Essential Reading: Paul Bloom on How Pleasure Works

“The main argument here is that pleasure is deep,” Paul Bloom writes early on in his new book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. “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 the thing is.” Bloom argues that at the root of pleasure is our reading (or misreading) of the essence of something rather than the facts presented to our senses. This essential reading directs our appreciation of everything from our mates to our favorite music or painting. After reading How Pleasure Works, you may never look at how you look at things the same way again.


Bloom draws his essence-based pleasure theory from “one of the most interesting ideas in the cognitive sciences,” he writes, “which is that people naturally assume that things in the world—including other people—have invisible essences that make them what they are.” We take things on faith, in other words, rather than on fact. This faith-based approach comes from the ancient hardwiring of our brains. “We have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world, but now that we have it,” Bloom suggests, “it pushes our desires in directions that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction.” Before we could reason our way through the world, we had to believe our way through it. Despite rational revelations of these once-magical realms, we still fall for the tricks our minds once played on us.

How Pleasure Works covers all the pleasure centers—food, sex, religion, and the arts. I found Bloom’s approach to the arts the most compelling. He actually begins the book with the infamous case of art forger Han Van Meegeren, who sold his The Supper at Emmaus (shown above) to Nazi leader Hermann Göring as a genuine Vermeer. Göring faced the music at the war crimes trials at Nurenberg with aplomb, but when informed of his prize painting being a fake, Göring’s smile quickly vanished (almost as quickly as the cash value of the painting itself). When we look at Van Meegeren’s clumsy fake today, it seems impossible it could ever have been considered a Vermeer. However, once the label stuck, the aura of the master blinded even experts desperate to find another work by the Master of Delft. Stories such as that of Göring’s epic disappointment lend a great power to Bloom’s argument.

“Much of the pleasure that we get from art is rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation,” Bloom believes. “This is its essence.” There’s a “life force” clinging to an original work of art that reproductions lack, the same way that something belonging to a famous person becomes an instant collectable. In art, much of that “life force” comes from the creative act itself—the displayed performance of the artist. “[C]ertain displays—including artwork—provide us with valuable and positive information about another person,” Bloom continues. “We have evolved to get pleasure from such displays… for a human artifact such as a painting, the essence is the inferred performance underlying its creation.” Something that seems hard to do will always draw our respect and inspire pleasure. When people argue about the value of a painting, it’s generally an argument over the difficulty involved. “This is why people react so negatively to modern and postmodern work,” Bloom conclude, “the skill is not apparent.” Jackson Pollock, for example, thus becomes a genius or a fraud based on whether you appreciate the skill involved in his paintings, or think that any five-year-old could do them.

How Pleasure Works deals in difficult concepts without getting bogged down in jargon. Bloom writes in a popular style but never dilutes the force of his ideas. In the end, Bloom offers a scientific argument for how we derive pleasure from works without giving some set recipe for inducing that pleasure, which would only cheapen the sources of our pleasure. We’ll always be drawn to the works of names like Picasso, but How Pleasure Works reminds us that much of the allure of any master’s oeuvre is the human element—the “life force” of the creator. If anything, knowing that we are conditioned to seek out this essence may drive us to see that essence in new masters—the Vermeer’s of today and tomorrow. Knowing how to direct that essential reading in our lives will lead us to greater pleasures tomorrow and makes Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works essential reading for today.

[Many thanks to W.W. Norton & Company for providing me with a review copy of Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.]

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

(Photo by Andres Pantoja/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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