Your Improvising Imagination

You have a remarkable imagination. Did you know? Imagination isn’t limited to the small percentage of humans that design rides at Disneyland or write bestselling novels. We all rely on the flexibility, keenness, and creativity of our imagination to make it through the day. Arranging and rearranging your schedule to get everything done. Mentally rehearsing how a conversation with a significant other will go. Planning a dish to cook that will fit in at a friend’s potluck (and thinking through the process of getting the ingredients and preparing it).

You are also a remarkable improviser. Improvisation can conjure images of a jazz musician effortlessly writing a melody on the fly or a comedian bringing the house down with jokes seemingly pulled out of thin air. But improvisation doesn’t require artists, stages, and audiences. We improvise in conversations with other people, in making our way through the surprises and challenges of parenting a child, while navigating the flow of highway traffic, and in getting a group of co-workers to complete a project.

All human beings, all the time, imagine and improvise. The two powers are inextricably linked. We each have an “improvising imagination” to creatively achieve the things we need to do and want to do. Stephen T. Asma’s illuminating and enjoyable book, The Evolution of Imagination, is all about how our improvising imagination works, how we got it, and how culture is shaped by it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in awhile.

After years and years of evolution, human beings now have a rich mental space–what Asma calls a “second universe.” The early human adaptations of anticipation and mimicry became layered with emotion and image-making, which became layered with language and self-consciousness. The second universe we now enjoy is a robust “environment of possibilities that exists concurrently with the stubborn physical world.” In it, we can run virtual simulations of the real world “offline.” What we want to say in an upcoming job interview. How the half-marathon this weekend is going to go. How we would have written the plot of the movie we just watched a little differently.

Our second universe is also a “repository of adaptive behavioral responses.” As we experience and learn while we grow, we come to acquire habits, information, and patterns that we can draw from. Chess players study an endless variety of moves–creating a mental encyclopedia of plays to watch for and use in a current game. Musicians and composers internalize scales, rhythms, and patterns of melody and harmony so that they have a rich foundation when performing and writing. All humans develop social cliches for small talk, attending meetings and concerts, and waiting in lines.

And the second universe is a sort of playground. It’s a space in which we daydream. Construct words, notes, and ingredients into stories, songs, and recipes of our own. Envision that we’re on the street in a place we want to travel. Play around with ideas and see how they fit together.

The mythological idea of imagination is wild flashes of originality as if from the heavens or a muse, or discovered in a state of ecstasy. But most of the time, imagination is a patient and deliberate process of trying, examining, and moving things around in the second universe of our minds. A process of taking perceptions, memories, ideas, images, and feelings, and making small tweaks and combinations of those existing things to create something new. If you deconstruct a favorite movie or song, you’ll likely discover it’s a clever blend of a handful that already existed.

Asma refers to this patient and deliberate use of our imagination as cold cognition. It has the benefit of time and conscious attention to run through simulations and new possibilities. Then reflection and revisions and reruns, on and on. Improvisation, on the other hand, is hot cognition. It’s reactive, instinctive, voluntary. In full-blown improvisation, you are simultaneously “composing and performing.” You don’t have the benefit of time to patiently think through several possibilities in your second universe, or stop halfway through the “performance” and start over.

In the most common improvisational situation, a conversation, once you say something the cat’s out of the bag. An insult, poor word choice, or incoherent sentence can’t be sucked back into your vocal chords. But by the nature of conversation, you also can’t leave the other person hanging for five minutes while you come up with the perfect next sentence. This is why conversations–depending on who it’s with and what it’s about–can be intimidating, stressful, and confusing. You have to rely on the repository of your second universe for facts about the person that will cater the conversation to them, cliched sentences you can modify for the moment, and shapes of previous conversations that you know had a good beginning, middle, and end. At the same time, you’re watching, feeling, and interpreting the verbal and non-verbal response of the other person. It tells you how your message went over and where to go next.

In a mostly involuntary and unpredictable way, when you’re in a conversation, you’re spitting out sentences with little or no time to form and revise them before they’re said. And then the other person responds and you–again, mostly involuntarily–interpret and analyze and say another thing. Back and forth, instinctively drawing from your second universe and absorbing feedback, until the conversation over. A conversation seems simple but is pretty damn impressive.

Our improvising imagination is what enabled human beings to survive over thousands of years and become the complex, creative people we are today. Some researchers think our biggest brain expansion occurred in the face of past climate change and the dynamic landscapes our ancestors found themselves in. “Reality is messy, always changing, open-ended, and relentlessly coming at you at hot speed.” We need hot and cold cognition to be able to survive and make it through the many situations and challenges we’re presented with every day.

