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.

This Week in Upgrades: February 13

Hi! Happy Monday to you. I took a bit of a break last week, so I apologize if you were waiting for a weekly assortment of interesting things you may have missed. Obviously, that never happened. Sad face emoji.

Breaks and balance and rest are vital. I took my opportunity when I had it. I thrive on staying informed and browsing through all sorts of commentary about what’s going on in the world. But over the last couple weeks, I found myself mostly just getting frustrated at everything little dumb thing. I had to give my brain and emotions some time to recuperate. Have you ever been there? What do you like to do to feel like yourself again?

A recent study suggested that if you’re not getting good sleep you should go camping. Need to get back out in the woods soon.

Here’s what else caught my attention this week…

Do you like spicy food? How do you feel about a “heatless” habanero?

A number of teenage girls are experiencing major depression, with some saying they “get their ‘entire identity’ from their phone…constantly checking the number of ‘tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories.'” Yikes.

It’s not just teenage girls. A majority of people will have at least one mental health struggle in their lifetime. What are we doing to support mental well-being?

Thank you, Kids Try…, for making me laugh out loud even in dark times.

The most remote place on Earth, the Mariana Trench, has an “extraordinary” amount of pollution. Humans literally impact every inch of the planet.

Here’s a remarkable look at the unpolluted ocean we should be protecting.

A reminder that much more automation is coming, so we better get ready.

Will this Chrome extension help get us out of our ideological bubbles?

A few books I’ve read recently that I definitely recommend: The Nordic Theory of EverythingInfinite DistractionThe Earth and I

Have a great week!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: September 5

“So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.” Those words from an 1894 House of Representatives committee report pointed to the welcome arrival of Labor Day as a federal holiday. Whereas previously, work in America was often characterized by 12-hour or longer days, 7-day workweeks, child laborers, unregulated safety conditions, and appallingly low wages, the late 1800s saw mass unionization and strikes to improve working conditions for everyone.

There’s still a long way to go to achieving the common good–perhaps a total rethink and remaking of the American Dream, achieved through more unionizing, striking, or other collective effort. But I hope that, at least today, many of you are able to rest from your hard work and enjoy the day as you please.

Tons of interesting things in the world and on the web to delve into on this holiday…

Maybe enjoy the day with some oysters? They’re surprisingly great for the planet and for you.

Be careful out there: bad driving is the primary cause of traffic jams. Just another reminder that we all suck at driving.

Looking for something to kick back on the couch and watch? Chef’s Table: France is très bon.

As someone who doesn’t even use Snapchat, this interview with a 14-year-old on how high schoolers use photo- and video-based social media was super interesting. I feel so old.

This is not how the voter-candidate relationship is supposed to look. Money in politics is an ethics issue for both major parties and their candidates.

Life on Earth may have emerged much, much earlier than we thought. Absolutely fascinating.

Hooray for print books (#bibliophile)! Also, could we maybe get to 100% of Americans having read at least one book in the last year? Learning and new experiences make the world go ’round, and you’re talking about a page or less per day to read one book in a year.

Some overzealousness with Zika wiped out millions of bees. Bees can’t catch a break, and we need them to.

A National Institutes of Health review confirms that non-drug treatments like yoga and acupuncture are effective against common pain. +1 for yoga.

Fracking just caused the largest manmade earthquake in US history. I’d say we need to be asking some more questions about an energy extraction process that does this.

Speaking of energy extraction, the fast-tracked Dakota Access Pipeline construction is causing all sorts of destruction and desecration of Standing Rock Sioux land. Protesters were met with pepper spray and dogs. Complete WTF situation.

Here’s a brief history of stop-motion animation. Such a cool art form. Want to see Kubo and the Two Strings.

Hope you have the best week possible. Thanks for reading!

Keeping the World New

Have you ever felt bored and cramped by routine? Wake up, work, waste time on your phone, do chores, go out, wake up and do it again? Going through the motions feels repetitive and stale. Even food, one of the greatest of all human pleasures, can become the same old same old–familiar fuel to shove down instead of a hedonistic respite of self-care.

When we get stuck in the routine of everyday life, the world begins to feel small, all figured out, and uninspiring. I’ve had weeks where I did essentially the same activities morning to night, spending all my time either at work or at home (which are only a short distance apart). I felt like I was about to go crazy. Have you ever felt like that? What did you do to break free?

For me, I’ve come to value more and more the need to be adventurous and travel. The routine inevitably does get boring and cramped. Choosing to learn new things and explores new places keeps the world new.

This can be as easy as picking up a book or watching a documentary. People have long freed themselves from smallness and sameness through the escapism of books and film. Or, perhaps, find a neighborhood, theater, hiking trail, coffee shop, volunteer center, or other local place that you haven’t checked out yet. You can widen your world by experiencing more of your own community.

