Kilian Valkhof

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Book review: How pleasure works

Life, 25 September 2010, 4 minute read

A while ago, Tapha e-mailed me asking if I wanted to write a blurb for I took him up on the challenge, and wrote a review of “How pleasure works”, by Paul Bloom, a book I just finished. I am re-publishing it here on my blog.

As a sidenote, you should really sign up for I don’t read enough books. I really want to, but I just don’t make the time. is a great way to still get the general gist of interesting non-fiction books, ranging from inspirational biographies to neuro-pop-science books such as “how we decide” (Jonah Lehrer, highly recommended!). No, I’m not getting paid to say this ;) (though feel free to Flattr if you like this). Now without further ado, the review:

How pleasure works

“How pleasure works” is a book about religion, cannibalism, fake vomit, virgins, family guy and pornography for monkeys. Not things you would immediately associate with pleasure. And yet the author, Paul Bloom, manages to weave these topics and accompanying stories into an intricate pattern of, indeed, how pleasure works.

Humans are unique in the way they feel pleasure. What other species has teenagers that enjoy cutting themselves with razors, adults that enjoy spending evening after evening in front of the television more than socially interacting with others, or individuals that would pay tens of thousands of dollars for a tape deck used by J.F. Kennedy? Humans, when it comes to pleasure, are pretty unique.

Paul Bloom is a professor of Psychology and cognitive science at Yale university. He researches how children and adults understand the world, language, fiction and art. This research is often used as starting points for different parts of “How Pleasure Works”.


Bloom argues that all people are essentialist. They perceive humans, animals and objects to have an innate essence. Or as Bloom himself says, the idea that things “have an underlying reality or true nature”, and that it is this true nature that really matters. To support this notion, Bloom describes research he did with very young children. The kids were first shown a picture of a tiger, and then a picture of the same tiger, made to look like a lion. They were told that this happened (the tiger now looked like a lion) and were subsequently asked if the tiger was still a tiger, or if it had become a lion. Of course, the children insisted that once a tiger, always a tiger. But while this feels logical to us, it means there is something more to the tiger than it’s mere outside. There is something inside the tiger that makes it, inherently, a tiger. Why do humans do this?

As it turns out, this essentialism helped our ancestors make sense of the world. It helped them categorize the world into friend and foe, deadly and edible. Our illogical sources of pleasure, Bloom argues, are side effects of this essentialism. Side effects, because pleasures didn’t evolve as a biological adaption to the world. Quite often, you would make better decisions if pleasure wasn’t involved. However, pleasures evolved in us as a byproduct of other, actually useful traits.

Take for example pornography. No biologist could argue with a straight face that pornography is useful for the proliferation of our species. In fact it might very well be detrimental, because without it we would undoubtedly spent more time with lovers of flesh and blood. However, the pleasure we derive from watching pornography comes from another source: the urge to look at “attractive naked people”, causing us to want sex.

What does it mean to be “adaptive”?

It is this realization that returns and returns in ‘How pleasure works’. Why do we enjoy books, movies, gaming art or even daydreaming so much? Bloom says, “Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities”. It’s just that, retreating into imagined worlds, the pleasure is almost as real as the real thing. “Reality Lite”, as Bloom calls it. Our ability to imagine things, and think of them as having essences, both adaptive advantages, make perceiving pleasure above and beyond merely pleasure derived from sensory stimulating activities possible.

Art is a prime example of the way this works. Art can be visually stimulating. It can be pretty. But much of the pleasure we get from art is “rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying it’s creation”. In other words, it’s essence. The books opens with an anecdote about Van Meegeren being arrested for selling a Vermeer (A historical treasure!) to the Nazi leader Herman Goering. After six weeks in prison, Van Meegeren confessed. Not to selling a Vermeer, but to making and selling a fake. Upon hearing this, Goebing looked “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world”. This is remarkable, because for all intents and purposes, a Van Meegeren couldn’t be distinguished from a Vermeer (To prove his claim, Van Meegeren had to paint another “Vermeer”, only then was he believed).

It is thus the way “How pleasure works” is written. Reading this book won’t tell you how to be happier, how to get pleasure from your work or how to spend your time more usefully than watching television at night. But it will tell you how pleasure works.

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