If recent developments in neuroscience are credible - and the evidence seems intuitively persuasive even without research - stories, or more properly the imaginative journey that stories initiate, are of colossal importance to our wellbeing, confirming what we, and Philip Pullman, suspected all along, that - 'after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the things we need most in the world'.
Pullman may not know about synaptic connections or the tomography of brain patterns, but he does know that children need more than soundbites, touchscreens and the attenuating brevity of text, to prevent mental atrophy. And his insight is corroborated by British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield whose studies suggest that our new digital lives are actively altering the structures of our brains. The ramifications of such changes are immense, not least because it is likely that our neural apparatus has remained substantially the same for millennia. The symptoms of alteration are numerous and profound, and ones with which most of us are becoming antagonistically familiar: an inability to communicate meaningfully, that is without recourse to the 'distancing' mechanisms of social media and digital technology; attention deficit disorders; the capturing of 'experiences' in digitised forms, such as the ubiquitous 'selfie', which undermine the value of the lived experience the taker is commemorating, to the point of forgetting....the list is endless.
For the novelist, Will Self, the diagnosis is not promising. The 'hypnotic swirl' of short-stop action stimuli, such as we find in violent cinematic blockbusters, 'foreclose imaginative response' because the surrounding media of information and communication denudes the capacity of the individual to focus or concentrate in any sustained fashion. Self's phlegmatic prognosis is the more alarming for being depressingly convincing: 'It's worrying that our young are distracted and depressed, but maybe they are in the larval stage of a new form of human'. If, as Self explains, the underlying principles of information technology had been benevolent at conception, the prospect of an embryonic new 'species' might be deemed a constructive step on the path to human enlightenment. But they were not: the internet is the best example we have of an instrument of technology whose use was subordinated to the facilitation of the killing of people at a distance.
Which returns us to Philip Pullman's neat assessment. If solutions to some of the problematic side effects of the information age are to be found, perhaps they can be found in stories and reading, whose proper engagement opens up vistas of time, space and place in the biddable imagination. Simplistic, quite probably, but rolling back the digital obsession, slowing the world down, may be our best means of embracing our inner universe.
And in the meantime, we at Settle Stories will try our level best to provide a focus for, and conduit to, those mental worlds.
We believe digital can be used in a constructive way and are always looking for new ways to combine storytelling with digital to create new, exciting arts experiences. What do you think? We'd love to hear from you on our facebook page.