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: January 16

Hello, friend. I’m running behind today. It’s been a normal, full workday for me. Did you get Martin Luther King Jr Day off? If so, I hope it’s been a reflective and restful holiday.

Here are the most interesting things I came across this week…

Life’s much better with plants in your home. Here’s how to do it without ending up with a pot of dead branches.

Why are people ticklish?

The ongoing conversation about who gets to be an expert on cuisines from certain countries and cultures.

People who swear have been shown to be more honest. (That doesn’t mean they’re more moral).

Antibiotic resistance is getting worse. I feel like nobody’s really talking about this?

The world’s eight (8!) richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 50%. Just a little bit of inequality. Hierarchies may be vital to capitalism, but they’re not natural.

What can actually fix inequality? Policy? War?

The historically low amount of global sea ice should be a huge wake up call about the climate (in a long line of wake up calls).

Another wake up call.

A reminder to take studies praising or villainizing a particular food with a grain of salt (yeah, pun definitely intended).

Alaska is incredible.

Have an awesome week!

 

 

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: November 7

Take a deep breath. I’m sure trying to. It’s the last day of campaigning before Election Day. After tomorrow, we’ll know who the next president is going to be. We’ll know what state ballot initiatives have passed and failed. With the finality of the election season, we’ll have more clarity about what our future is going to look like. And hopefully there’ll be more clarity about the role each of us will play in shaping the future. No matter who becomes president, we all will have work to do.

For better or worse, the election seems to be what’s on most people’s mind. But here are some other things from the week you might want to check out:

Alton’s Brown Good Eats, perhaps the best cooking show ever made, is returning as an online series. Brilliant.

Watch humanity spread across the planet over the last 200,000 years.

As we take steps toward becoming an interplanetary species, we’ll have to figure out how to deal with spacephobia.

Can clickbait ever become more than just digital junk food?

Here’s precisely how bad smoking is for your lungs. Why is smoking still a thing?

Do you work or live with a psychopath? Here are some tips for dealing.

Current climate commitments have us locked into too much warming. Have to get more honest and ambitious.

Anthony Hopkins is a really good actor. (Also, are you watching Westworld?!)

Hope you have a fantastic week!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: September 12

Monday, Monday. Let’s see what this week has in store. Hope you had a good weekend amidst the start of the NFL season, reflecting on 15 years after 9/11, and whatever else you may have been up to.

The past week was full of important happenings–and that’s in addition to the unfolding, depressing drama of the presidential election.

This was a fairly positive surprise: the Dakota Access Pipeline has been temporarily halted by the Department of Justice. “The recognition that the government may not have adequately taken tribes’ considerations into account is a significant achievement, but the decision by the Obama administration is far from definitive. In the meantime, the activists on the ground say they have no plans to move.” More work to do. Props to the activists.

This was not a good surprise: the most thorough study of ocean warming yet has some alarming findings. The oceans have been keeping the planet habitable, and they can’t take a whole lot more.

Tesla’s autopilot, “the best semi-autonomous system on the road today,” is upgrading in some crucial ways.

Yosemite National Park added 400 acres–the largest expansion there in 70 years. Wonderful!

Watch bacteria overcome antibiotics and turn into superbugs. Fascinating, yet terrifying.

Neuroscientists may have just identified the brain cells associated with schadenfreude. Why do we sometimes feel delight from other’s misfortune?

Babies are dumb so adults can be smarter.

Ever see floaters? A few visual disturbances are pretty common. Reassuring for my hypochondriac self.

A new drug has proven effective against one of the deadliest cancers without side effects. Immunotherapy findings like this are super promising.

Stay awesome.

 

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!

This Week In Upgrades: August 22

Hello, hello! Have you been missing awesome links on Mondays? I’ve sure missed sharing them. What a whirlwind of weeks. Made it through and feeling good now.

Can you believe we’re into the last days of August already? Man, is this year going by quickly. Let’s slow things down by taking stock of some worthwhile things on the web from this week.

The trailer for the feature-length version of Voyage of Time, narrated by Cate Blanchett, was released. Can’t tell you how excited I am to see both versions of this.

Fungi may wipe out all of our bananas. Monoculture is not good, you guys.

Werner Herzog’s documentary on the Internet, Lo and Behold, came out on Friday. Have you seen it?

July was likely the hottest month in human history. Like, at any point human beings have been on this planet. This, along with the insane fires and flooding, would suggest we’re officially in the first summer of climate change. The village of Shishmaref became the first US community to decide to relocate because of rising seas. They won’t be the last.