Our improvising imagination has also opened up space to play and explore and seek understanding. It has given humanity everything from amazing films to Michelin-starred restaurants to inspiring attempts at describing the meaning of life. We all have tremendous capacity in our second universe for need and play. Whether it’s a conversation or something center stage, enjoy the adaptive creativity you have, and see where your imagination can take you.

Essential Reading: Humans Are Underrated

Everything you’re skilled at will one day be done better by technology–if it isn’t already. So says Geoff Colvin, anyway, in his recent book Humans Are Underrated, and he’s got a compelling case. Artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson is not only becoming more and more proficient at things like sifting through data and logic-based activities like chess or Jeopardy, it’s also starting to outperform humans in creative tasks like composing novels and cooking. There are not yet robots preparing Thai-Jewish Chicken or an Austrian Chocolate Burrito at your neighborhood restaurant, but they’re both dishes with novel flavor combinations and preparations created by Watson. According to people who’ve cooked and tasted them, they’re delicious. It’s only a matter of time before a bot is able to do the concocting and the cooking–no humans required.

What place is there for a chef in the world if a machine is able to create more interesting and tasty dishes?

 Or for a lawyer if a computer can research, argue, and win cases faster and more successfully?

Or a doctor if medical technology can diagnose and treat patients far more effectively than any human specialist or even a whole team of physicians?

In light of what the technology we’ve created is increasingly able to do, the future for human work and value appears troubling.

This isn’t an entirely new worry. When the Industrial Revolution began, technology first undermined artisans. A factory could produce countless guns of good quality far more efficiently than a lone maker handcrafting each one from start to finish. Artisans were increasingly marginalized or out of work, and low-skilled workers transitioned into operating the factory machinery.

Then came the cultivation and spread of electricity. Factories grew larger and machines more complicated, requiring higher-skilled, more educated workers. Low-skilled workers became dependent on an education to become smarter and better skilled in order to stay employed. Most people succeeded in this broad societal change in employment, and the standard of living skyrocketed from 1890 to 1970.

But in the 1980s, the rise of information technology suddenly reduced and decreased the wage of many “medium-skilled” jobs that had arisen and that people had educated themselves to be able to perform over the previous several decades. High-skill and low-skill jobs increased–infotech couldn’t yet do the complex judgment and problem-solving required for high-skilled work, or the physical skills of low-skill labor. Those in the middle were left trying to figure out how to move up or down.

Now, with technology like Watson, we are settling into the fourth great turning point. “Infotech is advancing steadily into both ends of the spectrum, threatening workers who thought they didn’t have to worry.” Whether it’s the sophisticated cognition of a lawyer or the creative, manual effort of a chef, technology is rapidly catching up to and eclipsing so-called high- and low- skill human abilities after knocking out much of the middle-skill in the 80s and 90s.

What will be the place of human beings in society if everything that we do technology does better?

In such a societal shift, there are huge implications for things like dignity, personal growth, and sense of purpose–as well as more practical implications like job security and a living wage.

Is there any hope for humans to retain their humanity?

As Colvin notes, if we want to know if there’s any humanity that can persist into the future it won’t do to fixate on what technology cannot do. We’ve already tried asking that question, and we keep getting proved wrong. Many predicted that technology could never really infiltrate into the human territory of the abilities that make for, say, an excellent doctor or musician. Technology is advancing so quickly that a machine like Watson is already undermining those predictions.

Instead, we need to ask a subtly different, but perceptive and powerful question: “What are the activities that we humans…will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do?

We are wired for relationship and sociality. We have evolved for rich person-to-person interaction; for complex conversation and emotional entanglement; for creating ideas and problem-solving together; for empathy. Colvin describes it succinctly as “discerning what each other is thinking and feeling, and responding in an appropriate way.” No matter how proficient technology becomes, there will always be activities, vocations, and interactions that we insist happen between humans because of the capacities and cravings that make up who we are as people.

Perhaps at the beginning of this piece you cringed a bit at the thought of a robot preparing your meal for exactly that reason. It doesn’t have the choreography, the emotion, the ineffable humanity, of sitting down at the chef’s table of an award-winning restaurant, or stepping up to a bustling food truck, with an engaging person cooking the food.

There are countless other domains that we will continue to yearn for the social sensitivity of people navigating the experience. The sharing of a heartbreaking medical diagnosis; governance and diplomacy; the education and raising of a child; counseling and friendship; concerts, art galleries, and myriad other artistic endeavors. Even if those activities are aided by advancing technology (which is not necessarily a bad thing), we will almost certainly always hope for and require that there be human-to-human connection involved. It fulfills our deepest needs and desires as humans.

No matter what skills technology encroaches or supersedes, our connection to one another, our empathy, is the future of our flourishing and meaningfulness. That’s a future worth embracing.