and imaginary. Drawing on his own research as well as studies in neuroscience, behavioral economics, and philosophy, he makes a powerful argument for essentialism at the crux of human pleasure… And why understanding pleasurable activities, from art to science to religion, is so critical to comprehending the human mind. Recently, Seed caught up with Bloom to learn more.

Seed: You begin the book with an incredible story from the art world that, you say, illustrates the concept of essentialism.
Paul Bloom: Yes— the story of a famous Nazi, Herman Goering, who was Hitler’s favorite. Goering and his boss had this perpetual competition going over who could steal the most art. They went throughout Europe and pillaged, taking art from the people they conquered. Goering was a tremendous snob, and he bought a Vermeer from this art dealer, van Meegren. After the war, van Meegren was nabbed by investigators who discovered that he had sold all this art—including great Dutch treasures—to the Nazis. And they put him in prison. When van Meegren realized he was going to be executed for treason, he confessed. He said that he did sell the artwork to the Nazis, but that it wasn’t treason, because they were not actual Vermeers….He had defrauded the Nazis, he explained, because he’d painted them himself!

Now van Meegren, as you may know, was an absolute jerk. He was beset with petty jealousies; he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He never got the respect he felt he deserved, so years earlier he had decided to start faking art as a way to get money. Not surprisingly, nobody believes his “I jipped the Nazis” story. So in court, while he was in detention, he offered to do another painting of the Vermeer, as a way to prove his innocence. As one Dutch tabloid put it, “He Paints for His Life!” His new work turned out far superior to the one he had sold Goering, and in the end, van Meegren was given a much lighter sentence. I like that story because it illustrates that who painted the artwork really mattered. And it mattered to everyone involved: It mattered to Goering—a guy who was responsible for the murder of millions and yet, according to his biographer, this was the first time in his life that he looked “as if he’d truly seen evil.” It mattered to all of the art critics who loved the Supper at Emmaus and several other paintings that turned out to be painted by van Meegren. They were horrified to discover that the paintings weren’t by Vermeer at all.

Seed: It’s somewhat akin to being able to buy a fake Louis Vuitton bag on the sidewalk for 20 bucks or paying 60 times that at Bloomingdales:

PB: Exactly. You can buy a Rolex watch for $32,000. Or you can go online and buy a knockoff so ‘real’ that only an expert could distinguish it from the authentic one. But it makes such a huge difference. It makes a difference for brands like Louis Vuitton; it makes a difference for artists like van Meegren. It makes a difference for sentimental objects too: In my room, I have drawings that my kids made when they were young. If you took these away and gave me duplicates, I wouldn’t be happy. Even if I couldn’t tell them apart.

Seed: Right. So nowadays, when people want to clone their dead pets—one of the reasons, I’m assuming, is that they think the clones will be duplicates for the original ones. Of course, we know that environmental factors will make a cloned dog distinct from its genetically identical parent. But the essentialist argument adds another layer to that—it is essentially not the same dog.

PB: When it comes to issues of people and dogs and sentient beings, I really don’t feel I have a full handle on what is going on. Because people do try to find duplicates and try to recapture things. But I think it will never be the same. You establish a tie to an individual. And ties to identical-looking ones are never the same.

In fact, I end my chapter on sex with a good example—a disorder called Capgras Syndrome. It’s a syndrome where you think that the people you love most are replaced by their exact duplicates. The explanation for this, proposed by V.S. Ramachandran and others is that the part of the brain that’s responsible for intuitive feeling and familiarity is busted. So you look at the person and you think, They have the same face as my wife or my boyfriend, but I don’t feel anything, so it can’t be them. To me, this illustrates that the sense of attraction and of knowingness don’t just reduce to what somebody looks like. They reduce to knowledge of who they are. If you disrupt the knowledge of who they are, it makes a huge difference.

Seed: That idea was at the crux of a book by Rivka Galchen—Atmospheric Disturbances.
PB: I’ve never heard of it…

Seed: I’ll send you a link.
PB: Please do! There’s another book by Richard Powers called Echo Maker, and in it, he describes a guy with Capgras Syndrome. This man also thinks that a duplicate has replaced his dog—and anything else that he is attached to.

Seed: It sounds Borgesian.
PB: Yes! It very much is.

Seed: You describe some instances of pleasure that are common to all living creatures and others that are unique to humans. What do you see as the distinctions here?
PB: You’re right. I cover pleasures like sex and food that are common to many, many creatures. And I also cover pleasures like art, masochism, movies, and religious rituals that are probably exclusive to humans. The argument that I try to make—and people could argue as to whether I’m successful—is that even for the most animal pleasures, there’s an essentialist underpinning. For instance, humans enjoy food. And my dog enjoys food. And I’m sure that at some level, rats enjoy food. But humans enjoy food in a unique way. I don’t doubt for an instance that there are similarities—we’ve all evolved senses that correspond and respond to different chemicals, and that’s part of the pleasure and pain of food. But for humans and for no other creatures, your beliefs about what it is that you’re eating can have a profound effect on how it tastes.

I try to make the argument—particularly in the first chapters in my book—that even for the pleasures that are most animal, most evolutionarily adaptive, there’s an essentialist basis. Our essentialist worldview affects and underlies even the most instinctive pleasures.

This is most obvious for art. You don’t have to try very hard to persuade somebody that art affects you differently if you think it’s an original or a forgery. But if you look closely at, say, sexuality or food, you find exactly the same thing.

