Consider Miles Davis, horn held high, sculpting a powerful musical statement full of tonal patterns, inside jokes, and thrilling climactic phrases—all 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 creativity—the source, he argues, of our remarkable imaginational capacity. How is it, he asks, that a story can evoke a whole world inside of us? 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.
Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is also Senior Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture.
Asma is the author of ten books, including The Evolution of Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2017), The Evolution of Mind: Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition with Rami Gabriel (Harvard University Press, forthcoming), On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press), and The Gods Drink Whiskey (HarperOne).
He writes regularly for the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Skeptic magazine. He has also written for the Sunday Times, the Chicago Tribune, Aeon magazine, Big Think, and many others. His work has been translated into German, Spanish, Hebrew, Czech, Romanian, Hindi, Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese.
Stephen Asma is also a blues/jazz musician who has played onstage with many musical artists, including Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy.
“Steve’s talks are not only filled with information that springs out of his deep knowledge in various fields, but also quite thought-provoking and engaging. He is very open to discussion; as a matter of fact, he claims that’s the best part of presenting discourses. He always seems hungry for wisdom of human experiences and eager to listen. That, in my opinion, is the best quality in a teacher—being a humble student of life himself while teaching and guiding others.” —Tomo Hillbo, Manager of Communications, Meadville Lombard Theological School.
“Dr. Asma really opened my eyes, and gave me some important tools to take back to my own students. He was excellent!”—Newberry Library workshop for teachers, Chicago.
“I really loved this speaker! His style of presentation is relaxed, but passionate about the topic. Stephen is extremely knowledgeable and the Q&A was deftly handled.” —Brown University, American Studies Department.
“On November 5, 2016, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at The Buddhist Temple of Chicago by Dr. Stephen Asma entitled “Buddhism And Brain Science.” As someone with a background in educational and clinical psychology, I was extremely impressed by his understanding of the dynamic interaction between the environment and neurophysiological, especial as that interaction relates to the field of Epigenetics. However, the most exciting part of Dr. Asma’s lecture for me, as a practicing Buddhist, was his explanation of the correlations between Buddhism and brain science. I have practiced Buddhist meditation for over forty years, but this was the first lecture that I have heard on the relationship between Buddhism and neuroscience that was accessible to the average person. I strongly recommend this lecture and his writing on the subject.”—Kenneth Addison, Professor Emeritus, Northeastern Illinois University.