How Pleasure Works – A Book Review
Quick Take: This book goes into the depths of the mind and looks for what feeds the source or core of happiness. There are stories of art theft, belching contests, bed pans, and cannibalism and I bet none of these you’d put on par with a birthday cake. And that is the point of the book, pleasure is not a straight forward emotion. A man paid $772,500 for a set of golf clubs. It makes you wonder why? Hint – they were John F. Kennedy’s (if you’re still thinking “so what” then this book is really for you). Either way, I enjoyed it.
Detail Review: Paul Bloom is a psychologist at Yale University. He’s the author of other books, but those have a slightly different take on the brain: how it develops in regards to language. I think because this isn’t his first take, he writes in a style that is easy to read. His narratives are clear and support his point very well. In a world where books are taken in 15 minutes at a time, this is a good quality to have.
I normally start with the aesthetics. The hard cover has a simple white sleeve with the title, the subtitle, the author’s name and then a picture of an oyster with a pearl. I think that’s a metaphor for cracking open the mind and finding treasure. I like the less is more approach, but I’ve heard white is the worst choice because it shows smudges and dirt easily. That may be true, but I like it. The font is medium to large in size and the book is a solid 227 pages counting the preface.
The book ultimately is a cross between psychology and philosophy and it centers on something called essence. And as a psychologist he has many studies supporting his argument. But essence is as much a philosophic topic as anything. You can refer to it as the life force, the soul, or the mass effect of billions of neurons firing in a self aware brain. Cultivating one’s own essence is the basis of pleasure. Whether it’s through the adoption of other people’s essence or the exercise of your own. As Bloom states in the preface:
There is an animal aspect o human pleasure. When I come back from a run with my dog, I collapse onto the sofa, she onto her dog bed. I drink a glass of cold water, she laps from her bowl, and we’re both a lot happier.
This book is about more mysterious pleasures. Some teenage girls enjoy cutting themselves with razors; some men pay good money to be spanked by prostitutes. The average American spends over four hours a day watching television. The thought of sex with a virgin is intensely arousing to many men. Abstract art can sell for millions of dollars. Young children enjoy playing with imaginary friends and can be comforted by security blankets. People slow their cars to look at gory accidents, and go to movies that make them cry.
Some of the pleasures that I will discuss are uniquely human, such as art, music, fiction, masochism, and religion. Others, such as food and sex, are not, but I will argue that the pleasure that humans get from these activities is substantially different from that of other creatures.
There’s great analysis of the value of art, particularly how a copy, or forgery, is no where near as valuable as an original. If I know Paul Cezanne painted a piece in my collection, then I know it’s worth more than if someone else painted in a similar style. The reason is because I know Cezanne was an artistic genius. The means in which he assembled color, stroke, and arrangement shows a mind – an essence – that no one else originally came up with. Jackson Pollock is the ultimate test for this. His art is labeled abstract expressionism. I see paint splats, but others see a chaotic reflection of the subconscious and because of that, he is heralded.
And the author doesn’t really get into it, but I think portraits are the ultimate in revealing essence, especially if they are self portraits. For the Seinfeld fans out there, you’ll remember an episode where Jerry dates a painter. The painter does a portrait of Kramer and when George asks Jerry why, he responds “She sees something in him.” Kramer has an essence and the painter captures it. Later in the story an older couple is viewing the portrait, “The Kramer,” and has this exchange:
Although this is comedic, it’s true. Art isn’t only about beauty. There’s a pull of something greater than a cloth with ink on it. Performance art and shock are continually testing society.
There’s a story called Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s about a couple of coon hound dogs befriended by a little boy. It’s an early adolescents tale. My sixth grade English teacher read it to my class of 14. It’s over 20 years later and I can’t remember her name, but I do remember the entire class welling up in tears as the story unfolded. We were saddened by what happened, but this fictional story was enjoyed by each one of us.
This pleasure resonates in the imagination of everyone, be it sappy love stories, video games, horror movies, or some other mental escape. I agree with the author that this is a hold over from the evolution of planning. He doesn’t really discuss it, but the way the brain is structured is by layers, somewhat like it grew from the center out. The center is the emotional core. Emotion is great for survival, so it makes sense. The prefrontal cortex and other cognitive regions evolved on top of the emotional engine. It’s kind of like we take in all this data via our senses, but the brain needs a way to answer the “so what?” Stories are powerful because they tap the emotional center and push for action. Imagination is a means for practicing these situations and the strange pleasure it elicits is motivation.
I devise fantasy lands of unicorns and I dream of taking over the world. Each of these escapes adds to my essence.
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