How Pleasure Works

How does pleasure work? Why do we enjoy the pain of Tabasco sauce? Or enjoy horror movies when the sight of real blood makes us queasy? And why do we value original artwork over expertly rendered copies?

These are some of the questions tackled by Paul Bloom in his new book How Pleasure Works. (H/T to George for alerting me of its publication.)

I haven't read Bloom's book yet, but two online reviews (from The Times and Slate) give us the shape of some of his answers (which, based on what I'm reading, is similar to his earlier book Descartes' Baby, which I have read).

According to Bloom, one of the keys to pleasure, and human cognition generally, is that we are innate essentialists. We believe objects have an inner, hidden quality--an "essence"--that makes the object what it is.

In the world of art the "essence" is the spark of genius and creativity which we feel only exists in originals, not copies. The "essence" of, let's say, an original painting is that we feel something of the artist infuses the artwork. That these brushstrokes were from the actual brush of Monet or Van Gogh makes all the difference. Exact copies, while artistically identical, lack the "essence" of the artist. Originals have essences that copies lack.

The same goes for human relationships. Consider Capgras Syndrome where people believe their friends and loved ones have been replaced with exact duplicates. Copies, it seems, are also not enough in love and life. And it appears that something in the brain is devoted to tracking this difference, the distinction between the exterior and the interior, the appearance and the essence.

And this ability to distinguish appearances from essences might explain why we enjoy Tabasco sauce and horror films. Our enjoyment comes from the fact that we know that the horror film isn't real and that the pain of the Tabasco sauce will end. We can indulge these experiences because our brain tracks them as "copies." Real pain and real gore are in different categories.

And it's this craving for the real, unseen "essence" that may also (partly) explain faith and our enjoyment of the natural world. That there is an Artist out there--and that these are his or her brushstrokes in that cloud, butterfly, sunset, or face--makes all the difference.

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21 thoughts on “How Pleasure Works”

  1. Or horror films and tabasco cause the release of adrenaline and endorphins and we learn that they are non-harmful sources of pleasure if we are prepared to take a little pain first.

  2. Richard-
    Have you done much reading or research into magical thinking? Something along the lines of how humans deal with things like talismans and fetishes? I think it may be tied to "essence" in that perhaps the touch of the creator, or artist, imbues an object with something special, which affects its essence. I wonder if that may be why two identical baseballs may be handled very, very differently, if one was only used for backyard games of catch, but one was hit by Babe Ruth. Would that also apply to why there's more "value" placed on something painted by Van Gogh, than by someone who may create something as "good" (whatever that means), but is a no-name?

  3. Something similar to an "essence" in Biblical thinking is God's "glory" - His weightiness - that part of Him and makes Him God. Moses' request that God reveal His glory and Jesus' discussion of glory (John 17) come to mind. Not identical but a similar impulse to that inward property that makes something authentic.

  4. Greg,
    Bloom's Descartes' Baby is a good read on this subject. Basically, human cognition is characterized by an innate dualism and essentialism (along with an animistic sense of physics). When you combine all these things (reasoning about minds differently than objects, reasoning about essences, and thinking about causality in terms of contact and the like) you get the "magical thinking" so characteristic of both modern and ancient humans. We are Homo superstitio.

  5. What is "common" is not considered by many as beautiful. "Common" is often a term for the things one takes for granted, because of its availability, and easy access.

    Nature, in this respect, can be the "common", while human art forms of nature are creative inspirations because of the artist's ability to capture and express something taken for granted in unique ways.

    Artists "see" things that go un-noticed and present them in ways that help us grasp those things in a different way.

  6. On the other hand: Perhaps "We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we DONT distinguish them from real ones." ( )

    Personally, I don't like short-term pain (or Tabasco sauce) or fake gore (e.g., horror movies) at all, so I'm not sure what to say to this theory about essence and copies. I do see that we humans value 'original' over 'copy' but maybe because there is only one original and many copies, and not necessarily because there is something essentially different about the original? (I'm looking at a much-loved Rothko print that hangs over my desk as I type.)

