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: Feb 1

Good Monday to you! It’s an exciting day. A new month is a good time for a fresh start, whether it’s big things or small. We’ve got a February 29th since it’s a Leap Year, so you have an extra day to become more awesome between now and March. Here’s why you can’t stop doing that thing you should stop doing.

The Iowa Caucuses this evening officially begin the election of our next President. I’d love for you to read my thoughts on voting from Friday’s How to Adult and tell me what you think. Hope you’re planning on voting when it’s your state’s turn.

The Super Bowl is on Sunday, and even though most of us are not Broncos or Panthers fans we’ll probably still tune in: for the commercials, for the Beyonce, for the GIF-able moments, for the food. I’ll definitely be watching. If you want to impress your friends and family, Alton Brown has your back with a Short Ribs Queso Dip recipe. Sounds incredible.

 

Here are some other interesting human things this week:

We learned beautiful words in other languages that do not have an English equivalent. We should work on that.

 

The Atlantic made a compelling case why wealthy kids like healthier foods. Did you know that some studies have suggested it takes 8-15 times eating a particular thing before kids will appreciate it? It’s not exactly inexpensive to get them to like their vegetables. How can we make it affordable for everyone to eat well?

 

Elon Musk announced that he’ll be unveiling SpaceX’s mission to Mars plans in September. Hopefully Matt Damon isn’t on the crew.

 

Speaking of Mr. Musk, it looks like several others, including the US Government, are intrigued by a Hyperloop. Would you travel like this? I feel scared and excited at the same time.

 

The CDC has declared Chipotle’s foodborne illness outbreak over. Will you be going back for a burrito?

 

Love it or hate it, Macklemore and Jamila Wood’s “White Privilege II” was discussed left and right after it was released. What do you think? Here’s a Q&A they did with NPR about the creation of the song.

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 19

Have you seen The Force Awakens? 10 burning questions from Episode VII (spoiler alert).

 

Why is English such a weird language?

 

We’re in the midst of peak beards. Is there an evolutionary explanation for male facial hair?

 

Google’s self-driving car will become a standalone company in 2016. Why we need these sooner than later.

 

Norway is the best country in the world for humans for the 12th year in a row. Scandinavians do things right.

 

Butter, sugar, flour, eggs. Why do these ingredients perfectly combine to make cookies?

 

What causes the end of the world in pop culture? The 10 types of fictional apocalypses.

 

Always be light on your feet.

 

This Week in Upgrades: June 20

What's Old is New

People have made a living fishing for generations, but there are now too few fish in the Mediterranean. NPR

Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, takes on Big Soda in her forthcoming book. Food Politics

These photos of children watching television are more disturbing than a horror film. Time for a break. My Modern Met

Awesome infograph of the world by native language. You might be surprised what’s in the Top 23. Lucas Infografia

The Internet’s full of outrage. Let’s refocus it into social justice IRL. The Daily Beast

The rise of the spornosexual. “In a world of increasing scrutiny–online and off–body image issues can no longer simply be regarded as a female problem.” Aeon Magazine

Slowly making our way back to a hieroglyphic society. Soon you’ll just emoji a password. NPR

Is Uber a contractor or an employer? As more and more business is networked through devices, do we need a new class of worker? BuzzFeed News

We’re in the midst of the 6th great extinction ever to occur on Earth, and this time “we are the species that is causing the loss of all these other species.” The Guardian

Eating Well: Food Doctrine of the Mean

Scallops and Juniper
Photo Credit: Netflix

Food is the most universal language. In many places of the world, you can get by without knowing a word of Spanish, Mandarin, or French. They are widely spoken, but not wide enough to encompass all of humanity. No single, literal language does. But if you’re a human being anywhere, you cannot get by for more than a handful of days without consuming and digesting some kind of edible flora or fauna. The cultivation and intake of food are some of the most fundamental activities of being a person. We have to eat. As such, much of our civilization and culture has emerged around the things that constitute a meal and their sources. Over the course of the last few hundred years, many and varied branches of a thoroughgoing food industry have grown, and we now find ourselves high up in the canopy of the culinary tree without a view or an interest in the trunk and roots below that led to its growth.

