The Evolution of Imagination

Consider Miles Davis stepping up to the microphone and sculpting a powerful musical statement –complete with furtive tonal secrets, inside jokes, and blasting climactic summits –all composed in real-time over a hard swinging rhythm section. Now consider a Hip-hop freestyle rapper performing an unrehearsed verse, and each word takes him dangerously closer to the inevitable closing rhyme –his options for a coherent finish dwindle even while he builds his final sentence. Or consider a comedy improv team –like The Second City –taking a few cues from an audience and collectively riffing it into a coherent story punctuated by belly laughs and irony. Now envision a team of digital engineers doing some “outside the box” brainstorming, as they work to invent a new app. Or slow it down and we find the Darwins and Einsteins of science testing and trying fresh theoretical solutions to the nagging mysteries of nature.

The shared element in these diverse activities is the enigmatic engine of human creativity, the improvising imagination. Human culture itself is impossible without the imagination, and yet we know very little about it. Why does a story evoke a whole world inside us? How are we able to rehearse a skill or an event in our mind’s eye? How does creativity go beyond experience to make something altogether new? And how does the moral imagination help us improvise our way toward a more ethical society?

Artists often consider the imagination their unique provenance, but the imagination drives everything from engineering, marketing, cosmology, economics and ethics. Aristotle described the imagination as a faculty in humans (and most other animals) that produces, stores, and recalls the images used in a variety of cognitive and volitional activities. Even our sleep is energized by the dreams of our involuntary imagination. Immanuel Kant saw the imagination as a synthesizer of sensibility and understanding. Freud saw it as a release-system for antisocial desires. And recent neuroimaging reveals that a prefrontal and temporal lobe circuit enables us to project ourselves into different times and places –the imagination is our inner time-traveller.

We live in a world that is only partly happening. We also live in co-present simultaneous worlds made up of “almosts,” or “what ifs” and “maybes.” At the moment that I’m failing at some task, for example, I’m simultaneously running a success scenario of my actions, and this imaginary reality is creating real emotions inside me. Or I see this open grassy field here, but also see (through imagination) my future home that will be built on this empty plot. Imagination is the possibility maker. It is the home of hope and regret.

Excerpt from The Evolution of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma.

Selected quotes from the Introduction:

Improvisation, in my account, will be the main activity, method, or operation of the imaginative faculty.

The activity of improvising furnishes us with a fresh model for grasping how the imagination works, and one that does not fall victim to the overly propositional biases of cognitive approaches. The imagination is not information processing.

The extent to which “imagining” is conceived of as a verb, rather than a faculty, is the degree to which we find greater connection between improvisation and imagination. Ultimately, however, these relatively unconscious processes have been hidden from direct examination and only glimpsed obliquely or inferred from their finished creative products.

I will argue that improvisation (spontaneous creation) is the fundamental process that underlies the downstream achievements of both scientific and artistic imagination. The improvising imagination has more epistemic power than most modern philosophers, scientists, and even artists have been willing to consider.

The improvising imagination, however, is one of the little explored phenomena that uniquely unify the humanities and biology. In it, we find the creativity that first emerged in our adaptive innovations (e.g., technological and social advancements), our involuntary free-play compositions of dreaming, our adaptive mythologies, and our highest human artistic achievements.

Each chapter will trade between two dominant melody lines; our real-time, in-the-moment, uses of improvisation, and the origin and evolution of those imaginative powers. It will be an ontogenetic and phylogenetic concert. How do we meaningfully dance today, for example, and how did the practice evolve in the first place? How do we use storytelling today, for example, and how did storytelling itself originate? How do I improvise in my daily life today, and how did improvisational thinking itself evolve in our ancestors?

Stephen Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago, co-founder of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture, and author of ten books, including The Evolution of Imagination.