Seed: And this, at least in part, is what makes us so attracted to organic and “natural” food.
PB: One of the key dimensions under which we think about food—and sex and morality—is in terms of “natural.” For many people, natural is good. If you believe something is natural—whatever natural comes down to—you’ll prefer it over something that’s artificial or genetically modified or whatever. The naturalness issue also has moral implications. If something is seen as pure, it is seen as morally good, whereas something that’s unnatural is somehow tainted. One speculation I offer in the book is that this is part of the appeal of bottled water. From a psychological and marketing standpoint, bottled water is a huge mystery: It’s horrific for the environment, it’s extremely expensive, it tastes no better than most tap water, and yet people love it. I think they love it because they’re persuaded by the marketing campaigns that it is pure. We like pure things. They taste better to us.

Seed: Yes—natural seems to be the buzzword right now. Apart from purity, though, it also brings to mind notions of “going green.” So you’ve got morality conflated with being environmentally friendly.
PB: If you start watching and listening for phrases like natural, pure, clean, clear, you’ll find them all over the place.

Seed: And your view is that humans have both instinctive and learned reasons for gravitating towards natural things. In fact, your whole thesis for ‘how pleasure works’ is unconventional: You synthesize two perspectives—an evolutionary view and a cultural view—that are generally seen as incompatible.
PB: Yes. I see myself very much as an evolutionary psychologist in that my work, my ideas, my research, and my hypotheses are informed by evolutionary theory. The great insight from this field is that the mind has a history, and that this history affects how you should expect it to work, what you should expect to find. I’ve been very influenced by evolutionary psychologists and this book is very much in the spirit of looking at human pleasures from an evolutionary point of view.

But at the same time, my argument is that pleasure is deep. For instance, sexual desire isn’t just triggered by looking at certain symmetries in the face, or waist-to-hip ratios. It’s triggered by what you really think of the person.

These are two ideas that for some reason, almost never go together. When people hear “evolutionary,” they think it’s going to be simple. Then, when they hear I’m going to argue that pleasure is complex, transcendent, and that all sorts of other learning and social factors go into it, they assume I’m going to reject an evolutionary proposal. But I believe the evolved and the cultured actually do go together. If you look carefully at the logic of evolution and adaptation, it makes perfect sense that human pleasures would be very complicated and very sensitive to cultural factors. And I’m not claiming any originality—a lot of evolutionary psychologists who have influenced me are well aware of this. But for some reason, in the public mind, evolutionary often gets reduced to simple-minded. My book is in part a response to that.

Seed: At the very beginning of your book, you describe going running with your dog—back from the run, both you and your dog get a lot of pleasure from water, from sating your thirst. So this made me think: Water is extremely valuable—and pleasurable—when you’re thirsty, but that pleasure quickly goes away once your thirst is quenched. Now we know that lab animals with a tank of water in their cages will not drink to excess, but they will eat to excess. Food continues to be pleasurable, even when animals—including people—are no longer hungry because they have evolved to store surplus calories.
PB: It’s a nice example, and it illustrates the way I think: Any science of pleasure has to attend to the biological facts about how we evolved. Your story about what we store and what we don’t store affects what we like and don’t like. Another example is sweet things. We don’t like sweet things because of some transcendent, platonic way that sweet is good. We like sweet things because they have high caloric density—sweet things like fruit were very good for our hunter-gatherer forbears. To some extent, the natural history of the pleasures informs what we like in the here and now.

Seed: So on the one hand, you’ve got the evolved reasons for like and dislike. On the other hand, you point out that even enologists can be fooled into preferring an cheap wine over an expensive one, or into thinking that a red wine is a white wine and vice-versa.
PB: That’s right. And though we’re talking about sex and food, I think there are evolved pleasures of the imagination, and there are evolved social pleasures, and there are evolved pleasures of doing the right thing. Moral pleasures, romantic pleasures. So it’s not all sort of just crude and dirty—there are more exalted evolved pleasures too. And together, these form the evolutionary backdrop. But on top of that, and connected to that inextricably, is our essentialism. Our focus on what things really are.

Seed: You end the book with some speculations about the essential pleasures of religion and science.
PB: Mostly I talk about religion, because the majority of humans are religious to varying extents. Most people practice religious rituals, adhere to religious beliefs, and define themselves as falling into a religion—usually one of the world’s major religions like Christianity or Islam. I’m very interested in why we have religious beliefs, why people believe in God and so on. But I’m also interested specifically in the pleasures we get from religion: There is the social pleasure we get from being with a religious community, which I think is incredibly intense. There is the pleasure of rituals, which are soothing and, I think, fulfilling. But the big pleasure of religion is the feeling of contact with the transcendent, the feeling of contact with the sacred—a world that is more real than the world we regularly perceive.

I end the book suggesting, You know, we can get this from science too. I quote people like Richard Dawkins who make a great case for this, who argue that in some way, the itch for the transcendent can be captured better by science than by religion. In some ways, I think it can. In other ways, I would argue that religion gives you some things that science can’t: Religion gives you ultimate meaning in a way that science can’t. I don’t think it’s factually correct, but it is appealing.

To some extent, science and religion are an attempt to scratch the same itch—an attempt to make contact with a reality that’s deeper than what we normally experience.


Originally published June 22, 2010

Tags art books evolution food neuroscience psychology sex

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