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(Photo illustration by Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)
(Photo illustration by Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

Q&A

Why we want what we want: A new book looks to explain it all Add to ...

"The enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is. ... For a painting, it matters who the artist was; 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."

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In How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like , Yale psychologist Paul Bloom looks at how things gratify us, from sex, food and art, to celebrity memorabilia and our own imaginations.

Drawing on research in neuroscience, child development and behavioural economics, Prof. Bloom argues that while human sexual desires used to be driven by evolution, many today have little to do with survival or reproduction. He spoke with The Globe and Mail from New Haven, Conn.

You write that pleasure is rooted in essentialism. What do you mean by that?

The argument that I make in my book concerning sexuality and romance is that what arouses us isn't just superficial. We don't merely respond to certain sights, smells and sensations. Rather, a lot of our response is dictated by who we think we're responding to. Essentialism has an adaptive benefit. It pays off, from an evolutionary point of view, to care about invisible aspects of people, to fall in love with specific individuals.

What about the places where pleasure veers off evolutionary course, like fetishes? You write about foot and high heel shoe fetishists. You say we aren't sexually aroused by trees but there is objectum sexuality disorder, with people falling for roller coasters and the Eiffel Tower. How do you explain that in terms of pleasure?

If anybody tells you they know what's going on in fetishes, they're lying to you. Nobody has the foggiest idea. People tell their cockamamie behaviourist stories, which is that someone is approaching sexual release and his eyes happen to fall upon a woman's shoe. But why a shoe? Why not an alarm clock, or a lamp?

You preface a discussion on pleasure and sexual fetishes such as foot fetishes with a turkey study conducted in the 1950s, in which male turkeys were aroused by a lifelike model of a female turkey. The researchers began taking the replica apart, eventually leaving only the head behind, but the turkeys were still trying to mount the head.

Male turkeys are just turkeys. They can be aroused by very minimal stimuli.

"People can be turkeys," you write. "We can be transfixed by a body part while being indifferent to the person who comes with it."

That's the way fetishes are stupid. They're stupid because they're like the male turkey trying to mount the head. You're triggered by something, like a foot or something, without access to all the richness and complexity of normal desire.

What about pornography, which is far more widespread than foot fetishes? You point out that even animals look at porn, describing experiments with rhesus monkeys who gave up their fruit juice to look at photos of female monkey hindquarters.

Monkey porn.

Why do humans get pleasure from pornographic images?

The story of pornography is an accident. We've grown smart enough that we can fool ourselves into thinking we're looking at real world things. [Pornography]works by exploiting the fact that to some extent, we're indifferent to the difference between reality and fiction.

You quote psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who argued that the human penis evolved to be longer, thicker and more flexible than the penises of other primates so that men can give women more sexual pleasure, and that women are drawn to men who can give them that. You also point out that women don't have to orgasm to get pregnant. So what is the evolutionary benefit of that particular pleasure?

It's a huge debate - and I'm agnostic. One view is that it's an adaptation, that [female]orgasm helps the intake of sperm or facilitates pair bonding between males and females. If the female receives a rush of pleasure, she becomes more attached to the male and all sorts of good things arise from it. The other view is that it's an accident, that the female clitoris is just a homologue of a male penis.

You argue that our minds and sexuality are "not rationally calibrated to modern times." You point out society's unrelenting focus on virginity with people like Natalie Dylan, who tried to auction off her virginity.

For men, virginity matters a lot and there's an evolutionary rationale for that. The man can be confident that any children arising from sexual contact are his. From a genetic point of view, the worst possible fate for a man is to devote his life to raising children that do not contain his genetic material. That's from the natural selection point of view. ... Humans are smart enough to create social systems where the genes don't really matter, but our biology and our minds have not evolved to be that smart. A lot of our desires are calibrated from our evolutionary past and they don't make sense, but that doesn't make them go away.

At the same time, you write that the mind is ultimately much more than a "Machiavellian schemer" or "data cruncher:" it's also an "entertainment centre, shaped by the forces of sexual selection to give pleasure to others."

What some evolutionary theorists argue, somewhat convincingly, is that a lot of what goes on when there are forces of evolution at play is that we be entertaining to one another. This is because we select each other as mates, as friends. They could please you by being pretty, funny and clever, so we've evolved to be pretty and funny and clever.

Does it take some of the pleasure out of pleasure to dissect it like this?

People always wonder that. There's a quote from Keats about the rainbow being less pretty once it was explained, but I don't think so. A theory of why you like art or sex or food doesn't make the pleasure go away. If anything, it has the chance of enhancing it because once you know how something works, you can exploit that knowledge for your own pleasurable benefit.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

 

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