'How Pleasure Works': Sure, People Like Sex, Drugs & Rock ’n’ Roll -- but Cannibalism?

People get their kicks in a variety of ways. Bloom looks at what has made us tick through human history, from greed to altruism, from gluttony to pride, from sex... to daydreaming about sex.

How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Length: 304 pages
Author: Paul Bloom
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-06

Paul Bloom delivers an intriguing account of what makes us, as representatives of the human race, tick. You’re spot on if you already assumed it’s sex, drugs and some form of music. Did you see cannibalism coming?

Bloom looks at food and carnal activities, two areas that lots of pleasure are associated with, plus some more esoteric incentives.Do you have certain very specific items in your life that are of great value, primarily to you? That tattered baby blanket (I’m not going to ask what you call it in private), or your firstborn child’s first drawing perhaps? Though these things would be absolutely meaningless to a stranger, to you they may provide immense pleasure. They may be irreplaceable. I believe there may even be a market in insuring such (to an outsider) insignificant objects.

Bloom also examines some of the rationale behind why we value originals over copies, and why when we find out a work of art is a forgery, it loses all value. It’s still the exact same object, nothing physical has been taken away from it, but something of the association of value is lost. Owning a great work of art, something that critics acknowledge was executed by a great master -- now that is something to be proud of. Confronted with the knowledge that a piece is a forgery, and you’re calling up Christie’s to argue about your investment.

Conversely, a perfectly ordinary object can gain great value when it's touched or somehow associated with a celebrity, however we may choose to define the concept of celebrity. John F. Kennedy’s tape measure, auctioned off after his assassination, is an example cited more than once by Bloom. How much would you pay for something mundane that had been touched by Lady Gaga? By one of the Beatles? By the Pope? Our sense of the worth of something, and the related pleasure we take in seeing, or owning, such an object, is an area Bloom spends quite a bit of time discussing.

It turns out that even children have some sense of the value of an original object versus what they are told is an exact copy. It's the object that we know we have spent time with, invested ourselves in, perhaps imbued with the essence ourselves or somehow of another individual, that we place additional value in. If you show me a pair of earrings I know my mother wore, and an identical pair she never touched, there is no doubt that I will place far more value on the first set.

Bloom’s commentary is not particularly scientific, but he appeals to the rationalist in all of us. How can we talk about the “essence” of an object, as though simply by being in contact with an individual, it retains some connection with that person? Here’s where the cannibalism comes in: throughout human history there have been examples of individuals or groups of people who believed that by consuming part or all of a corpse, they would assume some of the energy or wisdom of the dead person. Or perhaps demonstrate the superiority of their own tribe over a rival one.

Who is to discount these beliefs, when each of us has our own way of valuing the world we live in and the people and objects in it?

People generally tend to gain a great deal of pleasure from not dealing with the world the way that it is, misrepresenting to themselves the reality that surrounds us. Bloom cites video games, daydreaming, and the Internet. Does spending time at these activities substantially improve our lives? Perhaps not, but they may well make us happy in the short term.

It’s also unsurprising that people may not accurately represent the amount of time they spend doing the activities they enjoy most; Bloom cites research reporting that many Americans state that sex is their most pleasurable activity -- yet time management studies find that the average person spends only four-minutes per day devoted to sex. Over a week that’s 28 minutes, which sounds pretty disappointing.

He also examines some darker aspects of pleasure. Some people enjoy the pain of others, or need to feel pain themselves in order to get a rush of pleasure. Horror films, S&M, and child pornography all come to mind.

Bloom makes reference to lots of studies and publications throughout How Pleasure Works. Eschewing footnotes, which would have cluttered the text and made it seem more scholarly, Bloom has included a notes section at the back of the book. It’s easy to find a reference to a particular author or study you might like to follow up with, by finding the corresponding page number for a particular detail. Following the notes section is a complete reference list, where each of those studies or articles is completely referenced alphabetically. I’m impressed with the author's thoroughness in giving his readers the tools to follow up with these ideas. Finally, there is also an index, so if you’re just interested in each mention of sadomasochism or Andy Warhol, you can easily pinpoint those pages.

Sometimes the way we get pleasure has no impact on anyone else, but in other cases it comes at a cost. Bloom points out that people would prefer to look out a window than at a picture of nature, and that we take great pleasure in getting out of our urban settings on weekends to get some fresh air. Yet we are the authors of our own destruction; perhaps by building up our great cities and economies and disconnecting ourselves from nature almost utterly, we can get more enjoyment out of a quick camping trip.

It seems like the value of various pleasures has become skewed as the pace of life has quickened in recent decades. Well, at least we’ll always have sex.


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