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  • The Paradoxical Pleasures of Human Imagination
  • Omar Sultan Haque
How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, by Paul Bloom. W. W. Norton, 2010, 280 pp., $26.95.

Have you heard about that chump who dished out $48,875 for John F. Kennedy's dusty old tape measure? The rock star who allegedly snorted his father's ashes with some cocaine? The creepy German guy who put out an advertisement for someone who would let themselves be eaten by him (only to have hundreds volunteer)? The story about the man who was tired with his wife, but powerfully aroused when he was convinced he was with an exact duplicate of her? How can a staunch atheist also believe in the numinous? Why do people buy expensive wines, and bottled water, even though in blind taste tests, they can't distinguish them from the cheap stuff? Why buy pâté when your palate can't distinguish it from dog food? Why do people pay hundreds of dollars to hear the famous violinist Joshua Bell perform, but then cannot even spare a dime when a disguised Bell plays the same music on the subway in regular garb? Why might someone who trains people to prevent falls and injury enjoy watching a comedian fall and hurt himself? Why would someone pay a few hundred thousand dollars for art that consisted of someone else's unmade bed?

It may be is easy to feel smug when thinking about this panoply of apparent irrationality in individual decisions and general human propensities. But the things that uniquely delight us may not be as [End Page 182] capricious as they seem. Many of the pleasures (curious or ordinary) that we get from our relationships with food, sex, irreplaceable objects, performances, safety and pain, music, literature and the imagination may have a deeper logic. They may be explicable by a better understanding of how our evolved minds work, and don't work, amidst our historically novel environments. Or so argues Paul Bloom—a cognitive developmental psychologist at Yale University—in How Pleasure Works, a brilliant and articulate synthesis of philosophy, psychology, evolutionary biology and the arts that elucidates the seemingly whimsical and once mysterious sources of our uniquely human hedonic satisfactions.

The theory Bloom utilizes to systematize aspects of a number of pleasure phenomena is called psychological essentialism. This is an idea that has been developed in the last two decades by Bloom and the psychologists Douglas Medin, Andrew Ortony, Frank Keil, and Susan Gelman, among others.1 Psychological essentialism claims that, as Bloom puts it, people reliably, at a very young age, cross-culturally and throughout history, think that "things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters." We assume that objects, artifacts, non-human animals, people and groups have invisible essences and unseen orders that account for their surface properties. In one of Keil's experiments, for instance, children thought that a dog made to look like a toy dog, a porcupine that had a surgery to make it look like a cactus, and a tiger stuffed into a lion suit were still a dog, porcupine and tiger, respectively. However, when each animal had its 'innards' altered, children said the animals changed into different categories, like objects or plants.2 Psychological essentialism for artifacts or tools is somewhat different from that for animate entities; the essence of artifacts is their history and the intentions of their creators.3

According to How Pleasure Works, because of psychological essentialism, many human delights seem to arise that cannot be explained by simply appealing either to their low-level sensual qualities or their practical utility. Thus, the theory helps clarify some of pleasure's paradoxes. Like parents who affectionately keep tokens of their children's time as a baby, someone can enjoy owning a tape measure from a famous person because of its history of uses or other associations with important places or people. Snorting dad's ashes (however noxious to the nostrils), or pigging out on someone whom you admire, can be deeply meaningful because it feels as if one is...


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pp. 182-189
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