Cognition: Not-So-Simple Pleasures

The hidden side of sensations

By Matthew Hutson, published on July 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom explains why we like what we like.

Porn is about more than double-Ds, and wine is about more than macromolecules. In his new book, How Pleasure Works, psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale argues that the joys in life run deeper than you think. He spoke with PT.

Does cognition affect all our animal pleasures?

I imagine an orgasm would feel very different depending on why you think you're having it. Or take something as simple as smell. If you believe an odor is dog feces, it smells terrible, but if you believe it's old cheese suddenly it smells much better. Your experience changes.

Why is that?

One of the themes in my work has long been that when we figure out what something is, we're sensitive not just to perceptual features but also to our beliefs about its essence or deeper nature. It occurred to me that essentialism extends beyond naming and categorization to more sensual experiences.

What pleasure do you find hardest to explain?

Music—why certain sounds give us such delight. For just about everything else in my book—sex, food, religious rituals, stories, masochism—there are plausible theories, but music is such a damn mystery.

Music is more mysterious than masochism?

There are almost too many theories on masochism. People say it's an adrenaline rush, or it's self-punishment, or it's a contrast effect: We're relieved when it stops. I think some things such as horror movies or masochistic fantasies are each, in a sense, a form of play where you vicariously expose yourself to negative experiences.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Oh, god.... That's not the sort of question you answer honestly. For me, television is the great art form of our time. I love Lost and House. I don't watch reality TV but it hits a certain sweet spot: Our knowledge that it's real makes it more vivid, and it's carefully edited for maximum dramatic impact. It keeps the good parts in.