Bloom explains the science of pleasure

Psychology professor Paul Bloom recently released a new book, titled “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.” Bloom, whose research focusses on how children and adults understand the world, is a former president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and is the co-editor of the psychology journal, Behavioral and Brain Sciences.The News sat down to talk with him on Monday in his office in SSS 202.

Q Your last two books were about child development. What made you choose to transition to the current topic of pleasure?

A A lot of my ideas for this book emerge from my studies on children. I’ve always been interested in children’s understanding of artwork. My studies with kids support an idea in psychology called essentialism. The idea is, when we respond to things in the world, we respond to them not just as superficial creatures, not just what they look like and feel like, but what they really are. So for artwork, children would respond not to just what something looked like but to why it was made, who made it — to the intentions underlying its existence.

Q How do you define pleasure?

A I would argue that there are deep similarities that cut across different sorts of pleasure. It might seem that the pleasure one gets from, say, a story is very different from the pleasure one gets from a glass of wine or from hearing your favorite song. But I argue all these things share certain things in common. So the argument that runs throughout the book is that for all of our pleasures – everything from animal pleasures like sex all the way through human pleasures like painting and security blankets and stories. Pleasure is deep. For all of them a shared basic property, which is the pleasure we get from things really has a lot to do with what we’re experiencing.

Q What do you think about people who derive pleasure from pain?

A People enjoy a little bit of pain. We enjoy hot baths and saunas, spicy foods. We enjoy horror movies and tragedies that make us cry. So for some reason we’re drawn to a little bit of pain. And I think the answer is that the pain can become pleasurable if it’s not too severe and if we have control over it.

Q Is pleasure, in a sense, a uniquely human experience?

A My book argues that certain aspects of pleasure are uniquely human. There’s essentialism; there’s depth. Of course my dogs enjoy eating. They enjoy running outside and catching a ball. They show every sign of enjoying it and they’ll act so as to get it. But essentialism and depth is uniquely human. The fact that it matters so much where something came from is uniquely human though pleasure itself shows up across all sorts of creatures.

Q How do you juggle research and writing?

A Well, there are only so many hours in a day. I tend to write in the mornings. And of course the sort of research that I do is intimately connected to what I write. I end up writing about a lot about what I do in the lab with my undergraduate students and my graduate students. There is a nice synergy between writing and research and also teaching.