Paul Bloom: A Walking Tour of the Cognitive Sciences

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Paul Bloom. (48 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Paul Bloom lures you to the frontier in human psychology with ancient moral questions and the evidence of full-bodied human behavior. In the next-door labs of neuroscience, his colleagues may be well on their way to mapping every link in the spaghetti of our brains — to naming every neuron and synapse, to driving the “ghost” of consciousness out of the “machine” of the mind. And still, as Jonah Lehrer writes, we will “feel like the ghost, not like the machine.” So it is a relief to find, in Yale’s star lecturer and the author of How Pleasure Works, a complete humanist in a daunting field of mostly microscopic research.

“It turns out,” he says, “that the best way to learn about the brain isn’t to put people in a brain scanner… to put electrodes on them. The best way to learn about the brain is to sit in front of somebody and talk to them… The best way to learn about the developing brain of a baby is to show babies different situations and see how they respond. The best way to look at the brain structures relevant to food isn’t to do an autopsy or brain scan. It’s to see how people eat, and to see what people like to eat.” Paul Bloom is walking us around his baby lab at Yale, and around the teeming map of the brain sciences at large. I asked him to point to three mountaintops in cognitive science that he would love to climb. He gave us two.

PB: First mountain: Religion. I think that there’s a lot of people out there exploring why people believe in god, the nature of religious belief, about atheistic people who are themselves deeply religious. And this is an area I think of huge excitement, but I think now the field is too immature.

William James was wonderful on religious experience. He was not so good on the “Why?” question. Why does everybody, or most everybody, believe in some sort of god? Why does everybody believe in an afterlife? The questions we raise with regard to music apply here. To what extent is this a biological adaptation? Smart people believe it is. Or, to what extent is it an accident?

CL: Do believers have more babies?

PB: That would be the claim. Because they’re happier, because they’re more socially connected, because their belief in god makes them more moral and their morality makes them more attractive. Then there are other smart people, including many people I work with, who would argue that religious belief is an accident, that we’ve never evolved to be religious. Rather, it’s a byproduct of capacities that we’ve evolved for other purposes.

CL: I love the psalm that says, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so my soul thirsteth for the living God.” Pretty deep and old and basic.

PB: Pretty deep, and it also captures the fact that religion is not merely an intellectual stance. I end How Pleasure Works by talking about religious ritual and belief, and I point out, and I’m an atheist, myself‚ but I point out that I’d have to be blind and deaf not to realize the pleasure it causes many people, the satisfaction it gives them. And I think this is an important part of why we have it.

And then the second mountain, if you’ll settle for two. The second mountain is a particular sort of pleasure: stories, fiction. Your average person spends much of his or her day engaged in worlds that are not real. We read books, we watch TV, we go to movies, we daydream. The number one pleasure of your life is engaging in your imagination. It’s not sex, it’s not food, it’s not drugs, it’s not sports, it’s not hanging around with those you love, it is living in imaginary worlds. And what we don’t know is why this is so appealing. Why is it so appealing to for a moment find yourself in a world that you know is not real? Why is it so appealing, and what are the constraints on this? What kind of stories do people like? To what extent are there universals in these sort of stories? What’s the relationship between the sort of stories that a two-year-old would enjoy and that you and I would enjoy? Or that you and I would enjoy, and a hunter-gatherer would enjoy? What are the universals, what are the particulars? And given the importance of this to our day-to-day lives, it’s unfortunate and surprising but exciting that we don’t know the answers to this.

Paul Bloom in conversation with Chris Lydon at Yale University, June 10, 2010.

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