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The Evolution of Imagination

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? How are we able to rehearse a skill, a speech, or even an entire scenario simply by thinking about it? How does creativity go beyond experience and help us make something completely new? 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.

320 pages | 20 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

Cognitive Science: General Works, Human and Animal Cognition

Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind


The Evolution of Imagination makes a compelling case that we should not, and ultimately cannot, leave our creative roots behind.  In the course of this slim but ambitious book on the nature of the imagination, Mr. Asma tells his reader that ‘sometimes an artist like James Brown will interrupt a long vamp or groove by calling out to the band. ‘Should we take it to the bridge, fellas?’’ For Mr. Asma the answer has always been ‘yes.’ The bridge is the point at which a melody takes what he calls ‘a musical left turn,’ a moment that initiates artistic improvisation…. Mr. Asma takes readers to the bridge, the site of human creativity, gives them a sense of its thrill, and while doing so leads them through a series of questions that have stymied philosophers for millennia: How exactly does human creativity take place? What is the importance and meaning of the imagination? How did humans first become, in Mr. Asma’s words, the ‘improvising ape’?”

The Wall Street Journal

"[A]n ambitious and exciting book about creativity, rich with eclectic disciplinary references and enlivened with personal anecdotes. Charting new territory, Asma emphasizes the biological bases of imagination—sensory perception, emotions and affective systems, neurology, biochemistry, brain size and differentiation, and capabilities for motion and action—and casts these elements in evolutionary perspective."


"From testing a theory to playing bebop, improvisation is the fount of creativity — it's even the primal driver in our natural history. So argues philosopher and jazz musician Stephen Asma, who draws on neuroscience and animal behaviour for this intriguing, if occasionally chewy, foray into human evolution. Looking at improvisation from pre-linguistic expression (such as dance) to storytelling, Asma explores how we actively engage the imagination to create our own 'virtual realities' and to build just societies, as well as to foster the adaptability we need to negotiate life's changes."


“No one disputes the complex role of imagination in everything from science and art to daily life. Its origins, however, remain elusive. The Evolution of Imagination, one of the latest attempts to grapple with it, focuses on improvisation, characterising this as spontaneous creativity and arguing it is the fundamental process behind the artistic and scientific imagination. It’s hard to disagree with philosopher Stephen Asma’s view that imagination is good for us, individually and as a society….[H]is touchstone is jazz improvisation. Having played with some great musicians, Asma has fascinating insights into how improvisation works. He also weaves together ideas from Eastern and Western philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology, archaeology and everyday life, often drawing on his experiences of having lived in a variety of cultures.” 

New Scientist

"Stephen Asma’s beautifully-written scholarly study of the evolution of imagination is a powerful new approach to the adaptation of creative improvisation."

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts

"Asma's ability to blend philosophy with his observations as a musician and jazz player opens the doors to the hallmarks of the improvising mind-set—fluid responsiveness, toleration, and a level of comfort with failure and ambiguity. . . . The Evolution of Imagination is an inventive assessment of this spiritual practice which shines a light on the dynamics of improvisation in all creative activities."

Spirituality and Practice

"Asma effortlessly flits between philosophy, neuroscience, evolution, anthropology, archaeology, psychology and modern life to burrow deep into the human psyche to explain how creativity goes beyond experience to help us build something unexpected and magical."

Hindustan Times

“This is a terrific book. It is a grand, expansive journey through the central role of improvisation and imagination in everything we experience, think, and do. Asma shows how our marvelous capacity for improvisation—from knapping flint to childhood play to dancing to musical performance to creative science, philosophy, and art—is grounded in our embodied capacities for perception, bodily movement, emotion, and imagination. To support and develop his comprehensive analysis of how we humans came to be improvisers and how this developed into our most impressive creative activities, Asma draws masterfully on anthropology, genetics, biology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and embodied cognition studies.”

Mark Johnson, author of Morality for Humans

“This book is appealing in that it does not link creativity with marketing or business innovation, as is currently fashionable, but rather with the nature of artistic endeavor itself and with our understanding of how the mind works. Asma combines his expertise as a jazz performer and philosopher to argue that mental activity, especially in improvisation, is not a matter of symbolic processing, but is rather a matter of emotional reaction and sensory experience. Asma accessibly places familiar arguments from cognitive science within the context of artistic creativity.”

Michael Corballis, author of The Truth about Language: What It Is and Where It Came From

Table of Contents


One: The Second Universe
Counting Off
Some Crucial Ingredients
The Captain or the Muse?
Metaphysical Imagination
A Second Universe
Philosophical Missteps
You Are an Expert Improviser

Two: The Creative Body
Give the Drummer Some
Thinking with Your Body
The Simulation System
Hot Cognition and Heuristics
I Feel, Therefore I Improvise
The Most Playful Ape
The Caveman Thespian
Emotional Intelligence and Improvisation

Three: Drawing, Dreaming, and Visual Improvisation
The Roots and the Walking Bass
Caveman Picassos
Images, Dreams and Proto-Consciousness
Pictorial Mind and Creative Thinking
Voluntary Imagination

Four: Spinning the Yarn: Creating with Language
Playing the Head
How Did Language Evolve?
Storytelling Apes
Take It to the Bridge! Improvisation as Helpful Deviance
Tuning a Theory

Five: Blowing Away the Self: Creativity and Control
Solo Time
Evolution of the First-Person Perspective
Where Is the Self?
Zen, Flow, and Brain Systems
Finding Your Way Back

Six: The Politics of Imagination: Trading Fours
The Cultures of Creating and Copying
Ethics and the Moral Imagination
Improvisation, Dogmatism, and the Future of Freedom


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