Friday, June 25, 2010

Pleasure and pain

Paul Bloom's new book (How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like) is about what makes us take pleasure in things. As a NYTimes review explains, Bloom's theory is that pleasure is derived from our sense that things have an "essential nature" and that it's the essential nature that shapes our pleasure—or lack thereof.
Bloom’s ideas go against the traditional view of pleasure as purely sensory: that is, that we get pleasure from food because of how it tastes, from music because of how it sounds, from art because of how it looks. The sensory explanation is only partially true, he writes. “Pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he or she is getting pleasure from.” When we pay good money for tape measures that famous people have touched—in 1996 someone paid $48,875 for a tape measure once owned by John F. Kennedy—or treasure our children’s clumsy kindergarten art, it is because we believe that something about the person’s essence exists in the object itself.
That may or may not be a useful explanation. What Bloom doesn't attempt to do is to explain what pleasure is. Why is it that we describe certain neurological events as pleasurable and others as painful? That to me is the real mystery.

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