The 7th Avenue Project, 8/8/11

Yale evolutionary psychologist Paul Bloom investigates the nature of human pleasure, from sex and food to art, music and fantasy. He says that what we like depends on what we think, and there may be no such thing as purely physical pleasure. His latest book is How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.



RP: Now, just to tie this back to evolution, we should probably state that evolution will get involved in these things to the extent that a heritable behavior—it has to be heritable, something that can be passed down to oneÕs descendants—either increases reproduction or decreases in reproduction and survival. But thereÕs a great deal that doesnÕt fall into that category, itÕs neither heritable nor does it really impact whether weÕre able to multiply. And provided that the species has adequate resources and can reproduce, thereÕs a great deal of, you know, leisure time—time to do all kinds of crazy stuff that evolution never really impacted. I mean, IÕm telling a story but it seems like a plausible story.


PB: I think thatÕs right. I think thereÕs an interesting counter-argument that IÕm lukewarm about, but IÕve heard it from [evolutionary psychologists], which is that a lot of the pleasures of the imagination are so time-consuming—they take up so much of our lives—that they rob us from doing things that on the face of it would be more useful.


RP: [laughing] to quote the Everly Brothers: Òonly trouble is gee whiz IÕm dreaming my life away.Ó


PB: [laughing] Exactly! So it seems to be a bad adaptive strategy to dream your life away.... [He cites porn, novels, and video games as examples.] What IÕm often tempted to do is to agree with you, which is natural selection has given us all these desires, but were smart enough to subvert them and turn them to a imaginary means.


RP: And evolution will not put its finger on the scale as long as those things donÕt keep us from reproducing, or donÕt impair our survival as a species.


PB: Yes. And the question which [evolutionary psychologists] raise, which is a good one, is: To what extent does that hold? I mean, imagine a hunter–gatherer in a lifestyle where collecting food and dealing with the social hierarchies is absolutely critical, where it is a sort of Hobbesian world—a very dog-eat-dog world. And this hunter-gatherer spends a lot of his time lying on his back and thinking about poetry and having fantasies. You might imagine he wonÕt live as long as the person next to him collecting food and so on. So if it turned out that these imaginary pleasures did lead to a reproductive cost we would then have to ask: So whatÕs the countervailing benefit that they provide that leads them to be there?


RP: Right!


PB: On the other hand, if they donÕt—for instance, if they are only recent enough, if this world of imagination that we live in now is a fairly modern invention, then it may not have been around long enough for natural selection to get its hands on it.


RP: Well, you know, I know IÕm entering full bore storytelling mode here and inserting my own opinions, but I do think that the state of nature as imagined by people like Hobbes and even by some modern evolutionists is itself a kind of made up thing that involves constant fighting and struggle and all of that, but in fact if you look at pre-technological cultures they do have a lot of leisure time to sit around and tell stories and weave baskets or do cave paintings or whatever, and so a lot of their time does seem to be consumed with these seemingly useless aesthetic activities or imaginal activities. I think we may have always had that going on.


PB: I agree, although where I would focus on is your phrase Òseemingly useless.Ó


RP: Yeah!


PB: Stephen Pinker and I wrote a long time ago an article called ÒNatural Language and Natural Selection,Ó where we argued for an adaptation of story, an account of human language. And what we point out in the course of doing so is that youÕd think hunter–gatherers are spending all their time grunting and running around, but what they spend a huge amount of time doing is talking—they spend a huge amount of time telling stories.


RP: Right!


PB: And then you might argue that those examples—and the more general examples of a lot of our imaginary activity—may not be as useless as they seem. So for instance, a lot of language and gossip is a wonderful and important information transfer and has a lot to do with status. Your status as a hunter–gatherer and your status as a contemporary Westerner right now rests not so much on how big and strong you are; it rests on how verbal you are. And how charming a person you are—how funny you are. How good a storyteller you are; how imaginative you are. And this pushes toward the view which I am, again, agnostic about; that there might be an adaptational benefit to a lot of our imaginative recreations.


RP: Yeah, IÕm a little skeptical in this regard. A lot of these stories, you know, about all social functions being adaptive contend that you have to go through this process of negotiating the social relationships in order to bond, and I would think that if evolution wanted us to bond it would just cause us to bond. You know, I mean, it would be very simple to have mechanisms in place that wouldnÕt involve all the ritual, all of the performances, all of the behaviors that simply caused us to bond as community, or to affiliate.


