How Pleasure Works

What a "Duplicating Machine" Reveals About Pleasure
New books dissected over email.
June 14 2010 12:55 PM

How Pleasure Works

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Paul Bloom's How Pleasure Works.

Dear Peter,

I've long been familiar with your work on depression, and I can see that pleasure would make for a nice break. But the topic isn't that new to you—you've written movingly about human flourishing and human happiness. In fact, I think much of your impatience with those who talk about the virtues of depression, including those who see it as a biological adaptation, is rooted in your appreciation of how rich and fulfilling a nondepressed life can really be.

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Thank you for the kind words about How Pleasure Works and for the thoughtful remarks that followed. What I'll do here is first raise a disagreement, then try to answer your question, and then end with a question of my own.

You worry that modern psychology is besotted with Darwin. But the discovery that our minds have evolved through natural selection provides an important source of constraint on psychological theory. The vision sciences would have never made such progress, for example, if researchers were blocked from considering the adaptive problems that the vision system has evolved to solve. If we lacked the insights of Darwin, we would have never learned so much about facial expressions, or moral intuitions, or mother-child interactions. And I think it would be impossible to develop an adequate theory of the pleasures of sex and food without some appreciation that these pleasures have been shaped in part by the forces of biological evolution.

You have a legitimate beef, but it's with those who believe that all interesting human capacities are adaptations. I don't doubt that such people exist, but none of the evolutionary psychologists I know fall into this category. For instance, Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works is probably the most important book in evolutionary psychology, and it ends with an extended argument that art, music, and religion are all biological accidents, not adaptations.

What about clinical depression? I was convinced by your attack, in Against Depression, on the view that depression is an adaptation. But you weren't being anti-Darwinian when you made this attack; you were making perfectly reasonable arguments for one evolutionary account over another.

You've asked me how far psychology has moved in the direction that I am pursuing. How sympathetic are my colleagues to the view that we resonate, intellectually and emotionally, with deeper aspects of people and things, to their essences?

Unfortunately for me, not so much. The truth is that empiricism still reigns in my field, and the prevailing view is that what really matters for our psychology is information received through the senses. This is why so many psychologists distrust innate ideas and essentialist biases and are so enthusiastic about neural networks and mirror neurons.

Then there is testability. As you put it, it is straightforward to explore the notion that heterosexual men are aroused by a specific physical ratio of the female body. It is harder to test the theory that a man can be aroused simply by knowing that he is observing a certain woman. But it can be done. My book describes research with young children in which a "duplicating machine" is used to replicate their beloved objects, such as Teddy bears and security blankets. We find that the children tend to reject perfect duplicates, consistent with the idea that they see their original objects as possessing distinct and unique essences. Now, adults wouldn't believe in a duplicating machine, but a similar methodology could be used to study the subtleties of male sexual and romantic desire.

Another reason for the appeal of the superficial view is that, at least to some extent, it's right. As I discuss in my book, certain physical features do tend to elicit sexual desire, regardless of our beliefs about the person possessing the features. Some liquids taste better than others, no matter what you think you are drinking. It would be crazy to deny that the pleasures of food, sex, consumer products, paintings, movies, and most everything else can be influenced by their superficial, sensory properties. What I try to do, though, is show that this isn't the whole story or even the most important part of the story.

Here's another example of this: I discuss the mystery of what Paul Rozin has dubbed "benign masochism"—the occasional pleasure we get from controlled doses of unpleasantness, as when watching a tragedy or horror movie. The feelings of sadness and fear are real, triggered in the same way that pornography triggers sexual arousal. If we were purely perceptual creatures, this would never give us pleasure. But our appreciation that these experiences are unreal allows us to throw a mental switch, providing the right distance from what we are seeing. We can use fiction as a safe and controlled way to explore alternative worlds, including worst-case scenarios. It is a form of play—in the case of tragedy and horror, rough play.

Does this make sense to you?

Best,
Paul

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Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

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