Seen CRISPR in the news? Gene editing will soon change our bodies and the future of humanity. Here’s a great explainer video.

Workplace suicides are increasing worldwide over the last 30 years. An incredibly tragic consequence of neoliberalism. What can we do about this?

The US Justice Department announced it is phasing out the use of private prisons. About time.

Ford is promising a mass-produced self-driving car by 2021. Uber is launching semi-autonomous Ford Fusions in Pittsburg in a few weeks.

If you love Parmesan cheese, you need to read this. Make sure you’re getting the real, good stuff!

The first few weeks of college can be the most dangerous. Some tips for freshmen and their parents to get through safe and sound.

Have you been hoping for “a FitBit for your brain?” I suppose it’s the logical continuation of the quantified self, but I’m not sure about this.

These images are not exactly what the naked eye sees, but light pollution is a serious problem. Artificially shining out all that night sky splendor.

The Navajo Nation has sued the EPA over the San Juan River mine spill. “Spring, which once symbolized the bringing of new life as many Navajo families planted their crops, now represents a looming threat as Spring runoff instead brings toxic metals to Navajo water and lands.”

You’ve never heard Beethoven like this. Crazy skills.

Have an excellent week!

This Week in Upgrades: June 27

Hello there! How’s your Monday? Have all your 4th of July plans figured out (if you’re celebrating)? Nothing like a new week and a new month to hit the refresh button. I know I’m ready to be better at some things than I was in recent days.

You catch some of the happenings on the Internet this week? Crazy, inspiring, tragic. A typical week of the spectrum of humanity and the world we live in. Check some of these out:

Millennials are side hustling because there’s no other choice. Thanks, Neoliberalism.

Here’s another reminder about the importance of self-compassion. A future Upgraded Humans post on it may be in order.

Buenos Aires is closing their zoo because animal captivity is degrading. Well done.

Ludovico Einaudi plays a dirge for the Arctic while floating through. Haunting.

There’s a new climate change podcast called Warm Regards. Listen here.

Matthew McConaughey teased the possibility of another Rust Cohle True Detective season. Please!

Here’s a great profile on Faviken–one of the world’s most remote and creative restaurants.

Why is everyone drinking La Croix?

What were humans like before we started recording our history? Great video.

Wear glasses? Half of the planet will be nearsighted by 2050. Put a new pair of contacts in today, myself.

Rest in peace to a delightful human.

Here’s a moment of Muir to remind you to get outside.

Have a brilliant week!

 

 

Humans and Nature: Safety Not Guaranteed

Marathon runner attacked by bear. Colorado woman rescues son from jaws of mountain lion. Alligator drowns child at Disney World.

These are just the most notable animal-human encounter headlines from the last few weeks. Google “hiker dies,” and you’ll find several more stories from recent days of people who tragically lost their lives in wild terrain.

Each of these stories is surprising and dismaying–difficult to comprehend. Things seem to be going just fine, and then suddenly nature strikes and someone’s life is in the balance. Social media and mainstream news bring these encounters front-and-center, and we collectively wonder how such a thing is possible in modern society.

Disney should have been patrolling the local waterways, relocating dangerous wildlife, monitoring children at the shore, and putting up signs everywhere warning guests about natural threats.

Lost in nearly all of the conversation about that particular incident is the fact that Disney has built a massive resort in the midst of a complex ecosystem that’s been present and evolving for countless years before humans artificially built their vacation village on top. Is it reasonable to think that with over a million alligators in Florida any human planning is going to be able to ensure a gator won’t be in a given area? When a business has already put up signage saying not to enter the water at the boundary of the resort, should they further have to explain that it’s because a predatory native species everyone should know about may be lurking there in the habitat it’s reigned in long before humans showed up?

Much of the world is now an artificial expanse of human civilization that blankets the existing wild environment. No one expects in suburban Colorado to find a mountain lion in their yard. No one expects to come across a bear and cub while running a marathon. No one expects a child wading into the resort lagoon to be pulled underwater by a gator.

No one expects these things because we believe that our modern society is one of total human domination, ingenuity, and control. We are the top predator, the hunter, the inventor, the architect. Wild predators and wild terrain are dangerous nuisances that should already be engineered out of our experience of the world.

There’s no question we are a dominant, controlling species today. We now alter the climate of the whole planet. We’ve caused many of the Earth’s animals to go extinct or become severely underpopulated. We explore high and low (and leave our mark with trash)–in the near space of our solar system and in the deepest depths of the ocean. No other animal on the planet has done or is doing this.

