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[Review] How Pleasure Works


Why does pain sometimes feel like pleasure? Why do we enjoy music and art even though there aren’t any adaptive advantages? When does “one man’s meat” become “another man’s poison”?

The answers to these human behavioral puzzles (and more) can be found in “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like“. Written by Yale’s evolutionary psychologist Paul Bloom, the book uncovers the “new science of why we like what we like”. By delving into the fields of anthropology, evolution, history, biology and psychology, the book investigates why we humans are so different compared to our fellow earthlings. 

According to Bloom, human sensations of taste are distinct from Fido, our best friend. While canines and other animals do enjoy food, water, sex, a good fur rub, and other “creature comforts”, they are highly unlikely to appreciate Shakespeare, Tang poetry, an old security blanket, or K-Pop group Girl’s Generation.

Such distinctly human pleasures are likely to have early developmental origins in biology. This is demonstrated by experiments involving kids and their reactions to various pleasurable (and not so pleasurable) stimuli.

These pleasurable sensations are universal, imaginative, and result from mental systems that have evolved from other purposes. In other words, they are accidental accompaniments to traits that help us to achieve the “survival of the fittest”.

Covering food, sex, art, sports, books, television, music, movies and more, Bloom reasoned that our beliefs in the “essence” of objects, organisms and activities underscores the pleasure that we derive from them. This theory of “essentialism” prescribes that humans go beyond superficial Darwinian motivations (ie survival of one’s progeny) when seeking pleasure. Instead, we consider the deeper underlying realities or true natures of an activity, person or item.

The acquisition of someone’s essence by “ingesting” him or her is exhibited in the Eucharist, a ritual that millions of Catholics regularly practice signifying the consumption of Christ’s body and blood. It is also seen in why President Kennedy’s golf clubs could sell for US$772,500 in an auction in 1996 (their day to day contact with the man increases their value), or why Barack Obama’s half eaten breakfast could cost over US$10,000.

This ability of objects to embody one’s “essence” is also the reason why old teddy bears, photographs, school year books, and wedding rings hold tremendous value to us. Each of these objects contain a part of our unique history and thus are irreplaceable and priceless.

The most intriguing part of the book involved examining how art is considered pleasurable.

Here Bloom regaled us with the tale of how Nazi leader Hermann Göring was epicly disappointed by the news that the painting The Supper of Emmaus sold to him by Han Van Meegeren wasn’t an original Vermeer but a fake. The news came as a surprise to experts who thought that the artwork was authentic.

This case revealed that the pleasure one obtains from art is often rooted in an appreciation of the human history and “life force” behind its creation. In other words, art isn’t valuable from a purely aesthetic viewpoint. Rather, it often depends on the inspiration, history and significance behind what gets splashed on canvas.

With numerous examples ranging from the modest to the macabre (Bloom seems to have a thing or two about cannibalism), How Pleasure Works provides an engaging trip through the depth and breadth of human behaviors. Covering a wide scope of topics, Bloom writes in an accessible prose, using memorable stories to reinforce his ideas.

To conclude, let me quote a definitive paragraph summarizing the key ideas of the book:

The capacity to think about worlds that don’t exist (ie imagination) is a useful human power. It allows for the contemplative assessment of alternative futures, something indispensable for planning out actions; it lets us see the world as others see it (even if we know that they are wrong), which is essential for human acts such as teaching, lying, and seduction. And, combined with our essentialism, it leads to pleasures that are central to our modern lives.