Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Evolution, Imagination, and Improvisation

Stephen T. Asma. The Evolution of Imagination. University of Chicago Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-0226225166. $30 U.S. Hardcover. Illustrated.

Stephen Asma’s The Evolution of Imagination is a required addition to the library of academics interested in evolutionary studies. The well-organized book is thoroughly researched, engagingly written, and fortuitously illustrated by the author, who is also an accomplished jazz musician and philosopher. Asma is also fluent in the culture and philosophy of Asian countries, which impact directly on his main points and discussion, especially concerning creativity, self, meditation, mindfulness, and morality. No doubt this is a book I will refer to in the future, and I recommend it to philosophers of biology and neuroscience. I’d also recommend this book to scientists who wish to see how philosophy and the creative mind accommodate their research. Artists who are curious about the nature of their creativity will also learn much from this book. Stephen Asma’s beautifully-written scholarly study of the evolution of imagination is a powerful new approach to the adaptation of creative improvisation.

Broad areas Asma covers in terms of imaginative creativity include culture, storytelling, consciousness, and ethics. Lev Shestov said that all things are possible. Stephen Asma says that all things are possible because of the human imagination. What he sees as a mistake is how philosophers characterize imagination as cognition and not as action. Rather than ambiguous concepts and universals, Asma homes in on the particulars of sensation and emotion. What does it feel like to imagine oneself as...? There is an adaptive advantage to imaginative, playful what ifs. The imagination is physical sense that prompts one to improvise creatively. In evolutionary terms, then, the imagination helped us survive and reproduce in unprecedented ways. Improvisation especially helped us, says Asma, thrive in its inventive environment, but less as a computational and more as an emotional action. To be precise, imagination is not necessarily useful as noun; it’s more effective a gerund – imagining or the act of making.

Like many brain functions, imagination is not fixed or static but a dynamic process across many regions, including motor systems and emotions. An improvising imagination, says Asma, more easily and fluidly taps into the brain’s storehouse of knowledge, whether scientific or artistic. For Asma, hardcore evolutionary psychologists who emphasize domain-specific modules have it wrong: improvisation comes out of general intelligence or, as he labels it, an “anti-module.” Improvisation, according to Asma, is evolutionarily old and therefore pre-linguistic. Given our close relationship with great apes, foundations of creative improvisation can be found in emotional and bodily social gestures. Asma is right to say, along these lines, that our human intellect grew out of the primate mind’s ability to organize and manipulate emotional and social experiences. The body and emotion, for the philosopher Asma, are more central to imaginative creativity than concepts and language. He goes as far as saying that the imagination provides a glimmer of the Homo mind before language. Asma aligns his approach with biosemantics, which looks for meaning not in language but in social embodiment, like dance, music, and calling.

Imagination probably came early on and is best considered when we think of how Pleistocene hunters anticipated a kill by simulation and prediction. There are several features of improvisation, says Asma: spontaneity, intuition, adaptation to an environment, resource deficiency that prompts creative thinking, discipline according to rules or physics, and emergency response. Improvisation happens in real time and is not preparation for a later performance. However, what’s learned through improvisation could be greatly beneficial over the long run. Improvisation is, in many respects, Darwinian: random mutations and then natural selection; changes and solutions that, if beneficial, are selected for because of adaptability to the environment. Improvisation is also simply trial-and-error, where one makes an accidental discovery and then continues to work through mistakes until achieving an optimal result. Forms are mixed and hybrids are created. This sounds to me a little like Tomasello’s ratchet effect, selection on culture.

In addition to chance, Asma makes the important point that affective systems often are responsible at the initiation stage of improvisation. Does one freely want to go through with this action, and how will it make one feel? In this way human creativity relies more on the limbic/emotional systems rather than higher neocortical structures. In addition, there are elements of stream of consciousness in improvisation.

Through a discussion of brain chemicals and epigenetics, Asma goes on to discuss how scientists and not just artists achieve inspiring moments when not focused or controlled but relaxed in consciousness. For example, consider how one reimagines different outcomes to an already finished experiment or event. The human imagination, says Asma, is essentially not computational but associational. The human mind often imagines the unreal and can work in counterfactual ways to produce alternative outcomes. So it seems in line with the thinking of David Hume, quite often emotion is paramount to information in human thinking. We have more control in imaginative play than we have in reality.

