Hermann Goering, the designated successor to Adolf Hitler, was waiting to be executed for crimes against humanity when he learned about the pleasure that had been stolen from him.

At that moment, according to one observer, Goering looked “as if for the first time he ha[d] discovered there was evil in the world.” This evil was perpetrated by the Dutch painter and art collector Han van Meegeren. During World War II, Goering gave 137 paintings, with a total value of what would now be around $10 million, to van Meegeren. What he got in return was Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Johannes Vermeer. Like his boss, Goering was an obsessive art collector and had already plundered much of Europe. But he was a huge fan of Vermeer, and this was the acquisition that he was most proud of.

After the war ended, Allied forces found the painting and learned whom he had gotten it from. Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with the crime of selling this great Dutch masterpiece to a Nazi. This was treason, punishable by death. After six weeks in prison, van Meegeren confessed—but to a different crime. He had sold Goering a fake, he said. It was not a Vermeer. He had painted it himself. Van Meegeren said that he had also painted other works thought to be by Vermeer, including The Supper at Emmaus, one of the most famous paintings in Holland.

At first, nobody believed him. To prove his case, he was asked to produce another “Vermeer.” Over the span of six weeks, van Meegeren—surrounded by reporters, photographers, and television crews, and high on alcohol and morphine (the only way he could work)—did just that. As one Dutch tabloid put it: “HE PAINTS FOR HIS LIFE!” The result was a Vermeer-like creation that he called The Young Christ Teaching in the Temple, a painting that was obviously superior to the one he had sold to Goering. Van Meegeren was found guilty of the lesser crime of obtaining money by deception and sentenced to a year in prison. He died before serving his sentence and was thought of as a folk hero—the man who had swindled the Nazis.

We are going to return to van Meegeren later in the book, but think now about poor Goering and how he must have felt when he was told that his painting was a forgery. Goering was an unusual man in many ways—almost comically self-obsessed, savagely indifferent to the suffering of others; he was described by one of his interviewers as an amiable psychopath—but there was nothing odd about his shock. You would have felt the same. Part of this is the humiliation of being duped. But even if there had been no betrayal at all, but an innocent mistake, still, the discovery would strip away a certain pleasure. When you buy a painting that is thought to be a Vermeer, part of the joy that it gives is based on the belief about who painted it. If this belief turns out to be wrong, that pleasure will fade. (Conversely—and such cases have occurred—if you discover that a painting you had thought was copy or imitation is actually an original, it will give more pleasure and its value will increase.)

It is not just art. The pleasure we get from all sorts of everyday objects is related to our beliefs about their histories. Think about the following items:

  • a tape measure that was owned by John F. Kennedy (sold in auction for $48,875)
  • the shoes thrown at George W. Bush by an Iraqi journalist in 2008 (for which a Saudi millionaire reportedly offered $10 million)
  • another thrown object, the seventieth home run baseball hit by Mark McGwire (bought by Canadian entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, who owns one of the finest collections of famous baseballs, for $3 million)
  • the autograph of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon
  • swatches of Princess Diana’s wedding dress
  • your baby’s first shoes
  • your wedding ring
  • a child’s teddy bear

These all have value above and beyond their practical utility. Not everyone is a collector, but everyone I know owns at least one object that is special because of its history, either through its relation to admired people or significant events or its connection to someone of personal significance. This history is invisible and intangible, and in most cases there is no test that can ever distinguish the special object from one that looks the same. But still, it gives us pleasure and the duplicate would leave us cold. This is the sort of mystery that this book is about.



Some pleasures are easier to explain than others. Consider the question of why we like to drink water. Why is there so much joy in quenching thirst, and why is it torture to deprive someone of water for a long period? Well, that is an easy one. Animals need water to survive, and so they are motivated to seek it out. Pleasure is the reward for getting it; pain is the punishment for doing without.

This answer is both simple and correct, but it raises another question: Why do things work out so nicely? It is awfully convenient that, to mangle the Rolling Stones lyric, we can’t always get what we want—but we want what we need. Of course, nobody thinks that it is a lucky accident. A theist would argue that this connection between pleasure and survival is established through divine intervention: God wanted His creatures to live long enough to go forth and multiply, so He instilled within them a desire for water. For a Darwinian, the match is the product of natural selection. Those creatures in the distant past who were motivated to seek water out-reproduced those who weren’t.