PB: I absolutely agree with you on this. The claim that things have adapted for social bonding or for group cohesion seems to be circular or almost magical. And the same with claims that they evolved to boost our self-esteem. ThereÕs all these sort of weird pseudo-adaptations that [evolutionary psychologist] posits, benefits that one would never need to have. But thereÕs other benefits that are worth taking more seriously. Here is one, again which I am attracted to, which is we spend a huge amount of our time daydreaming; living in imaginary worlds. Sometimes they initiate themselves. Nowadays we get them from the web, TV, movies, or books. ItÕs possible that this does nothing for us. But itÕs also possible that this serves actually a fairly useful adaptive function in that we treat it as a form of play, and play is practice. Physical play is practicing physical activities, like fighting and running. Imaginative play is practicing what it would be like to live in different alternative worlds. So a lot of what we do in fantasy is imagine Òwhat would my life be if it was this; if it were that?Ó And we plan; we work through certain things. And my hunch—itÕs not more than a hunch—, but my hunch is that if you were to strip away the power to daydream from a person he or she would be grossly impaired.


RP: I would think so. Is there—I mean I know youÕre not Oliver Sachs—a pathology that results from an inability to daydream, or an impaired ability to daydream?


PB: Well, the closest thing I would give, of course, would be autism, or other disorders on the autistic spectrum disorder, like aspergers, which do involve an impairment in pretend, in play, in the imagination. And such kids have terrible problems making their way through the world É. So, if youÕre asking is there a case where thereÕs people who just lose the ability to daydream and imagine and everything else is intact, that would be the perfect case to test what IÕm talking about, but I donÕt think such cases exist. I donÕt even think such cases even could exist. I think the ability for imagination is so intricately tied with other capacities, like social abilities, that itÕs not a module that you could just pluck out and leave everything intact.


RP: I see. I see. As you point out, a lot of our pleasure—maybe the majority of our pleasure—has a component of imagination and fantasy in it, whether itÕs a pleasure we take in works of art, where we imagine the story behind the work, or fiction, or movies, or TV, or performances, or playing video games, or daydreaming. A huge part of our lives is spent in a kind of made up world. But we get real pleasure from it; the pleasure is as real in some cases as the pleasure we get from some material circumstances. Right?


PB: Yes, absolutely! If you were to tell people they had to give up one pleasure, I think some people might give up the pleasure of food, some people would give up the pleasure of sex, some people would give up sport, but I think it would be a big mistake to give up the pleasure of imagination—you would find your life bereft.


RP: Ah, yes indeed! ... But this distinction between the real and the imaginary—on close inspection thatÕs a hard distinction to draw. I mean, if IÕm fantasizing about having superpowers and taking over the earth thatÕs clearly fantasy. But if IÕm thinking about my finances right now—just, you know, Òoh, if I invest this way IÕll make this much money, or wouldnÕt it be nice if a year from now I could buy that house I covet—thatÕs also fantasy! I mean, some people call that real planning, but thatÕs also fantasy. That may never come to pass; it might involve all kinds of unrealistic scenarios. You know, if I think about my success in life, thatÕs a social construct—thatÕs a made-up thing; thatÕs not a physical reality. I mean, the majority of what we think about is in some sense made up—itÕs in our heads.


PB: I think thatÕs right. I think you could think of pleasure and imagination as two overlapping circles. There is some imagination that doesnÕt have much to do with pleasure; itÕs not there for pleasure.... There are some pleasures that have not much to do with imagination.... LetÕs use the term imagination for cases where one is aware that theyÕre dealing with something thatÕs beyond the real. This is a crude rough and ready definition. So that would include daydreaming and movies and books, and would include things you spend hours on each day. But it doesnÕt include, you know, scratching yourself and running around the block and having sex and eating a good meal. So a lot of pleasures arenÕt really imaginary in the interesting sense. But then thereÕs a huge overlap. If you think of these as two circles, they overlap, and you have all of these cases where imagination can give rise to pleasure....


RP: You know in reading your book or about imaginary pleasures or imagined activities that give rise to pleasure, and this distinction between the imaginary the real, which I have serious doubts about—I donÕt think thereÕs a strict line, I donÕt think itÕs very easy to say (you know, I guess IÕm one of those idealist types, philosophically speaking, that think itÕs very hard to call something absolutely real). Nonetheless, it occurred to me that what we think of as real and what we think of as imaginary, or made-up, or artificial really does matter in pleasure, and the interesting thing is a lot of times the pleasure seems come from being suspended between the two. When someone writes a memoir they often are hit with this—ÓNow you really made some of this up didnÕt you; you really made some of this up?Ó And when someone writes fiction (and I interview fiction authors), you know, people are always asking them: ÒIsnÕt this really true. IsnÕt this really true?Ó ItÕs as though people wanted it to be sort of both ways. When we look at a beautiful landscape, sometimes we say: ÒGod, itÕs just like a painting—thatÕs really great!Ó When we look at a painting of a landscape, we say: ÒWow, it looks just like a landscape!Ó We sort of like being suspended—we like this feeling of being suspended between the two things. Part of the pleasure of looking at a painting for me is knowing that itÕs artificial, if it happens to be a naturalistic painting, but also seeing through it to the thing represented. I wouldnÕt be as interested in it if it was the actual view, you know. IÕm interested in that strange tension between the created and the natural and real.


