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The Evolution of Imagination

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The Evolution of Imagination

Consider Miles Davis, horn held high, sculpting a powerful musical statement full of tonal patterns, inside jokes, and thrilling climactic phrasesall on the fly. Or think of a comedy troupe riffing on a couple of cues from the audience until the whole room is erupting with laughter. Or maybe its a team of software engineers brainstorming their way to the next Google, or the Einsteins of the world code-cracking the mysteries of nature. Maybe its simply a child playing with her toys. What do all of these activities share? With wisdom, humor, and joy, philosopher Stephen T. Asma answers that question in this book: imagination. And from there he takes us on an extraordinary tour of the human creative spirit.

Guided by neuroscience, animal behavior, evolution, philosophy, and psychology, Asma burrows deep into the human psyche to look right at the enigmatic but powerful engine that is our improvisational creativitythe source, he argues, of our remarkable imaginational capacity. How is it, he asks, that a story can evoke a whole world inside of us? How are we able to rehearse a skill, a speech, or even an entire scenario simply by thinking about it? How does creativity go beyond experience and help us make something completely new? And how does our moral imagination help us sculpt a better society? As he shows, we live in a world that is only partly happening in reality. Huge swaths of our cognitive experiences are made up by what-ifs, almosts, and maybes, an imagined terrain that churns out one of the most overlooked but necessary resources for our flourishing: possibilities. Considering everything from how imagination works in our physical bodies to the ways we make images, from the mechanics of language and our ability to tell stories to the creative composition of self-consciousness, Asma expands our personal and day-to-day forms of imagination into a grand scale: as one of the decisive evolutionary forces that has guided human development from the Paleolithic era to today. The result is an inspiring look at the rich relationships among improvisation, imagination, and culture, and a privileged glimpse into the unique nature of our evolved minds.

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Review

The Evolution of Imaginationmakes a compelling case that we should not, and ultimately cannot, leave our creative roots behind. In the course of this slim but ambitious book on the nature of the imagination, Mr. Asma tells his reader that sometimes an artist like James Brown will interrupt a long vamp or groove by calling out to the band. Should we take it to the bridge, fellas? For Mr. Asma the answer has always been yes. The bridge is the point at which a melody takes what he calls a musical left turn, a moment that initiates artistic improvisation. Mr. Asma takes readers to the bridge, the site of human creativity, gives them a sense of its thrill, and while doing so leads them through a series of questions that have stymied philosophers for millennia: How exactly does human creativity take place? What is the importance and meaning of the imagination? How did humans first become, in Mr. Asmas words, the improvising ape?

(The Wall Street Journal)

“[A]n ambitious and exciting book about creativity, rich with eclectic disciplinary references and enlivened with personal anecdotes. Charting new territory, Asma emphasizes the biological bases of imaginationsensory perception, emotions and affective systems, neurology, biochemistry, brain size and differentiation, and capabilities for motion and actionand casts these elements in evolutionary perspective.”

(Science)

“From testing a theory to playing bebop, improvisation is the fount of creativity it’s even the primal driver in our natural history. So argues philosopher and jazz musician Stephen Asma, who draws on neuroscience and animal behaviour for this intriguing, if occasionally chewy, foray into human evolution. Looking at improvisation from pre-linguistic expression (such as dance) to storytelling, Asma explores how we actively engage the imagination to create our own ‘virtual realities’ and to build just societies, as well as to foster the adaptability we need to negotiate life’s changes.”

About the Author

Stephen T. Asmais Distinguished Scholar and professor of philosophy in the Department of Humanities as well as Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of numerous books, includingStuffed Animals and Pickled Heads,The Gods Drink Whiskey,On Monsters,andAgainst Fairness, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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