Humans are pleasure-seeking beings. Food, sex, exercise, music and art are sure ways to light up the brain’s pleasure center like a Christmas tree. Why do we like certain things and not the others? What causes us to assign different values to the seemingly same thing?

Take food for example. How something tastes to you depends on what you think you are eating. Experiments show that people who were led to believe they were drinking wine from an expensive bottle thought the wine tasted better.Therefore, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University, wittily suggested that if you wanted your kids to eat carrots and drink milk and get pleasure from eating them, tell them the carrots and milk were from McDonald.

When my grandmother lived with us here in Chicago, I loved everything she cooked. Joe sometimes commented to me that something was overcooked and didn’t taste right. It baffled me how someone could dislike Grandma’s dishes. Now I understand that, aside from the fact that I was used to Grandma’s way of cooking, each of my favorite dishes had a history attached it. For example, the twice-cooked pork was something Grandma made when we had guests. The mouth-watering egg-wrapped dumplings were made from scratch once a year for Chinese New Year. Joe was totally unaware of the history.

Anyone with the means to acquire valuable artwork wants the originals. Some people may interpret it as the desire to achieve status, but there is more to it. According to Professor Bloom, “Humans are essentialists. We don’t just respond to things as we see them, or feel them, or hear them. Rather, our response is conditioned on our beliefs, about what they really are, what they came from, what they’re made of, what their hidden nature is.” So to a collector of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, the originals are worth tens of thousands of dollars, but the value of an identical picture painted by an imposter is practically nothing.

In January 2012, there was a big controversy around the young Chinese best-selling author and most popular blogger Han Han. A couple of high-profile people claimed that Han Han’s early work was in fact produced by his father, a literature aficionado who was forced to leave university due to his condition of Hepatitis B. In addition, Han Han’s publisher was accused of leading a ghostwriting team that produced and published most of his work. Han Han’s fans were outraged of course. When evidence began to mount and Han Han grew uncharacteristically quiet, some argued that the work published under his name was extraordinary, and so did it really matter who created it?

It matters. The value of Han Han’s writing is based on his personal history and who he is. With that forged, his books are worthless.

In an experiment initiated by The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, Joshua Bell, a Grammy Award-winning violinist, donned a baseball cap and played as an incognito busker at the Metro subway station L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. on January 12, 2007. The experiment was videotaped on hidden camera; of the 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen to him, and only one recognized him. For his nearly 45-minute performance, Bell collected $32.17 from 27 passersby (excluding $20 from the passerby who recognized him). In other words, in order to appreciate Bell’s music, you have to know you are listening to Josh Bell.

As Bloom put it, if you like somebody, they look better to you. If you believe someone is hurting you on purpose, the pain gets worse every time it’s inflicted on you. Understanding the depth of pleasure and the rich histories associated with it enables us to enjoy more fully the hedonic happiness this life offers.

John Milton hit the bullseye when he said “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven.”