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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like Hardcover – June 14, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Bloom (Descartes' Baby), a psychology professor at Yale, explores pleasure from evolutionary and social perspectives, distancing himself from the subject's common association with the senses. By examining studies and anecdotes of pleasure-inducing activities like eating, art, sex, and shopping, Bloom posits that pleasure takes us closer to the essence of a thing, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral. He argues that humans seem to be hard-wired to give, as well as receive, pleasure. A study using mislabeled, cheap bottles of wine, wherein "Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only twelve said this of the cheap label," demonstrates the complicated sociological components behind what we find pleasurable. Bloom even briefly examines positive reactions to very hot food and other "controlled doses of pain." And a study where rhesus monkeys chose pictures of female hindquarters and high-status monkeys over fruit juice allows the author to surmise that "Two major vices-pornography and celebrity worship-are not exclusively human."
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“[A] book that is different from the slew already out there on the general subject of happiness. No advice here about how to become happier by organizing your closest; Bloom is after something deeper than the mere stuff of feeling good.”
- The New York Times Book Review
“Engaging, evocative… Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, is a supple, clear writer, and his parade of counter-intuitive claims about pleasure is beguiling.”
- Michael Washburn, NPR
“Is there anyone who could resist a book about sex, food, art, and fun? Didn’t think so. This book is about all those things, but what turns it from a guilty pleasure into a guiltless one is its deep understanding of philosophy, developmental psychology, and evolutionary theory… How Pleasure Works should stoke your neurons into a frenzy and leave you wanting more.”
- Mary Carmichael, Newsweek.com
“Bloom covers food, sex and art at length and touches on much more in this accessible compendium of experiments, quotes, philosophical nuggets and anecdotes. Sigmund Freud, Mr. Pleasure Principle himself, would have approved.”
- Katy Steinmetz, Time
“Scholarly yet spy…. Bloom salts the book with all manner of pungent, apposite points…. A heartening, well-developed argument.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“A gracefully written book and a lot of fun.”
- Peter D. Kramer, Slate
“Drawing on his own research as well as studies in neuroscience, behavioral economics, and philosophy, [Bloom] makes a powerful argument for essentialism at the crux of human pleasure.”
- Maywa Montenegro, Seed Magazine
“In this eloquent and provocative book, Paul Bloom takes us inside the paradoxes of pleasure, exploring everything from cannibalism to Picasso to IKEA furniture. The quirks of delight, it turns out, are a delightful way to learn about the human mind.”
- Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide
“This book is not just a pleasure, but a revelation, by one of psychology’s deepest thinkers and best writers. Lucid and fascinating, you’ll want to read it slowly and savor the experience.”
- Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
“How Pleasure Works has one of the best discussions I’ve read of why art is pleasurable, why it matters to us, and why it moves us so.”
- Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
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The author also tends to be a bit hit and miss in narrative abilities. At times he's engaging and the style is not unlike "Freakonomics". However, where that book typically took time to really dig apart some of the cited examplesor experiments, this book tends to just reference studies or examples in a passing fashion.
Another minor issue I have with the book is that the author tends to try and explain things as having a REASON or a PURPOSE too much. For example, in a chapter about art, he seemed to get hung up on their needing to be an evolutionary reason for this element of humanity. However the author has either forgotten or doesn't know that there are many examples of evolution not doing away with adaptions that are no longer relevant but are not overtly harmful. For example, male nipples (a remnant of the fact we are all conceived female), 3rd molars (largely redundant based on how heavily our food is processed now and how little chewing we do, relatively speaking), the appendix (again, largely irrelevant due to not having to eat raw vegetatian all the time), or a set of muscles in the shoulders that are largely useless now that we don't spend our days hanging in trees. So, point being: our appreciation of art may not have an evolutionary advantage but merely be a nice side effect of having a brain geared towards open-ended problem solving and non-linear critical thinking (as an aside, they've found that proto-humans had both more white matter in their brains and were leaving many more examples of art than Neanderthals were, but how would a tendency to waste time painting pictures have helped proto-humans survive AND thrive better than our now dead ancient cousins?). And the author does this multiple times, not bringing up or considering the possibility of the "redundant" factor in evolutionary history (although he does on occasion mention the possibility of certain ideas or elements being just fortunate side effects, but only in a "last possibility" sort of way.
Overall it's a good book. It introduced some new ideas about human psychology and evolution to me, and brought up some interesting points about what we prioritize in terms of pleasure. However, the book tends to be a little light on its explorations and in-depth discussions, especially in later chapters.
This book is written to be readable probably much as this college professor teaches the subject to his college students who have notoriously short attention spans. Every teacher knows these days you have to be half scholar and half entertainer if you are to get your students to tune in to you instead of their smart phones.
I think Bloom does an excellent job of covering a wide spectrum of where we find our pleasures and showing you why. As an author myself I can see that one distraction from the content is the actual book design which includes the font, margins, spacing, chapter headings, paper and cover stock and the cover design. The cover artwork is okay but the paper stock of the cover and interior of the book are decidedly cheap which I think makes you take the content less seriously. Every woman knows "packaging counts" and it is true in book design as well. Even when a big publisher like W.W. Norton agree to publish your work, an author should fight for at least input on the book design.
Despite the cheapy feel of the book in your hand, the content is well worth considering...it may make you think twice before you spurge on that special something you really cannot afford.