How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like
by Paul Bloom.
W. W. Norton, 2010 ($27.95)

What sets humans apart from other animals? Psychologist Paul Bloom thinks it’s the fact that we like Tabasco sauce. Actually, not just Tabasco but any food that is, at least at first, “aversive.” In How Pleasure Works, Bloom tries to get to the bottom of why humans enjoy such weird pleasures as uncomfortably spicy food and owning an unwashed sweater once worn by George Clooney. The book is a compilation of examples of normal, odd and pathological human behaviors that range from the mundane (consuming bottled water) to the utterly horrifying (murdering and eating other human beings).

Bloom’s central argument is that many human pleasures are accidents. These accidents are caused by essentialism, our ability to identify the essence of something pleasurable. For example, a pair of shoes once worn by a baby is more than just laces and leather—it is an object that contains memories of first steps and trips to the playground. Essentialism, he says, “pushes our desires in directions that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction.” It lets us care more about what we think something is than what it actually is, Bloom argues. “For a painting, it matters who the artist was,” and “for a steak, we care about what sort of animal it came from.”

Bloom develops this theory more thoroughly for some categories of human pleasures than for others. We learn, for example, that despite describing sex as life’s most pleasurable activity, the average American adult spends as much time having it as he or she does filling out tax forms. And one of Bloom’s studies showed that although our enjoyment of art is an accident, even three-year-old children understand that art is no mistake—it matters whether a blob of paint was spilled on a canvas or put there intentionally.

How Pleasure Works may be “a chronicle of human silliness,” but it also reminds us that there are often unsettling consequences to our irrational desires. These include, for example, when we spend our money on expensive clothing, cars and art rather than on saving starving children or when our obsession with food destroys our own health. As Bloom points out, “there is a cost to our pleasure.” —Nicole Branan


This Emotional Life
NOVA/WGBH Science Unit and
Vulcan Productions, Inc., 2010
iTunes ($4.99); DVD ($34.99)

You might want to think of yourself as a rational person, but when it comes to your emotions, you’re pretty powerless. The amygdala—the ancient brain region that controls how you feel—has numerous pathways through which it influences the brain’s decision-making area, the prefrontal cortex. The cortex, on the other hand, has virtually no influence on the amygdala—connections in that direction simply do not exist. The result: we are, in essence, slaves to our emotions.

It is this emotional vulnerability that makes our lives and relationships as rich and colorful as they are, according to the PBS television series This Emotional Life, hosted by Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The show, which first aired January 4–6 and can now be purchased via iTunes or on DVD, explores in three episodes how our emotions shape our relationships, our fears and our happiness.

This Emotional Life focuses on the gripping stories of Americans who have fallen victim to their emotions. We meet a family ripped apart by school bullying and another struggling to understand why their adopted son has so many attachment problems. We learn what it is like to grow up with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism associated with difficulty expressing emotions and forming social bonds. We also discover why it is so difficult to correctly predict what will make us happy and why love is both so important to us and yet so difficult to master. “In many ways, navigating the social world is more complicated than a voyage to the moon,” Gilbert says. “But it’s a journey we have to take, because whether we like it or not, our happiness is in each other’s hands.”

This Emotional Life is an emotional experience in itself. If you are anything like me, you will find yourself holding back tears more than once and feeling strong connections to the people you are watching. But the fact that the show draws you in so deeply simply proves its point: our emotions frequently get the best of us. But you know what? That’s okay. —Melinda Wenner Moyer