And you can definitely widen the horizon of your sense of the world by traveling even farther. Are there places you can take a day trip to or camp at a couple hours away? How about bigger cities that you’ve yet to experience? When your hometown starts to feel like the beginning and end of the whole world because that’s all you’ve seen for weeks on end, you have to physically extend your felt boundary of the world by going beyond your city limits. Travel, perhaps more than anything else, keeps the world new by exposing you to other communities and ways of life that you’re not otherwise being exposed to. Different plants, landscapes, weather, buildings, fashion, art, language, transportation, and food.

And, curiously, when you come back home, your hometown may feel new itself. It has a fresh context thanks to you broadening your horizon of experience. There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. Have you ever returned from a vacation and felt like home looked and smelled a little different? What is your home or apartment’s after-vacation smell?  (Hopefully something other than the trash you forgot to take out before you left). What does the view of the sunset look like when you get back?

After vacation, did friends, family, and acquaintances seem a bit different–a little more complex, fascinating, and enjoyable to be around? Or, inversely, did some people seem palpably toxic and in need of being avoided to a degree? Is that primarily because other people changed, or because you did?

The world and all of us in it are a lot more diverse, interesting, and enlightening than we’re aware of most of the time. It’s just that as we get caught up in the bubble of the routine the world in our experience of it starts to get smaller and smaller, and we get sucked into a pattern that oversimplifies and bores. That’s not what life’s supposed to be about.

It can be difficult to avoid the bubble, and perhaps even natural to get encapsulated in it in a culture that is so purposefully routinized. Most Americans, even if they earn vacation time at work, do not take it. We organize time in an endlessly repeating loop of five work or school days (Monday-Friday) and two rest days (Saturday-Sunday). Monday is the deflated, is the weekend seriously already over? day. Wednesday is the wait, it’s only the middle of the week? day. Friday is the woo-hoo, time to go wild and forget about this shit day. Do you know that Friday feeling? What if you could keep that kind of Friday feeling more of the time?

I really think we can by aspiring to be more adventurous at home and abroad. Does that sound a little cheesy? I suppose. But try scheduling some vacations–day trips or weeks away–to break up the endless Monday through Sunday loop. Try breaking up the daily routine by picking up a book, watching a documentary, or grabbing lunch at a new spot instead of filling the day by checking social media every couple minutes and getting the same takeout meal you had a couple days ago. See if it changes the way that you feel and perceive things. I think there’s a good chance it will.

The world is too interesting for same old same old. Be adventurous. Travel near and far. Keep the world new.

 

This Week in Upgrades: April 11

Hello there! Welcome to a new week. I don’t know about you, but I’m locked in a real battle with my tiredness. Last week was a long one without a lot of free time.

But in the time that I did have, I’ve been enjoying reading After Nature: A Politics for the AnthropoceneThe US, along with the rest of the world, needs to take a good look in the mirror about our relationship with nature, and what we need to do now to adapt to climate change. After Nature has a lot of great things to say about that, and I’m sure some of it will end up in future posts.

It was a busy week for human things happening the world. Here are some of the most interesting:

Twitter announced that they’ll be offering employees 20 weeks of paid parental leave. That’s not bad compared to other businesses and some US cities, but still not even close to other countries. Paid maternity and paternity leave of several months should be in every presidential candidate’s platform.

In encouraging environmental news, wild tiger populations are growing for the first time in 100 years. The world’s wildlife has been decreasing dramatically in recent decades.

Quartz took a look at the paltry state of public transportation in the United States and who will fix it. Plenty of room to improve where I live.  How about where you are?

Such a curious thing that we have moving stairwells everywhere. Have you ever wondered about the invention of the escalator?

The more we study bacteria in the gut, the more we understand how important it is. A recent study shows how they relate to brain function.

Speaking of bodily health, almost all of us will probably have checked WebMD at some point. Is it trustworthy?

Continuing the conversation about stuff: fast fashion is not sustainable. Let’s fill our closets with stuff made to last, yeah?

Have a great week!

 

How to Adult: Stuff

Do you have a favorite thing to wear? When you dig through your dresser or look at the rack in the closet, are there clothes that you love more than the rest?

For the longest time, I would have one shirt or sweater that I thought was about the awesomest top I could find, and I felt pretty awesome in it whenever I’d wear it. Everything else in my wardrobe was made up of things from when I was younger that still fit, randomly bought pieces from sale sections, and clothes I got as gifts. Most days I left home wearing one of those things, and not feeling particularly awesome because of it.

There’s an energy to what you wear. Some make you feel awesome. Some make you feel whatever. Some make you feel why do I have this and when would I actually want to put it on?

It’s the same kind of energy that exists with all of the stuff that fills up our homes. The things in your closet, in the bathroom cabinet, in the kitchen, on the floor in the living room, and everywhere else, have a kind of force. They make you feel a certain way when you’re around them and when you use them.