We now watch food competitions on television and take smartphone pictures of food seemingly as much or more than we spend time eating it. We order out, drive through, and snack on the go while our pans and pantry collect dust at home. We readily recognize the sight of plastic-wrapped packages of meat in bulk without having any idea of how the animal was raised and butchered. We have kids who struggle to identify tomatoes and potatoes in their original, just-picked state. There are chefs and food industry experts who are nearly as popular and well known as Hollywood celebrities are for film.

We are enraptured by the consumption of food. There are two polar extremes. On the one hand, trying too hard: bombastic, absurdist gastronomy with excessive technique and uncomplementary ingredients forced together (which the average person will largely never be able to taste or learn to make anyway). On the other, indolence: processed junk with grotesque amounts of sugar, fat, and carbohydrates encouraging us to indulge in foods that undermine our well-being. In both, there is a lack of understanding true craft—knowing the essential interconnections in ecosystems where edible plants and animals grow, what constitutes quality, true skill, and approachability. Food is the universal language, but few of us are fluent anymore—even many chefs. We live in one of the two extremes. We’ve lost the meaning of a well-prepared meal and the proper amount of reverence it deserves.

In such a paltry conceptual environment, Netflix’s original series Chef’s Table could not have been released at a better time. It’s food television, to be sure, but it supersedes existing programs in a way that makes it more of an artistic philosophical reflection than pop entertainment. Chef’s Table compellingly presents a middle ground between the extremes of fetishized gastronomy and profane processed foods. Each of the chefs featured are struggling to break free from the status quo of the culinary world and provide people with a resonant, grounded food experience.

Massimo Bottura has established the third-best restaurant in the world by simply capturing the essence of traditional small-town Italian flavors and presenting them with the playfulness of a child sneaking tastes in a grandmother’s kitchen. Dan Barber is a prophet for understanding that the best flavors are inherent to the best ingredients, which is ultimately dependent on the health of the soil and the rhythms of nature. His literal farm-to-table restaurant at a barn in rural New York just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant—the Best Picture Oscar of cuisine. Francis Mallmann is a revered chef with the utmost classical technique, who prefers to cook over open fire on a remote Patagonian island with the closest of companions—journeying through life as a sort of renegade band. Niki Nakayama uses the memory of past meals and personalization to every diner to imbue her cooking with additional layers of curated thoughtfulness and relatability. Ben Shewry shows that exceptional food need not be haughty or showy, that creativity often comes out of necessity, and that care of family and friends is just as important as aspiration for brilliance. And in the season finale, it becomes fully clear that eating well is not limited by place or expectations of how a restaurant and its kitchen should function. Magnus Nilsson prepares some of the most renowned food in the world by picking and preserving what arises in each season in remote Sweden—later preparing it in the intimacy of a 12-seat, tightly-staffed lodge.

Each chef narrates their journey of ambition and failure—of perseverance and gaining insight and originality. Like Aristotelian virtues, flourishing occurs in the balance or mean between the extremes. Culinary arts as a genuine art is about: humility in relation to the dirt that produces everything we take and use to eat; learning and sometimes failing at technique to be able to later freely play with it like a virtuoso instrumentalist; and connecting with other people by prioritizing simplicity and enjoyment over pride and recognition. Show creator David Gelb hopes people, “watch these films and then look at their own lives and the places where they eat and see how it changes their perspective.”

In The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly writes, “The secret of happiness (and therefore of success) is to be in harmony with existence, to be always calm, always lucid, always willing, ‘to be joined to the universe without being more conscious of it than an idiot,’ to let each wave of life wash us a little farther up the shore.”

This kind of harmony—such moderation between trying too hard and indolence—is the way the chefs in Chef’s Table engage cooking, and the earth that brings about the bounty of what can be cooked, in preparation for the people who eat it. We, too, can find genuine happiness through food by coming to see the culinary mean between the extremes as we dine.