Media, Sci-Tech

Opening the doors to the secrets of how pleasure works

By Mandy De Waal 28 October 2010

Some people like being spanked for sexual pleasure, but the idea of going to a dentist is abhorrent to them. A lot of people slow down to gawk at gory accidents in anticipation of seeing a bloody mess. There are people who enjoy cutting themselves and children who can’t do without their security blankets. In his fascinating new book, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom uncovers the secrets of why we like what we like. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Although we stand at the outer edges of understanding the human mind, Bloom has taken us one step closer to a better grasp on how we work through his study on how pleasure works.

Jerome Brudos was a serial killer with a particular fetish for women’s shoes. He started out stalking women and would knock them down or choke them unconscious so that he could run off with their shoes. But it didn’t end there. Brudos’ appetite grew because of the complex pleasure he derived from both hurting women and from their shoes, and he progressed to raping and murdering women. Once he even took a female foot as a trophy, earning the moniker “The Shoe Fetish Slayer.”

To understand the urges that drove Brudos you can read Paul Bloom’s new book “How Pleasure Works – The New Science of Why We Like What We Like”. Bloom calls himself an evolutionary psychologist with an interest in development, is a professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University and well known for his research on morality, how children understand the world as well as art, fiction and dualism.

His new book delves deep into uncovering what pleasure is, how we have come to like what we like and what the science is behind the interesting, strange and at times bizarre desires and appetites humans have – such as the taste for human flesh.

Watch Paul Bloom’s introduction to the study of the human mind at Yale:

“Cannibalism is interesting because I think it reflects in a passive and subtle way our essentialism. I think one reason why cannibals are cannibals is that they believe they are imbuing the essence of the people they consume,” Bloom told The Daily Maverick from his home in New Haven, Connecticut. “There is the belief that people have invisible essences and that by eating another some of that special essence can be captured. This could be by eating an ancestor or an enemy.”

That was the belief of computer expert Armin Meiwes who went online to find someone he could eat. He eventually connected with Bernd Brandes, and in Meiwes’ farmhouse in a remote German village after Brandes had consumed alcohol and sleeping tablets, Meiwes cut off his penis and fried it in olive oil. He didn’t manage to eat it, but after murdering, dismembering and freezing Brandes, Germany’s notorious cannibal took great pleasure over the weeks in defrosting and frying Brandes’ remains in olive oil and garlic. Bloom writes that Meiwes consumed about 20kg of Brandes in a ritual that involved the best crockery, cutlery and a fine South African red wine.

Bloom states the clinical reason why Meiwes did this is because he was abandoned by his father and the cannibal fantasised about having a younger brother, one that would never leave him. “The idea of fidelity through consumption seems to be a common theme in such cases,” Bloom writes in his book. “One expert had a similar explanation for Jeffrey Dahmer, the American cannibal killer, arguing that Dahmer ate his lovers because he wanted them never to leave.”

The notion of cannibalism is utterly repulsive to reasonable, thinking people, but Bloom says that everyday people who don’t literally engage in cannibalism have the same impulse. “The Christian ritual of the Eucharist where people symbolically consume ‘the body and blood of Christ’ is a modern example of acquiring someone’s essence by ingesting a part of them. Another example is the love we have for pure and natural food which is built from the desire and belief that things have deeper properties and that we ourselves can perhaps become pure by imbibing them,” says Bloom.

Watch Conversation with Paul Bloom on the origins of pleasure on NYT Book Review:

Essentialism or the idea that people and things have a deep underlying essence is central to Bloom’s thesis on pleasure. “I would define essentialism in general as the intuitive belief in the deeper nature of things, an intuitive belief that things have a deeper nature that makes them what they are.” Bloom says we are born essentialists who think of things in terms of their deeper natures, and that this isn’t just confined to pleasure, but is true of the way we see all things. “I think one reason why we have essentialism is that it is a very adaptive way of looking at the world, and it is adaptive because it is for the most part true. It is true that things have a deeper essence that makes them what they are. What it is to be a tiger isn’t just to look a certain way, rather it is to have a certain biological structure, a certain DNA. What it is to be a Picasso painting isn’t to look a certain way, but it is to have a certain history. I think our essentialism is basically rational, although I will agree that it can sometimes lead us into terrible mistakes.”

Like the terrible mistake Meiwes made in believing he could contain Brandes’ essence by eating him, even proclaiming: “With every bite, my memory of him grew stronger.” Bloom writes in his book that Meiwes even claims he began to speak better English after consuming Brandes, who was so fluent in English.

This illustrates the powerful role that imagination plays in the pleasure we take from the obscene and the ordinary. “Imagination can often give you the same pleasure that you get from reality,” says Bloom. “One reason why pornography gives people so much pleasure and they like it so much is that to some extent, like real sex, a cowboy movie or a police movie lets you live out a fantasy of something you’d really like to do. It is more complicated than that though because sometimes we enjoy in imagination things that aren’t pleasurable at all in the real world, like tragedies and horrible things. I think that part of that pleasure of the imagination is the kind of pleasure we take in play. And, in this case, that play is about seeking out adverse and unpleasant situations.”

While we engage in fantasy which is fiction, the emotions we feel as a by-product of that musing are very real. When you are watching a movie or reading a book you know full well that it is not real, that it is fictional, yet you are moved. You are horrified, revolted or delighted by something even though you know it is not real. “This is a great puzzle that people have been interested in for a long time. I think part of the answer is that a good portion of our psychologies is actually indifferent to the difference between what is real and what is unreal,” says Bloom, adding that if you look over a cliff and then look at a very lifelike picture of the same thing, it may strike the eye in much the same way. “Even though you know one is real and one isn’t, you can’t help but respond in the same way,” he says.

Watch Paul Bloom speaking about our dualist nature:

The story of pleasure is a complicated one and Bloom says in part it is shaped by evolution. “In a sense the pleasures we take are very strongly shaped by the benefits these pleasures gave to our ancestors. It really is good for us to eat food when we are hungry or to drink water when we are thirsty and those are pleasurable because animals that respond to those tend to do very well.” Bloom says the same goes with the pleasures of sex, social life and children – people who enjoy these things tend to prosper in life. “Another important part of the pleasure story is more incidental and more uniquely human,” says Bloom. “This is our essentialist approach to pleasure and the fact that we take pleasure out of what we think are the deeper properties of things.”

If we weren’t essentialists, Bloom says, our lives would be markedly different. “We would believe that a man could become a woman by changing his clothes. That you could take a lion and paint it and it would then become a tiger. People wouldn’t care about the difference between an original and a forgery.”

Blooms’ investigation into pleasure reveals much about the working of the mind, the most evident that we are not the simple or superficial creatures we might think we are. “The study of pleasure presents a certain view of the human psychology which is that pleasure is deep and the human psychology is deep. We often see ourselves as superficial creatures that just respond to the sensory impulses and appearances of things. But something as seemingly simple as the foods we like or sexual desire is blindingly complicated and reflects the depth and richness of our psychology, which distinguishes us from other creatures.”

And, how much do we know of the human mind? Bloom says that when it comes to understanding how our thinking works, we are at the beginning of the beginning. “We know very little of the mind. Psychology is such a young science and in a sense we are at such early stages of understanding it that we know just a fraction of what is going on. To me that is why it is interesting, it is exhilarating to study something that is so wide open, in the early phases and there is so much more.” DM


Read more: “Can Science Capture the Complexity of Human Pleasures?” at Slate, NYT Book Review‘s “The Psychology of Bliss” , “How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom” book review by the Guardian, “The pursuit of happiness” in the New York Post.   

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