The Science of Pleasure

We’re all programmed to enjoy pleasurable things. But what motivates those distinctions?  And can pleasure ever cause pain?

All schools of yoga place special emphasis on the control of the senses, while some traditional schools are even more strict in their adherence to renunciation. Though most people are creatures of habit, we also fall weakness to this constant desire for something *new*.  It’s this particular desire that some would argue leads to detrimental behaviors (check out the Buddhist take on suffering), then again, could it just be a motivation for constant innovation?  Always wanting something new, means someone’s gotta make it, right?

As human beings, something that should give us great power is our ability to contemplate our instincts, rather than simply carry them out.  Thing is, that doesn’t always happen.  The majority of our brain is ancient, having evolved from the lizard and monkey days (scroll down to “Got Science”), so trumping their sometimes overpowering messages can be a challenge.

So what do we do with these instincts for survival, for happiness over suffering, for pure pleasure, which is sometimes so unhealthy, it just shouldn’t be indulged?

Loving my pie. Ain't nothin' wrong.

As a few examples:

Imagine someone’s feeling of importance or success when they’ve fully dominated a conversation.  It may instantly fulfill a survival instinct, but they’ve probably come across as a cock.  And there goes that group of potential friends!

Or, we may find incredible sensory satisfaction through activities like overeating or promiscuity, but what long-term consequences does that have on our bodies, or our psyches for that matter?  Our brains are programmed to enjoy salt, sugar and fat (basically to avoid starvation), but eating too much of that just ain’t good for you.  Scientific fact.


Life should be enjoyed, but to what extent?  And what exactly informs our tastes?  I love yoga, but does that mean I should make that a career?  I love to eat chocolate, but am I allowed a nibble everyday?

These are questions I often ponder, being a bit of a hedonist and a lot of a yogi these days.

My idea of a good time at the London Eye 🙂

Most recently, I’ve been traveling about, seeing friends and family, and it has been the best medicine for my heart in years.  At the same time, I’m constantly partaking in special foods and tipples to celebrate reunions.

Two months of this has fully taken its toll, despite my meagre efforts at maintaining my yoga exercises.  I like to call the result … a Buddha Belly.  🙂

So, though not a direct answer to some of my questions, this interesting article from CBS popped up at a most opportune moment in my life.  Check it out…


No matter the season, we all take part in the pursuit of pleasure, each in our own way. And although there’s an art to enjoying life, it turns out there’s science behind it, too. Our Cover Story is reported now by Susan Spencer of “48 Hours”:

It can be as simple as a sunset, as decadent as a dessert, or as extravagant as a weekend in Paris. But we all have our own little pleasures …

“Chocolate and peanuts! … mmmmm …”
“I’m a Barbie collector. I have, like, over 100 Barbies.”
“I love Mexican food!”
“The rush of cliff jumping, when you’re up in the air, and you’re hoping the water is deep enough, and your heart is beating a thousand miles an hour, and you SPLASH!”

Professor Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University, notes that some pleasures are no less than a matter of survival.

“Pleasure is an instantaneous feeling of something good,” Dr. Berns said. “When you teach a bunch of undergraduates and teenagers like I do and I ask them to list the things that give them pleasure, sleep is always at the top of the list.

“You have kind of the basic needs, right? So you have food, sleep, and sex. Pretty much boils down to that, if you’re talking about actual pleasure,” Berns laughed.

But pleasure goes well beyond basic needs. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says WHY we enjoy what we enjoy is very complicated.

“It seems like we just taste food, and taste wine, we respond to our visceral sensations. But actually it is surprisingly deep,” Bloom said.

So deep, in fact, that Bloom was pleased to write a book on pleasure, which he says is as much about our brains as about our experiences.

“Our pleasure is a response not just to the physical makeup of something, what it looks like or tastes like, or smells like, or feels like, but rather to our beliefs of what it really IS, what its real essence is,” Bloom said.

And boy, can we be fooled!

