HOW PLEASURE WORKS
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom gave us a book about pleasure that is a pleasure to read.
Though it is basically a pop-psych book, it reads almost like a collection of short stories – each one with the aim of illustrating from different angles what the nature of pleasure is, each one solidly grounded in psychology or neuroscience.
In the author’s view, human pleasures are universal and are not culturally determined: “we start off with a fixed list of pleasures and we cannot add to the list.” When we derive pleasure from new technologies or cultural habits, it is because they connect to pleasures that humans already possess.
However, most of these hardwired pleasures are not adaptations, but rather are by-products of mental systems evolved for other purposes.
For example, we can get a kick out of coffee, but this is not because “coffee lovers of the past had more offspring than coffee hater” – it is because we like to be stimulated, and coffee is a stimulant.
This is just the starting point for Paul Bloom – the book itself is a journey through the pleasures of food, of sex and love, of collecting objects, of art, of imagination, of sport, of science, of religion. In each entertaining chapter the author argues for his main claim: that “the pleasure we get from many things and activities is based in part on what we see as their essences”.
In other words pleasure is grounded in our BELIEFS about the deeper nature of a given thing – even our sensations are always colored by our beliefs.
That is why an original Picasso is worth a lot of money, but a perfectly executed replica is not. That is why sexual pleasure is not merely a matter of sensations, but it is also rooted in beliefs about who someone really is and what someone really is – as illustrated by the use of bedtricks in plays and fiction, and by our preference for partners that are faithful, smart and kind. That is why how we think about food and drink affects how we judge it – orange juice tastes better if it is bright orange, yogurt and ice cream are more flavorful if described as “full fat”, and experts rate highly the same Bordeaux if it is described as “grand cru classe” but not if it is labeled “vin du table”.
I found particularly interesting the chapter dedicated to imagination, where the author develops a very tight explanation of how imagination arose in evolution and why now we take so much pleasure in it – from daydreaming to playing videogames.
I was also intrigued by philosopher Tamar Gendler’s notion of alief, introduced by the author in that very same chapter regarding imagination.
While beliefs are attitudes that we hold in response to how things are, alief are more primitive – they are responses to how things seem.
Psychologist Paul Rozin found that “people often refuse to drink soup from a brand-new bedpan, eat fudge shaped like feces, or put an empty gun to their head and pull the trigger. Gendler notes that the beliefs here are: the bedpan is clean, the fudge is fudge, the gun is empty. But the aliefs are stupider, screaming, “dangerous object! Stay away!” (p.169).
In Bloom’s essentialist framework, even science and religion can be seen as an obvious source of pleasure – even though they are very different, both science and religion share the basic assumption that there is a deeper reality that has significance. Science can tell us about it, religion provides tools to experience that reality.
Our essentialist nature appears in us as infants, as research carried out by the author and others has demonstrated. With science and religion we come full circle: essentialist properties are attributed to the very fabric of the Universe – and in this insight I, as a reader, took a great pleasure.