Thinking about stuff in that way might seem kinda out there, were it not for the success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Most of us at some point have parted with a thing or two by giving it to Goodwill or just throwing it in the garbage. The “KonMari Method” takes things to a whole other level.

The basic principle is one of those great rules for life that sounds remarkably simple but changes things dramatically when you follow it. For every piece of stuff in your home–every shirt, every book, every kitchen gadget, every childhood crayon drawing–you must hold it in your hands and ask, “does this bring me joy?” Just an instinctual yes or no–no rationalizing. It’s easy to wander down the rabbit hole of no, but it… that causes you to hold onto something that doesn’t actually make you feel all that awesome. But it came from grandma. But I paid $50 for it. But I’ve had it since I was in college. It’s really hard with some stuff! But you’re trying to focus on the feeling each thing gives you–keeping only what gives you delight when you touch it.

As you go through this intense and sometimes emotional process, with all the different kinds of stuff filling up your home, you’re left with only things that spark joy, as Kondo describes it. What’s left in your closet means you can wear the outfit that makes you feel awesome every day because they’re all like that.

Practically speaking, is this difficult? Absolutely. There’s a minimalism that’s too minimal. You can’t walk out the door naked three days of the week because you only have four clean things in your wardrobe.

And few people can afford to drop tons of money all at once to build up the clothes, cookware, furniture, books, etc. that spark joy.

So maybe instead for right now, before you winnow down to keeping only the things that make you feel that way, focus instead on the things you’re about to buy. Ask whether it truly makes you feel awesome and will continue to make you feel awesome in six months. Instead of buying two or three fast-fashion shirts that will fall apart after the third time you wash them, try to save up a little bit and get one shirt that’s built to last. Even in our mass-produced world, there are plenty of makers making things that you’ll feel full of joy about for a long time.

When you begin to be aware of the energy of the things in your home, stuff is no longer just stuff. It has a force, it has influence, it requires attention and discretion. It can either spark joy or suck you into a black hole of other emotion. You have the power to filter out what’s what, even if it takes a little while to do so.

When you’re surrounded by the things that make you feel awesome, it nudges you to be a more awesome you. Put on your favorite outfit and get to it.

 

This Week in Upgrades: February 8

Good Monday to you! I hope you’re well. Here in Southern California we’re set to break record high temperatures. I wasn’t prepared for 90° weather and fire warnings in February. Are you having unseasonal weather? I don’t think this is the way things are supposed to be.

Did you watch the Super Bowl? What did you think about the game and the rest of the spectacle? Plenty to talk about: the Broncos’ incredible defenseblatant product plugging, and the implications of Beyonce’s performance.

I’d imagine many fans are already starting to think about the next NFL season. Here’s how we might be watching games in augmented reality in the future. Is that awesome or overwhelming?

The New Hampshire primary is tomorrow, and I’ll keep reminding everyone to vote until we all have. Things are just starting to get good.

Lots of interesting human things in the last week. Here are just some of them:

Do you use cologne, perfume, body spray, or other body products with a scent? Fragrance may be making us really sick.

Are paper books immortal? Amazon will open at least 300 actual bookstores.

Google is providing free gigabit Internet to public housing in Kansas City. Well done.

I love the National Parks, and I’m happy whenever others go. But nature is not for Yelp-ing.

I am not a wine person, but I admire people like Madeline Puckette who are de-snobbing the craft.

Your moment of heartfelt silliness: James Corden carpool karaoke with Chris Martin.

You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythm. But do you know how it works and how to find your daily flow?

Are you familiar with the genre “competence porn?” From The Martian to Sherlock Holmes, we love the power of rational problem-solving.

One of the more important aging discoveries ever.” Will we see therapies for people based on this research in the near future?

The sooner we can move beyond racial stereotypes and outright racism the better. Really like BuzzFeed‘s “I’m…, but I’m not…” videos. Recently, “I’m Native, but I’m not…” and “I’m Black, but I’m not…”

The trailer for Netflix’s Cooked, based on Michael Pollan’s book. Looking forward to watching this.

Have a great week!

This Week in Upgrades: November 7

Young Girl with Tablet
KasparsGrinvalds/Bigstock.com

More and more parents are giving kids devices to keep them busy. “If children are sitting by themselves glued to digital candy, we simply don’t know what the consequences are for their early social development.”

And it’s not just the little ones. A new report says teens spend 9 hours in front of screens everyday. Whoa.

If you’re using Snapchat, have you actually read its new terms of service?

Old is new: Amazon now has at least one physical bookstore.

Bread used to be delicious and good for you. What happened?

Mark Bittman, genius food-writer, has left the New York Times to help people cook more plant-based meals at home.

It’s a bigger problem than most of us realize. How can we all stop wasting food?

Guys are being major creeps on Instagram. We’re better than that, gents.

Every generation is rebelling against the previous generation. Millennials got a raw deal.