Bloom recalls one famous experiment with wine drinkers done by scientists at Stanford and Cal Tech …

“Half the people are told they’re drinking cheap plunk, the other half are told they’re drinking something out of $100-$150 bottle,” Bloom said. “It tastes better to them, if they THINK they’re drinking from an expensive bottle. And it turns out that if they think they’re drinking expensive wine, parts of the brain that are associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree.”

“So if I have people over for dinner, I should add a little ‘1″ in front of the price tag, and put it on the table?” Spencer asked.

“That is the ultimate trick to making wine taste better,” Bloom said.

And it’s the sort of trick that works only on human beings.

“Both my dog and me enjoy drinking water when we’re thirsty, but I’m the one who cares about where the water came from – whether it’s bottled water, or from the tap,” Bloom said. “My dog doesn’t care.”

“You’re the one that, if we put a higher price tag on that bottle of water, you’ll enjoy it more?” suggested Spencer.

“That’s right! I might give my dog premium dog food, but the dog doesn’t care that I spent a lot of money for it.”

People, on the other hand, seem to get ENORMOUS pleasure out of spending ENORMOUS sums on some very curious things.

Was Michael Jackson’s jacket really worth $1.8 million?

Or how about President Kennedy’s tape measure, which went for almost $50,000 at auction?

Or Eric Clapton’s guitar, snapped up for just under a million bucks?

Given all that, Paul Bloom wondered what people might pay for the pleasure of owning, say, George Clooney’s sweater?

“And the answer is, a fair amount,” said Bloom. “Much more than they’d pay for MY sweater, or for a brand new sweater.”

But why? For bragging rights? Or to re-sell on eBay? Apparently not …

Bloom conducted an experiment where people were not allowed to tell people or boast about buying Clooney’s sweater, or even re-sell it, and the perceived value was reduced. “But here’s what makes the value really drop: We told another group of subjects that we thoroughly washed it before it got to them. Now the value plummets.”

“It’s not still ‘George Clooney’s sweater’?” asked Spencer.

“As my wife put it, you washed away the Clooney cooties!” Bloom laughed. “You’ve washed away the sort of essence of the person.”

“That gives them more pleasure in owning it?”

“Human beings are strange,” laughed Spencer.

“Human beings are extraordinary,” he replied.

Some pleasures are universal, like eating the mouth-watering butter-and-sugar concoctions at Magnolia Bakery in New York City – it really is pure pleasure on a plate.

But not all of life’s pleasures are so straight-forward. In fact, if you think about it, some of them are downright weird.

Take cheese.

“Cheese is spoiled milk, it smells bad,” said psychologist Paul Rozin. “But the point is that we get great pleasure out of it. And some people love the stinky cheeses. And part of the pleasure of eating them is that they really smell bad, but they’re good!”

Rozin’s studies go well beyond the pleasures of the disgusting, to the joy of the downright painful. Take hot chili peppers …

“Well, hot chili peppers are eaten by over two billion people in the world,” Rozin said. “And yet, this is an innately negative experience. Little babies don’t like it. So, the question to me was, why would anybody put in their mouth something that produces a pain signal from the mouth to the brain?”

His answer? What he calls “benign masochism” – the same human quirk that explains why we enjoy horror movies that terrify us … why we like sad songs that make us cry.

“It’s a sense of your mind over your body,” Rozin said. “Your body is saying, ‘Bad news, get out of here!’ Your mind knows, ‘I’m actually not in danger. I’m mastering this negative experience, and my mastery of it gives me pleasure.'”

But there are limits. Just ask those chili pepper people…

“What happens is the one that people like best tends to be the one that’s just below the level they can’t bear,” Rozin laughed. “In other words, they’re pushing the limit of how hot they can stand it. Similarly with roller coasters. People who love roller coasters will like the steepest and scariest one they can stand.”

Push your pleasure to that limit and – odd as it seems – odds are you’ll want more. So what’s the best strategy to maximize life’s pleasures?

