Anders Rasmussen's Reviews > How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like

How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom
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This book is about pleasure, but equally it is about essentialism. I would even argue that this book is more about essentialism than pleasure (guess the title would not have been as catchy). Essentialism refers to our tendency to look beyond appearances and try and see the essence of things. Is that really the cigar that Freud smoked or is it just an “ordinary” cigar? (It really makes a big difference to us). The central tenet of this book is that we derive pleasure from our beliefs about the essence of things. While this is no doubt true I think it confines the book that pleasure is discussed only within this framework. For instance, I cannot see how essentialism can explain why we feel pleasure when taking cocaine (I think).

To introduce the concept of essentialism, and in extension, pleasure, Paul Bloom sets out with one of the most hilarious anecdotes I’ve heard. Hermann Göring, the commander of Nazi Germany’s air force was not a particularly kind man. One of his better known quotes was “My measures will not be crippled by any bureaucracy. Here I don't have to worry about Justice; my mission is only to destroy and to exterminate; nothing more”. However, apart from destroying and exterminating things Göring was also a passionate arts collector and at one point he bought an expensive Vermeer painting from a dutch painter called Van Megren. After the war Van Megren was accused of selling art to Nazis, but to everyone’s surprise Van Megren showed that the painting was a fake (by drawing another copy). How did Göring react to these news? According to one contemporary account "[Göring] looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.

What is the point of this story? The point is that though it really should not matter to anyone whether a painting is fake if one cannot tell that it is fake, it does. It matter to us a great deal. How we experience something depends on our beliefs. This holds true not only of art but also of music, water, food, wine, t-shirts etc. fMRI scans show that the brain activity of people when they are eating a certain item, differs depending on what they believe they are eating. This suggest that our beliefs about something really do influence our experience at a basic perceptual level. Our brains can process the same sensory input in different ways depending on beliefs. Indeed when tested in a blind test people are unable to distinguish pate from dog food and white wine from red wine.

Paul Bloom goes through many different areas in life from where we drive pleasure. These subjects include but are not limited to sex, alcohol, cannibalism, imagination, watching TV, reading etc. Bloom is a master when it comes to finding illustrative and entertaining examples and anecdotes to drive home his point which consistently seem to be that we get pleasure from what we believe is the essence of things.

As I have already mentioned I would have liked a broader discussion of pleasure. I would also have liked a longer discussion about the concept of pleasure and how it is different from say happiness. This should have been no problem for Bloom because he gives excellent lectures on the topic of happiness at Yale. As I have already hinted at I would also have liked a deeper discussion about the more philosophical aspects surrounding pleasure. Too often Bloom gets lost in admittedly entertaining anecdotes and then forgets to sum up the lessons that can be learned from these anecdotes.

However, overall “How pleasure works” is a good book that is almost certain to give the reader food for thought as well as a good laugh. Bloom is an entertaining writer and speaker (I do recommend his lectures which can be found on Yale’s homepage), and even though I have a BSc in Psychology I learned many things and I got a thorough introduction to essentialism.

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Reading Progress

2014 – Started Reading
2014 – Finished Reading
October 28, 2018 – Shelved
October 28, 2018 – Shelved as: nonfiction

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