PB: I think thatÕs right. I think thatÕs very close to the treatment I give of some movies and books—particularly movies where whatÕs critical for the appreciation of a movie is knowing itÕs a movie....






The Tower of Song Program 8/8/11


ÒThe Imagination of Albion: the Summertime in EnglandÓ


Thus in his prophetic poem, The Four Zoas, he gave the name ÒAlbionÓ to the hitherto nameless ÒEternal Man,Ó who he saw as the father of all mankind, the great ÒAncestor . . . of the Atlantic Continent, whose History Preceded that of the Hebrews & in whose Sleep, or Chaos, Creation began.Ó . . . According to Blake, this sleep meant the loss of the ÒDivine VisionÓ of the Imagination. Thus, the vocation of the poet is to wake the sleeping giant, or ÒAlbionÕs sleeping Humanity,Ó who will re-member his true identity and, along with Òthe sons and daughters of Albion,Ó achieve Eternity through the Imagination and the mystical union of all things É.


For Blake, the Imagination is a kind of cosmic memory, and in a way similar to the Celts É imaginal memory lives in the land itself. For the ancient ancestors of the British Isles, the land itself holds these stories, as if the storytellers invoke the spirit of place. In early Ireland the tribeÕs memory was entrusted to a special class of priests called the Druids. As guardians of an oral-based culture, they were the living libraries of its history. When the Druid order was destroyed, others, a class called ÒbardsÓ or poet-seers kept the flame of the memory tradition alive.  (Blake definitely belonged to this class of poet-seers and bards) . . . . Together with a lesser order of the bards, they kept their culture alive through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance eras in Ireland, Whales, and Scotland. After this time the memory-knowledge was passed on into the modern age by generations of village storytellers known as shanachies. . . .


The English Imagination has been compared, from as early as the sixteenth century, with a stream, a river, or a fountain, in the same manner as English poetry.  It has also been compared to an aeolian harp, as in ColeridgeÕs verse . . . . Thus, it can be said that the English Imagination is like a circle of light; it has no beginning and end, moves forwards and backwards, and is therefore endless.



. . . . Its narrative Mercian or Northumberland poet Cynewulf É has often been called the first story-teller in English and is closely related to a completely lost oral tradition É which suggests that the island was once full of sounds and sweet airs.  The first story in English may have seemed like a song.



Therefore, given all this about the origins of the Imagination of Albion, my argument here is that the poetry of England rises naturally from the land itself, like the elemental melody of a land, a land of dreams. At least this is what an old French letter (c. 1178) to Nicholas of St. Albans felt it to be:



Your island is surrounded by water, and not unnaturally its inhabitants are affected by the nature of the element in which they live. Unsubstantial fantasies slide easily into their minds.  They think their dreams to be visions, and their visions to be divine.  We cannot blame them, for such is the nature of their land.  I have often noticed that the English are greater dreamers than the French.



To reiterate, for the ancient ancestors of the British Isles the Imagination, or imaginal memory, lives in the land itself, which holds mythic stories, and the storytellers—the bards—invoke the spirit of place. This means that dreams and dream-visions are interwoven within the fabric of the English imagination—what IÕm calling the Imagination of Albion. . . .


The beauty of the English Lake District has provided inspiration for poets and artists. But the first to put it on the mythopoetical map was William Wordsworth, who became the internationally famous Lakeland poet. . . .


Concerning my previous discussion of memory and place in the English Imagination, I want to emphasize that Wordsworth used nature as a point of departure to recall memories and visions, and that it was the Imagination that unified man and nature. The great marriage in WordsworthÕs poem, ÒThe Recluse,Ó is the union of the poetÕs mind with Nature . . . and Wordsworth will go on to speak of the marriage between the Mind of Man and the goodly universe of Nature. The Lake-poet envisions the immediate possibility of this earthly paradise naturalizing itself in the here and now.



How exquisitely the individual Mind 

(And the progressive powers perhaps no less 

Of the whole species) to the external World 

Is fitted:--and how exquisitely, too-- 

Theme this but little heard of among men-- 

The external World is fitted to the Mind . . . .



In his autobiographical epic poem, The Prelude (1798-99), Wordsworth, recalls wandering in a mountain gorge and suddenly beholding the moon rising as a symbol of the Imagination:



Imagination--here the Power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech,

That awful Power rose from the mind's abyss

Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,

At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

Halted without an effort to break through;

But to my conscious soul I now can say--

"I recognise thy glory:"