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How Pleasure Works

Why do people like the things they eat? Why do people like the things that they see? Do they really understand the scientific reasoning behind their own likes and dislikes? When it comes to the things we like, people don’t fully understand why. I chose to read this book because I wanted to find those answers. Pleasure is anything but straightforward. There are obviously many different outlooks and opinions on this topic, but Paul Bloom's idea about pleasure goes against the traditional views. Such as liking a food because of it’s taste, liking music because of its sound and from liking a piece of art or a person because of how it looks. Most people think they like something because it sparks their senses. Which is partially true; Bloom says “Pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he or she is getting pleasure from.” (Bloom, 30)  When people pay big bucks for a tissue that a famous person used or treasure their kids sloppy artwork, it is because they believe something about that person's “essence” exists inside of the object. This concept is crazy when it comes to famous people, that others would be willing to pay for something just because someone else used/touched it. But once they figure out that the object is a hoax, it no longer has the same meaning to them.

Although not everything people enjoy, is pleasurable right away. “Few people enjoy, at first, coffee, beer, tobacco, or chili pepper.” (Bloom, 89) This is also a weird concept to think of; if at first these things don’t bring pleasure to someone, why do they continue to use these substances? With the idea that they will like these things after continual uses. Or because someone told them it would help with stress. Coffee for example, to help them stay awake in the morning. In How Pleasure Works, Bloom analyzes how our minds have evolved cognitive tricks that help us negotiate through the world - and how those tricks lead us to certain pleasures in unexpected places. Some people don’t even know what their pleasures are. Everyone’s pleasures are different, and it can be hard to know. Which is why college students change their major so many times. People think they know what they are interested in, but they prove themselves wrong. It’s okay to discover what you once found pleasure in, no longer makes you feel the same way. But if people could figure this out sooner and wrap their finger around how pleasure works, it would make life less stressful and a lot easier.

Bloom also brings up the topic of sex. Why individuals are attracted to each other; and it’s not only because of how someone looks - although that is usually the starting point. “Regardless of their sex, good-looking faces light up the brain” (Bloom, 77) Sensory pleasures is only the start of our likes and dislikes according to Bloom. Pleasure is grounded in our beliefs about the deeper, complexed nature on a certain thing.

Bloom's theory that people naturally assume things today have invisible ideas of what makes people who they are. People take things of faith rather than of fact. “We have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world, but now that we have it, it pushes our desires in directions that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction.” (Bloom, 102) Before we could reason our way through the world, we had to believe our way through it. God wills it, is the reasoning people used to use. But people still fall for the tricks our minds once played on us long ago, before discovering what we know today.

I think people's pleasures, likes and dislikes would be more clear if everyone today fully understood all of the psychology and science studies that show why we like what we do. As of right now human psychology has only been partially understood by the everyday person. Do you think the happiness of a person would change if they knew how and what makes them happy? Would the world as a whole be a better place if everyone knew how to control not only the happiness of themselves, but of others as well? The real question that needs to be answered is; How does pleasure work?


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  • "What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is. This is true for intellectual pleasures, such as the appreciation of paintings and stories, and also for pleasures that seem simpler, such as the satisfaction of hunger and lust."

    Until reading the title of this book, How Pleasure Works, I have never thought of the reasons of why I like what I like. Just like a majority of everyone else today, we don’t really care to think about why we do the things we do, or the reasons behind it. The mind works in mysterious ways, and a lot of times people don’t understand why. Of course people have gut reactions and reactions that have been learned, but even babies respond in predictable ways without truly knowing what they are doing. When someone asks you whether or not you want strawberry or vanilla ice cream, it may take you a second to decide between the two. But why did you end up choosing the one over the other? Almost everyone today would say they have no idea. No one really knows why, they just know they like it. In this book, Blums purpose is to strictly inform and examine How Pleasure Works, while also informing that there is reason behind everything. To help teach the reader in an easy to learn way, Paul Blum, psychology professor at Yale University, split his book up into subsections.

    One of the subsections Blum covers is imagination. He asked “How do americans spend their leisure time?” (155) You would probably guess the answer would be things such as eating, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, spending time with friends or family, ect. The actual answer is participating in experiences that we know are not real. Blum explains this theory in depth stating “When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination- to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, videogames, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming or fantasizing.” (155) This just shows that people today aren’t really entirely happy with their real lives or they wish their lives were different. It truly is crazy the amount of time Americans spend in made up realities. Is this why people aren’t happy with their own lives? They are too caught up in the fact that their lives may not be as perfect as someone else’s seems to be.
    The next subsection talks about performance. Blum states here that, “Humans devote considerable energies to different forms or art, music, sport, and games, and, as I have argued here, these are typically displays of reproductively relevant capacities, the finest traits of humans: intelligence, creativity, strength, wit, and so on.” (154) People get pleasure from showing or performing for other people their practiced talents or even natural abilities. It makes us feel good that our peers and even strangers come to watch us do things that we put so much time and effort into. Not only does the performer get pleasure though, while performing the audience is pleased as well. Making it a win win situation for everyone involved.

    Blum states, in the subsection “Safety and Pain”, which also relates to imagination, that “We enjoy fictions that make us cry, haunt our dreams, and gross us out. We do things in virtual worlds that would shock us in the real one, and our daydreams are not always pleasant ones; even happy people obsess on their worst fears.” (178) In other words, people enjoy watching and critiquing other people's lives, even if they are made up ones. The best types of stories are the ones in fact where we forget they are stories. One of the reasons we enjoy watching other people's lives, is because it makes us forget about our own struggles in the real world. Sometimes it even helps us cope with our struggles and other times it creates people's struggles. People yearn to be like fictional characters, when realistically this will never be the case.

    The last subsection in How Pleasure Works, Blum ties all of the subsections together by asking “Why Pleasure Matters?” (203) This is another factor that comes into play that most people today would not be able to answer. Not only do they not know the reasons on why they like what they like; they also don’t understand the importance of it. Happiness is something everyone strives for in the world today. Don’t you think happiness would be a lot easier to achieve if people only knew what they wanted and how to get it? If people could just realize that there are reasons behind everything and that these answers aren’t as hard to find as you’d think, they wouldn’t have to constantly look for them in made up realities.
  • What might account for pleasures that violate social norms?
    • Pleasures of eating things that aren't normal, like toilet paper or dish soap ect. Although 9/10 people would find the opposite from pleasure in these things, there is that one person who enjoys it. Pornography would also be an example of something that violates the social norms. Just because something violates the social norms, that doesn't stop people today from enjoying or even doing these things.
  • How might scientific experiments show the changes in our mind on something we used to like but don't like anymore?
  • What scientific experiments have been done to explain why we feel pleasure towards something or someone?
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