It’s a little unclear to me where Asma falls on the so-called 50kya neural leap. He seems to favor it but then at other times not. He’s sensitive to Neanderthal culture up to a point. He does not mention the groundbreaking work on Neanderthal culture done by Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks (2000) or April Nowell. Though he rightly says we should be careful to assign reason or advanced culture to other primates, that oversimplification ignores important work by, for example, Sue Taylor Parker and Kathleen Rita Gibson. But to be fair, some of these topics, while addressed, are outside the full scope of Asma’s discussion.

Asma’s overall point is well taken: the adapted human mind is embodied. Mind is as much about motor sensations and emotions as well as representations and even rational thought. For example, motor simulation and bodily synchronization stem from the cerebellum which, Asma notes, grew faster than the neocortex. That means that bodily sequencing, special, and temporal movements developed before and set the stage for reasoning, planning, and decision making. As Asma says, the mind is not just a calculator but a mover. In evolutionary terms, these advances no doubt arose in primates because of movements related to food sourcing, evident today in how great apes are dexterous in handling food. There are multiple steps required to locate and process nutrition, and these coordinated movements are more to the cerebellum than to the neocortex.

This is not to minimize the social import of primate development and learning but only to highlight how we evolved in bodily form. Social learning of some skills is cerebellum dependent, since the body has to move correctly and in synchrony to copy movements accurately. This would be especially true, says Asma, in resource gathering or food preparation. Mirror neurons suggest that our brains are in tune with other brains. Consider, for example, mother-infant facial interactions. These are non-cognitive, emotional, mirroring rewards. Improvisation relies on such unconscious communication, or what we might designate interpersonal thinking with the body.

At this point Asma goes into some detail about what he calls hot cognition (quick emotional actions) and cold cognition (deliberate planning). Hot cognition is embodied and full of affect and emotion, fast. Cold cognition is deductive. Improvisation is closer to our ancient hot cognition since our ancestors lived extemporaneously. From here, Asma gives a nice overview of Antonio Damasios’s “somatic marker” hypothesis where the brain engages in “engraving memories with affective associations that automatically and rapidly influence decision making” (78).  No rational thought is without emotion, and new experiences result in new affective layers. Evolutionarily this is important sine early Homo onward was governed by a limbic brain. This paleo-mammalian cortex combines memory and emotion in a social brain geared to parental care and feelings of fear or desolation. The feeling brain precedes and is integral to the thinking brain.

Contrary to domain specific modules, Asma is advocating a flexible, general intelligence brain capable of enough plasticity to solve basic problems in a highly volatile evolutionary environment. For Asma, this implies that very early Homo improvised in dramatically different climates and habitats. Even so, I don’t think Asma gives enough credit to the cognitive advances of some Homo species. For instance, he says language probably dates only to 200kya. But Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson (2013) say Neanderthals likely shared a modern language and that some language probably dates back to Homo heidelbergensis.

For Asma, the evolution of imagination, closely linked to improvisation as an adaptation, was and aid for one’s emotional life and social intelligence. The perfection of game hunting, coming around 500kya, no doubt involved bodily gestures, facial expressions, and mimicry, theatrical improvisation of individuals for communication among the group. He claims theory of mind is a late, Middle Pleistocene development and questionable in other mammals. But readers might wish to refer to Christopher Krupenye, et al. (2016) and David Buttleman et al. (2017). I realize these papers might not have been available to Asma as he was finishing his book, but there was of course related work by Kristin Andrews. Yet Asma’s point is well taken, for emotional intelligence and improvisation can come from understanding or reading very subtle body/emotional cues. The improvisational reading of these physical signals is prosocial behavior.

At this point Asma demonstrates his knowledge of moral philosophy, Eastern and Western. There is moral improvisation where one does not simply adhere to static rules but bends flexibly to dynamic contexts and situations. Here Asma acknowledges that our moral responses are emotional and draw from our long mammalian and especially primate evolution.

In terms of art, I am happy to see that Asma recognizes how such creations are cognitive and descend from much earlier utilitarian forms. For the most part, however, Asma clings to cave paintings, a very late development and only what’s left of parietal art lost on exterior walls. This is a huge research area to cover; so when he claims that visual art “exploded in a short period” he leaves out much early rock art and other forms of material culture we might consider aesthetic. Some of this ground is covered in authors like Robert G. Bednarik, Genevieve von Petzinger, and especially Ellen Dissanayake. While Asma nobly crams much into his book, that means space is lost for a full examination. I’m thinking of his approach to the so-called Venus sculptures and cave paintings where he focuses exclusively on the vulvas and sexuality. See von Petzinger (2016) for a convincing alternative reading.