At the same time, things were not always this way for us. Before they went extinct, there were a number of animals that we were prey to–giant hyenas, cave bears and cave lions, snakes, saber-toothed cats, and others. We were not always at the top of everything, and no matter what we want to believe, we’re still not in control of everything. There remain predators and wild environmental features that can threaten, wound, and kill us.

So, yes, it is absolutely shocking and saddening when someone is severely hurt or even killed by the tooth and claw of nature. My heart breaks for anyone who’s lost a loved one to a violent storm, jagged terrain, or a deadly creature.

But the reason these stories are breaking news is the veil of civilization makes them less common and existential than they were for hundreds of thousands of years. Our faith in utter domination and control may one day be an all-encompassing reality as we continue to alter the planet: no more animal attacks, threatening storms, or fatal terrain. But for now, our existence is one of fragility and unpredictability. Our reality is that safety is not guaranteed. We are always wrestling with the elements and need to be vigilant–whether it’s at a resort or deep in the woods.

 

Humans and Nature: Time to Wake Up

Human beings have not always been around on this planet, and they were definitely not always in Australia. It was only about 45,000 years ago that a group of enterprising Homo sapiens–probably from the Indonesian archipelago–got in some kind of boat and rode the ocean until they happened upon the massive isolated continent of Australia. According to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, they encountered a wild world of oversized kangaroos and koalas, a species of marsupial lion, birds twice the size of ostriches, “dragon-like” lizards and snakes, and the giant diprotodon–a two-and-a-half ton wombat. It was a vibrant ecosystem of striking creatures, with a long-evolved order and rhythm. It didn’t take long for the human arrival to disrupt it.

“Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged. It was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem for millions of years…The moment the first hunter-gatherers set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”

Human beings’ emergence, migration, and gradual domination of nearly every inch of the planet have been reshaping the Earth since long before the Industrial Revolution and our current fossil-fueled era. Talking about human-caused environmental change and damage shouldn’t be anything radical or surprising. The only thing that is relatively new is the impact we have on the whole Earth–a comprehensive impact that dramatically alters the only planetary home humans have ever had. You may not care much about a few dozen strange species in Australia several thousand years ago, but you should be extremely concerned about the possibility that the Earth will no longer be pleasantly habitable for us in the not too distant future. This is a threat to our own existence.

Take a look at some of the news just from the last week:

Arctic Sea Ice Hit a Stunning New Low in May

This May Was The Hottest May on Record

Alaska 10 Degrees Hotter than Normal From March to May

First Mammal Goes Extinct Because of Climate Change

Earth’s Atmospheric CO2 Concentration Permanently Passes “Point of No Return” Level

If you haven’t been paying attention, this week wasn’t some sort of anomaly for disturbing environmental alarms. You can find similar headlines for every week over the last several months (and years, honestly). We’re wrecking the planet in unprecedentedly vast and swift ways.

It’s too late to deny or ignore. Too late to put climate change any lower than the top spot in global priorities. Too late to have a president that has to be urged by scientists not to allow more oil and gas exploration rather than simply knowing the state of the planet and saying absolutely not. Too late for an already insufficient international climate agreement to be undermined by the short-term interests of the most powerful economic institutions.

Ancient species extinction in Australia may not have been a change or threat that affected the early sapiens miles away in other continents. They probably had no idea it was even happening.

But today we can no longer be naive or pretend that drastic environmental shifts are only occurring far away from where we are in ways that don’t impact everyone. They’re happening in your backyard; they’re happening in my backyard. We cannot hit the snooze button and go back to dreaming everything will be fine. It’s time to wake up.

 

This Week in Upgrades: June 6

Hello, friend! How was your weekend? I’m on a much needed vacation right now, and I’m feeling super refreshed. Very little phone and Internet connection here, so it’s been a bit of a digital detox too. I’m not mad about that.

A little shorter vacation version of Upgrades because of that, but still plenty of interesting things this week.

Tesla has reportedly offered up its autopilot data to the US Department of Transportation.

Norway is set to ban all gas-powered cars by 2025. Well done, Norway!

Is this why smart people do dumb things?

Sad news for Hamilton fans: it appears creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda is leaving the show in July. Have a few thousand dollars to see it before he’s done?

Dogs may not have become humankind’s best friend the way we thought.

The United States is trapped in a neoliberal nightmare. How will we wake up?

Is compositing a better way to get rid of medications?

Have an excellent week!