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The Secret To Pleasure? Mind Over Matter

"Illusion," quipped Voltaire, "is the first of all pleasures." Clever enough, but more accurate would be the reverse assertion that pleasure is the first of all illusions. People are poor analysts when it comes to pleasure. We think we eat truffles because they're delicious. We think we swoon in front of a Vermeer because it's masterly and beautiful. This assumption of a simple correlation between quality and sensation misunderstands the promiscuity of pleasure.

"What matters most," writes Paul Bloom in his engaging, evocative How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, "is not the world as it [actually physiologically impacts] our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is." Bottled water supplies the purest example of Bloom's argument. Partisans tout the superiority of Perrier, or whatever their favorite brand of sparkling water happens to be. But as experiment after experiment demonstrates, give someone seltzer water but tell them it's Perrier, and they'll wax ecstatic about the mineral springs of southern France.

Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, is a supple, clear writer, and his parade of counterintuitive claims about pleasure is beguiling, if a bit indebted to the Gladwellianism of contemporary nonfiction. He quotes studies that yield even more startling results in various contexts. Sommeliers think they're drinking a fine French red when they're actually downing a cheap Californian white. People find dog food succulent when it's labeled foie gras.

Bloom argues that an ever-present "essentialism" conditions pleasure. This is the belief that everything has an "underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly, and it is this hidden reality that matters."

"For a painting," Bloom writes, "it matters who the artist is, for a story, it matters whether it is truth or fiction; for a steak, we care about what sort of animal it came from; for sex, we are strongly affected by who we think our sexual partner really is." This is obvious on its face, but as Bloom's discussion about an accomplished Vermeer forger shows, we often discern value or take away pleasure based solely on extrinsic elements.

Bloom writes with a light touch, but never lets the dark side of this human quirk slip from view. Essentialism can quickly blend into a simpleminded superficialism -- or, much more insidiously, racism and sexism. Race-based animosity relies on badly distorted essentialism, Bloom asserts, and the fascination with virginity felt by much of the world reveals the connection between essentialism and oppressive fetishism.

How Pleasure Works ends with a lengthy discussion about the pleasure we take in pursuits we know to be imaginary, such as daydreaming. Much of Bloom's thesis is anchored in evolution, and he argues that our deepest satisfactions are the "lucky result" of our development as creatures unable to "fully distinguish reality from imagination."

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Michael Washburn