Likewise, following David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes (though he does not mention them), Asma ascribes the creation of cave painting to shamanistic ritual. This argument is not new and also addressed by von Petzinger. There is evidence based on hand prints and narrow fissures with paintings that adolescent boys and others were cave painters. Nonetheless, the discussion is thorough going. It’s only that with the emphasis on improvisation and how mind-altering substances help creativity the shamanistic approach of course works best for Asma’s argument. This leads nicely into his discussion of dreams as improvisation in how they loosely organize thoughts and feelings, giving us a reminder that the mind is not like a computer. There are perceptual images stored in memory which can become conceptual and useful in creative improvisation to solve practical or social problems. Images have more life and substance to them than words about those images, the stuff that dreams are made of. Improvisation as an evolutionary adaptation has utilitarian and fantasy aspects, the blending and reframing of forms.

Asma notes that some philosophers say mind is rational, linguistic thought; so without language there is no mind and, therefore, no thinking. He is, rightly, against a Chomsky-like universal grammar: can’t be tested, does not account for cultures, ignores how children learn languages and so not innate. Rather, and closer to his notion of improvisation, Asma suggests repetitive movements embedded in each other, loops of physical, recursive sequencing, like motor movements in dance, as responsible for the learning of language. He goes on to explain that not surprisingly evolutionary biologists don’t agree with the rationalistic philosophers. For instance, there is the complex social world of animals, especially thick between mother and infant, where interchanges usually accompanied by sounds exhibit a type of proto language.

It’s not so much the grammar, syntax, word/abstraction but the physical act of conversing because of its social nature, as per Robin Dunbar. As Asma says, verbal/social grooming is more cost-effective than nit-picking, can service many simultaneously, is low energy, and probably emerged from some type of gossip, not all of which is negative. This is an engaging discussion of storytelling and Asma wonders if the ritualistic aspects of chants and mantras stemming from early proto language are the bridge to stories. That could be one piece of the puzzle; I see no mention, for example, of the work by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama who has written on the role of narrative in human subsistence. Perhaps more mundanely, how I have argued for the origin of narrative in individual consciousness. Asma says that language is the fuel for improvisation, but as he suggests, modern literary stories have lost much of the direct, physical impact on one’s emotions from early storytelling and from theatrical drama.

I found Asma’s discussion and coverage of self and consciousness engaging and thorough. For instance, he says that in contrast to Australopithecines, some apes and other early humans, Homo erectus, during climate change, began to be more deliberative accounting in part brain expansion. I’d add that Constantine Sedikides et al. (2006) note that in Homo ergaster/erectus we first find the symbolic self. Here, as in other parts of the book, Asma draws from a number of scientific, artistic, and philosophical resources to make points and to expand his discussion. Calling on Jaak Pankseppp and Antonio Damasio, Asma says the self might be in the deep, older limbic brain and not in, as commonly assumed, the prefrontal cortex. Consciousness is in levels; there is no on/off switch. One might also look to Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallat (2016) to see how phenomenal consciousness dates back to over 500mya.

I was happy to see included in Asma’s book inclusion of the default mode network, which is the brain at rest, as in mind wandering. G. Gabrielle Starr (2013) has done work in this area with aesthetics. In talking about the default mode network Asma covers meditation and mindfulness. Very roughly speaking, meditation is mind clearing (awareness of emptiness) and mindfulness is mind focusing (impermanence of phenomena). Neither deals directly with creativity. Meditation is without evaluation and is close to, but not equivalent with, the default mode network. There is some intentional thinking in meditation. The default mode network is active while making music, so maybe it is involved in creativity, but Asma is cautious here. Perhaps, at least, the default mode is involved in the initial steps of the imaginative process because, as Asma says, improvisation works without top-heavy conscious awareness.

Imagination is a meaningful simulation of reality, existential, says Asma, and not an abstraction. Improvisation very often is the trading of sounds or ideas in social (kin and non-kin) communication, an evolutionary advantage. This type of bonding is not abstractly but emotionally cognitive. Against Utilitarianism, Asma correctly states that we act ethically to those we have some emotional tie to over a group of strangers. Imagination is a key in how one unlocks herself as a moral character or not. Art is real in ways beyond representation – it is visceral. Stephen Asma’s book is a welcome and worthy addition to the research and thinking that puts the arts in an evolutionary perspective.

-    - Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., professor of English and founder of The Evolutionary Studies Collaborative at St. Francis College (N.Y.), author of Making Mind (2014), Evolution and Human Culture (2016), and Art and Adaptability (2018).

Copyright©2018 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved

Posted with Permission from Dr. Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, a journal which will publish this review in its April 2018 issue.