More generally, an evolutionary perspective—which I think has considerable advantages over theism in explaining how the mind works—sees the function of pleasure as motivating certainbehavior that is good for the genes. As the comparative psychologist George Romanes observed in 1884: “Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”

Most nonhuman pleasures make perfect sense from this perspective. When you are training your pet, you don’t reward it by reading poetry or taking it to the opera; you give it Darwinian prizes like tasty snacks. Nonhuman animals enjoy food, water, and sex; they want to rest when tired; they are soothed by affection, and so on. They like what evolutionary biology says that they should like.

What about us? Humans are animals and so we share many of the pleasures of other species. The psychologist Steven Pinker notes that people are happiest when “healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved.” There is quite a bit of pleasure packed into that quote, and I don’t doubt for a minute that this is explained through the same process that shaped the desires of animals such as chimpanzees and dogs and rats. It is adaptively beneficial to seek health, food, comfort, and so on, and to get pleasure from achieving these goals. As the anthropologist Robert Ardrey put it, “we are born of risen apes, not fallen angels.”

But this list is incomplete. It leaves out art, music, stories, sentimental objects, and religion. Perhaps these are not uniquely human. I once heard from a primate researcher that some captive primates keep security blankets, and there are reports that elephants and chimpanzees can create art (though, as I will discuss later on, I am skeptical about this). But in any case, these are not the usual activities of nonhuman animals. They are entirely typicalof our species, showing up in every normal individual. This needs to be explained. one solution is that our uniquely human pleasures do not emerge through natural selection or any other process of biological evolution. They are the product of culture, and they are uniquely human because only humans have culture (or at least enough culture to matter).

Despite the bad rap that they sometimes get from more adaptation-oriented researchers, those who endorse this sort of culture proposal are not necessarily ignorant or dismissive of evolutionary biology; they don’t doubt that humans, including human brains, have evolved. But they disagree with the notion that we have evolved innate ideas, or specialized modules and mental organs. Rather, humans are special in that we possess an enhanced capacity for flexibility, to create and learn biologically arbitrary ideas, practices, and tastes. Other animals have instincts, but humans are smart.

This theory has to be right to some extent. Nobody could deny the intellectual flexibility of our species, and nobody could deny that culture can shape and structure human pleasure. If you win a million dollars in a lottery, you might whoop with joy, but the very notion of money emerged through human history, not due to the replication and selection of genes. Indeed, even those pleasures that we share with other animals, such as food and sex, manifest themselves in different ways across societies. Nations have their own cuisines, their own sexual rituals, even their own forms of pornography, and this is surely not because the citizens of these nations are genetically different.All of this might tempt someone from a more cultural bent to say that while natural selection plays some limited role in shaping what we like—we have evolved hunger and thirst, a sex drive, curiosity, some social instincts—it has little to say about the specifics. In the words of the critic Louis Menand, “every aspect of life has a biological foundation in exactly the same sense, which is that unless it was biologically possible, it wouldn’t exist. After that, it’s up for grabs.”

I will try to show in the chapters that follow that this is not how pleasure works. Most pleasures have early developmental origins; they are not acquired through immersion into a society. And they are shared by all humans; the variety that one sees can be understood as variations on a universal theme. Painting is a cultural invention, but the love of art is not. Societies have different stories, but stories share certain plots. Taste in food and sex differ—butnot by all that much.

It is true that we can imagine cultures in which pleasure is very different, where people rub food in feces to improve taste and have no interest in salt, sugar, or chili peppers; or where they spend for- tunes on forgeries and throw originals into the trash; or line up to listen to static, cringing at the sound of a melody. But this is science fiction, not reality.

One way to sum this up is that humans start off with a fixed list of pleasures and we can’t add to that list. This might sound like an insanely strong claim, because of course one can introduce new pleasures into the world, as with the inventions of television, chocolate, video games, cocaine, dildos, saunas, crossword puzzles, reality television, novels, and so on. But I would suggest that these are enjoyable because they are not that new; they connect—in a reasonably direct way—to pleasures that humans already pos-sess. Belgian chocolate and barbecued ribs are modern inventions, but they appeal to our prior love of sugar and fat. There are novel forms of music created all the time, but a creature that is biologically unprepared for rhythm will never grow to like any of them; they will always be noise.


Many significant human pleasures are universal. But they are not biological adaptations. They are by-products of mental systems that have evolved for other purposes. This is plainly true for some pleasures. Many people now get a kick out of coffee, for instance, but this isn’t because coffee lovers of the past had more offspring than coffee haters. It is because coffee is a stimulant, and we often enjoy being stimulated. This is an obvious case, but I think that this by-product approach can help explain some of the more difficult puzzles we are interested in. The proposal that I will explore is that these pleasures arise, at least in part, as accidental by-products of what we can call an “essentialist” cast of mind.

