The science behind pleasure-seeking

(CBS News) 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":

(This story was first broadcast on September 25, 2011.)

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 ..."
"Oh, I love Mexican food!"
"I'm a Barbie collector. I have, like, over 100 Barbies."
"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, we 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.

Neuroscientists are studying the effects of pleasure on the brain - and how emotion may overcome reason.
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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 sheer 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!"

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