  7. Richard,

    At one time or another, because we are either/or and both/and people, I guess we all get in touch with our inner sado-mascochist (or is it masocho-sadist?).

    Blessings (or cursings)!

  8. I'll have to check that out. Moved it to the top of my "next to read" list.

  9. I don't like horror flicks or Tabasco either, but my two boys love Habanero sauce on just about everything ... pizza, burgers, veggies ...

    The article you linked makes me think of the popularity of fantasy worlds, as in the Lord of the Rings literature classic. In itself, LOTR is certainly a Tolkien "original" in terms of literature, but isn't what makes it so appealing the parallels to the difficulties of real life -- the original "original"?

  10. Angie,

    The structure of our thinking can be either/or and both/and, sometimes at the same time. Sadism (after the Marquise de Sade) means that one takes pleasure in inflicting pain. Masochism means that one takes pleasure from pain (after Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch and originated by Kraftt-Ebing, author of "Psychopathia Sexualis," a, uh, seminal work on sexuality). It is possible to take pleasure in pain and to feel pain in pleasure. My remarks were a toddling attempt at humor.


  11. Actually, I have a few more thoughts. And maybe the destruction of Touchdown Jesus wasn't as off-topic as I thought.

    The Gnostic view of cosmology differs from the materialist and main Christian view in an interesting way. The fall of man in mainline Christianity resulted in all the pain and sorrow that exists in the universe, it is fundamentally a creation of man.

    On the other hand, the Gnostics saw this universe as a second-order facsimile, copied from Pleroma or true creation. Instead of seeing the universe as fallen it's seen as a bad copy of Heaven created by a demiurge who had only a partial blueprint. Gnostics are not waiting for a New Jerusalem to be created in the future instead believe that Heaven already exists, juxtaposed to the physical universe, and is consciously looking for ways to break through.

    I strongly recommend How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later, a speech by Philip K Dick. PKD was of course obsessed by the idea that we live in an inauthentic Creation, evidenced by time loops and precognitions he himself experienced.

  12. Our oscillating fascination between the essential- original art as a piece of the artist's essence- and copies- art as a distilled view of nature- speak to our having levels of reality, some things are more real (largely depending on context), and copies substituted when we need to escape having to experience too much reality. Then again, nothing is true but thinking makes it so...

  13. What if it's exactly the reverse that's true? What if what is real is the "fiction," the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are, and matter is just the props and scenery?

    I am often of the mind that WE, our consciousness - is the only thing that is real and we lend our reality to the physical world by participating in it. A dream without a dreamer is a non-entity, it has no existence. A dream becomes part of the content of reality when someone experiences and communicates about it.

    This is, I strongly believe, the "truth" about reality that scientists and mainline Christians try to hush up. We have the quasi-divine power of projecting REALITY onto an otherwise undifferentiated quantum flux. Adam naming the animals is a metaphor for coming into self-consciousness and for the first time, an animal perceived that it was continuously creating the world through its actions.

    We are not contingent upon matter, matter is contingent upon us.

  14. D.,

    Re human consciousness, you might want to read this piece by historian John Lukacs:


  15. I have a hard time grasping this when you substitute "hurricane" for "matter". Can I have a partial-construct reality?

  16. :)! This is probably what the "multi-verses" or parallel universes is about....what we can imagine is what "can become"...
    But, there IS danger in imaginations, and psychologists call it delusion. Delusions are about "mental illness", not "possibilities" and "prbabilities"...or Utopian dreams...

  17. Children love these kinds of imaginative experiences...and those that think in "artistic form"...but these "forms" are ways of thinking...and being, as to one's actions...Problem is: when we act on stories, we can be a danger to society because these stories are not based in reality, but ideals...And ideals do not "play out" in the "real world" in an "ideal" way!

  18. Perfect symbiotic relationship- masochist says *beat me* sadist replies *Noooooooooooooooooo* Another attempt at humor

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