One illustration of essentialism comes from a novella by J. D. Salinger, which begins with one of his favorite characters, Seymour, telling a Taoist story to a baby. In the story, Duke Mu asks a friend, Po Lo, to find him someone who can identify a superlative horse. Po Lo recommends an expert, Duke Mu hires him, and soon the expert, Kao, comes back with news of a horse that fits the Duke’s requirements, and he describes it as a dun-colored mare. Duke Mu buys the recommended horse, but to his shock, he finds that it is a coal-black stallion.

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PAUL BLOOM is a professor of Psychology and Cognitive science at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art.

He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field.

He has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic. He is the author or editor of 5 books, including, most recently, How Pleasure Works.

He lives in New Haven with his wife, Karen Wynn, and his sons, Max and Zachary.

10 responses to “The Essence of Pleasure: An Excerpt from How Pleasure Works

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    Welcome to TNB, Paul.

    There aren’t too many academics here, but there are lots of smart people, both writing or commenting or both.

    I’m an anthropologist (as Robert Ardrey, contrary to what is widely believed, was not). I look forward to seeing how you navigate the cultural and evolutionary thickets out there in the territories of pleasure and belief (or the conditions of its suspension).

    I assume your mention of the “chapters that follow” means we’ll be seeing some of them here. I hope so.

  2. dwoz says:

    I’d be interested in what people in the mind biz think of Humor, and how it fits into a biological model.

    What is humor really? It’s pleasure derived from some incongruity or inconsistency, and perhaps from error.

  3. Interesting topic: pleasure. Biologically speaking, I believe, we as a species, wrestle with our biology in parallel with social norms such as the pleasure of materialism. To buy. To own. To receive a minute of gratification when we allow our biological cravings (such as sex, nourishment & climax) to fail us, or to at least not be satisfied as they should. For example, you mention winning the lottery. A million dollars newly found in our pockets elevates our status in society to many, allowing us to leap brick walls previously set before us. Thus, this elevated status lends itself to an attraction of what others find stimulating, namely power; and though power, historically speaking, is seen as attractive, it is because it allows the recipient and the coat-tail grabber the possibility of a comfortable life.

  4. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Ooh. I wonder what McFarlane thinks about his ball now. Does he feel van Meegerened?

    I think a lot of the ideas explored here are interesting, but seem irrevocably imprisoned by context. What is an objective assessment as to cognition by humans versus animals (i.e. whether or not Chimpanzees can create art)? Also, how can one assess a claim of fixed, essential pleasures without some sort of rigorous way of qualifying pleasures, which again seems an inescapable quicksand?

    • dwoz says:

      I’m with you on this, Uche.

      Who’s to say that whales don’t haiku?
      Who’s to say that chimps flinging poo,
      Is devoid of aesthetic?

      Or that sheep don’t feel love
      when the vet dons the glove
      sans anesthetic?

      Who’s to say that the tern
      and monarch don’t yearn
      for the life peripatetic?

    • Gloria says:

      I agree with you, Uche. There is a lot to think about here. I, too, found some of what is presented as fact to be too rigorous.

      For instance:

      The psychologist Steven Pinker notes that people are happiest when “healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved.”

      I get that this is a fairly simple yet comprehensive list of the basic human drives, but I must take exception. I recently committed to six months of celibacy for a whole number of personal reasons, the least of which not being that I was no longer finding please in sex in the absence of a meaningful relationship. And now that I have made this commitment, I am far more content than when I considered myself sexually active. This is not a choice non-human animals will ever make. And so, to me, it makes the whole discussion about whether or not the basic human drives are the sum total of our sources of pleasure moot.

      I’m not discounting your research, Paul, and I’m happy to see you here on TNB. (Welcome!) I’m just pointing out a place where I said, “Hrm…”

      • Gloria says:

        that would be PLEASURE, not PLEASE.

        I blame my laptop for all of my errors (which I’ve been making many of lately.)

      • dwoz says:

        I almost wonder if the “primacy of biology” crowd wouldn’t consider your particular scenario to be a SUPPORT of their position?

        That you make your choice not because of some abstract personal prerogative, but because of some EVEN MORE abstract idea of your place outside the “whelping” cycle.

        I personally don’t feel that the “primitivists” (which is apparently not a word) have a great deal to offer to the human condition. Yes, we can trot out the studies where chimps are offered a choice between food or morphine, and starve to death. And it isn’t terribly hard to find the exceptions to my opinion out in the world. But I think, since the development of written language, that we have to mostly leave the “primitive motivations theory” behind.

  5. Alanna says:

    Fascinating subject!

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