Emory Professor Gregory Berns did an experiment that offers a clue: When he gave subjects alternating drops of water and juice, their brain activity showed they preferred the juice. No surprise. But when the juice came at unexpected intervals and was a surprise, they liked it even more.

His advice: Plan surprises.

“You have to take risks, I think, to really experience pleasure,” Dr. Berns said. “And there’s, you know, there’s a reason why people say the first time is always the best. The first time you experience something, whether it’s your first kiss, your first bite of sushi, whatever you like, it’s always the best, it’s always the most memorable.”

So whether it’s Clooney’s sweater … roller coasters … chili peppers … or something else entirely (“Chocolate” … “good friend, good beer” …), treasure those pleasures.

But remember: There’s always room for something new – and people keep pushing the envelope, like bungee jumping.

“Yeah, why not?” said Dr. Berns.


Well, I could think of a million reasons not to bungee jump, but that’s another blog all together!  So what do you think?  Does pleasure-seeking eventually become a source of suffering?  Could it just be a biological phenomenon that aids our survival?  How can we harness this innate tendency to bring about positive change? 

Further reading from the Scientific American here.


2 thoughts on “The Science of Pleasure”

  1. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and all other major religions teach us to distrust the allurements of pleasure.

    Buddha says
    “Happy is he/she who has ceased to live for pleasure and rests in the truth.”

    “Sensuality is enerbating, the self-indulgent person is a slave to his passions, and pleasure seeking is degrading and vulgar. But to satisify the necessities of life is not evil. To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep out mind strong and clear.”

    “Buddha requires every man/woman to cleanse his/heart, to give up thrist for pleasure and lead a life of righteousness.”

    Lord Krishna says in Bhagwat Gita

    “Pleasures from external objects
    are wombs of suffering, Arjuna.
    They have their beginnings and their ends;
    no wise man seeks joy among them.”

    Notions of heat and cold, of pain and pleasure, are born, O son of Kunti, only of the contact of the senses with their objects. They have a beginning and an end. They are impermanent in their nature. That person who is the same in pain and pleasure, whom these cannot disturb, alone is able


    In life there are things more worthwhile than seeking pleasure. While it is hard to seek things more worthwhile and giving up pleasure is for the saints and such people, but to actively go seeking more and more pleasure is like going in the reverse direction and is degrading. It is more worthwhile to bring ones senses under control, and try to be simple and kind. Be content with less.

    Coming to Food. Eat simple food to live – food that is good for the body. Not to derive pleasure in food is one consequence of following yoga correctly. A person doing yoga correctly wouldn’t have much craving for so called tasty food and would prefer to eat simple nutritious food – for it is our duty to keep our body healthy.

    To crave after so called tasty food, to eat more food than what your body needs are enervating in whatever goals one has set for the life.

    Some of the above are big words. Well we are human being and each one of us has our failings but it is worthwhile to strive in right direction.

    At the more mundane level of things. At the yoga studio I used to visit in Sydney, there was a yoga teacher from Canada teaching in Sydney. She was 28 years old and had been doing yoga for 15 years. Could do most poses in the book. She went to Canada for a 3 week christmas break. And came back to Sydney having put on a lot of weight – within 3 weeks. It was summer here and she loved going to the beach. She asked me “How do I get rid of all this lard?” Lard was the word she used. I was very knew to the yoga as it is taught/done in the west. I remember wondering what kind of yoga is she doing if she has got no control even on the size of food she is eating? Yoga is not just posture but some control as well. Since then I have seen all these yoga sites/yoga magazine teaching you how to make this tasty and nutritious dish. Still worse my yoga teacher in Varanasi after doing yoga gets Kachori (a very spicy deep fried but tasty indian junk food) and has got virtually no control over his sweet tooth. Straight after doing some really good yoga, he will tell Alok to get some indian sweets (more sugary than doughnuts or cake). I always tell him that why can’t he eat a banana or an apple or something decent.

    Well we are all human and we all got our failings and I don’t want to judge others – but I do believe that someone doing yoga should have control over food otherwise they are just doing physical posture (same as running or other physical exercises).

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