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Traditional Stories as an Educational Psychology Tool

Imag­ine your­self speak­ing to a group of young stu­dents on the qual­i­ties that they need to devel­op as learn­ers. Imag­ine that you flash a set of bul­let points on the screen:

~ Enhanced atten­tion

~ Undis­tract­ed focus

~ Abil­i­ty to use all sens­es

~ Devo­tion to knowl­edge sys­tem and the embod­i­ments of the knowl­edge

~ Quick to grasp

You have a plain expres­sion on the stu­dents’ face. Now imag­ine your­self nar­rat­ing the sto­ry of Arju­na’s life in Guru Dronacharya’s ashra­ma and the var­i­ous tests that the acharya designs to bring out Arju­na’s excel­lence and the qual­i­ties that you just list­ed. It makes a huge dif­fer­ence when prin­ci­ples are brought out through sto­ries.

Our brain and Sto­ries

In a col­lege exper­i­ment, stu­dents were shown two tri­an­gles and a cir­cle mov­ing across the screen. When asked to describe the scene, the stu­dents came up with inter­est­ing sto­ries. The two tri­an­gles were men fight­ing as a woman (the cir­cle) tried to escape. The cir­cle was “wor­ried” etc. This is called parei­do­lia which is the ten­den­cy to observe pat­terns in seem­ing ran­dom arrange­ment of things or observ­ing a sto­ry where there is none. It is the nat­ur­al ten­den­cy of our brain to per­ceive pat­terns and con­struct a sto­ry around seem­ing­ly ran­dom events and we feel more com­fort­able when there is mean­ing in what­ev­er we per­ceive.

When we lis­ten to bul­let points, the Wer­nick­e’s area in the brain is acti­vat­ed. This region is relat­ed to the com­pre­hen­sion of speech. We cog­nise the bul­let points and make sense of the words from a lan­guage point of view. When the same thing is nar­rat­ed as a sto­ry, the expe­ri­en­tial cen­ters of the brain get acti­vat­ed lead­ing to bet­ter enjoy­ment and reten­tion.

Research says that sto­ries evoke emo­tions, change our atti­tudes and behav­iors. They cap­ture our atten­tion and also trans­port us to the world of the char­ac­ters. One way to hold the atten­tion of the lis­ten­er while nar­rat­ing the sto­ry is to con­tin­u­ous­ly build the ten­sion or curios­i­ty. Once we com­plete­ly focus on the sto­ry, we go through the emo­tions of the char­ac­ters. We feel hap­py when they are hap­py and feel sad when they are sad. The mir­ror neu­rons too get acti­vat­ed as we “imi­tate” the emo­tions of the char­ac­ters there­by help­ing us under­stand them bet­ter.

When Uri Has­son, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy and neu­ro­science at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and his research team record­ed the brain activ­i­ty in two peo­ple as one per­son told a sto­ry and the oth­er lis­tened, they found that the greater the lis­ten­er’s com­pre­hen­sion, the more close­ly the brain wave pat­terns mir­rored those of the sto­ry­teller.

“Nar­ra­tive trans­porta­tion” is an inter­ac­tion of lan­guage and imag­i­na­tion that makes the lis­ten­er deeply engage with the nar­ra­tive. Lis­ten­ers get sim­u­lat­ed expe­ri­ences and this trans­porta­tion makes them lose a sense of “here and now” as their thought process dwells in the times nar­rat­ed in the sto­ries.

Sto­ries and Har­mones

The sym­pa­thet­ic and parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tems inter­act with the endocrine sys­tem to release har­mones that influ­ence our emo­tions and behav­ior. When we lis­ten to sto­ries, numer­ous chem­i­cal changes hap­pen in the body. Oxy­tocin or moral/kindness har­mone is secret­ed . This leads to the devel­op­ment of empa­thy and kind­ness as we “put our­selves into oth­ers’ shoes”. Oxy­tocin helps to improve social rela­tion­ship and reduces fear respons­es. Sto­ries also help young chil­dren recu­per­ate faster from phys­i­cal and men­tal ill­ness.

Puran­ic sto­ries

The Iti­hasa and Purana are huge body of knowl­edge for sto­ries in India. Every tra­di­tion­al sto­ry that we hear is prob­a­bly from one of the Puranas or Mahab­hara­ta or Ramayana. The sto­ries nar­rat­ed in the Mahab­hara­ta are elab­o­rat­ed in the var­i­ous Puranas and it takes huge cog­ni­tive capa­bil­i­ty to go through this vast amount of knowl­edge.

The Puranas bring out cos­mol­o­gy, evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, time scales, geneal­o­gy and his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives. These togeth­er form the Pan­cha­lak­shana of the Purana.

“Sar­gascha prati­s­ar­gascha, Vam­so Man­van­tarani cha

vam­saanuchari­tam chi­va, puranam pan­cha­lak­shanam”

For a lis­ten­er, the Puranas give a com­plex and dynam­ic nar­ra­tive bring­ing out var­i­ous aspects of life and beyond. It con­nects the lis­ten­er to larg­er cos­mic events which nor­mal­ly do not come in our con­scious aware­ness. As the Saahitya darpan says “वाक्यं रसात्मकं काव्यम्” , a Kavya has sen­tences filled with emo­tions. The Mahab­hara­ta, con­sid­ered a kavya, is filled with con­tent that evokes diverse emo­tions in the lis­ten­er. Infact, all the Mahakavyas of San­skrit lit­er­a­ture derive from the Ramayana and Mahab­hara­ta. Be it the wars or hap­py events, the nar­ra­tion trans­ports the lis­ten­er to those times. The Ithi­hasa also helps us to devel­op men­tal mod­els of social struc­tures that exist­ed in ancient times and learn vic­ar­i­ous­ly from var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions. That is why it is said that read­ing the Ithi­hasa leads to chit­ta shud­dhi i.e purifi­ca­tion of the mind-field there­by improv­ing the qual­i­ty of our thoughts and refine­ment of our emo­tions.

The core aspect of the Ithi­hasa is the frame­work of the Purushartha: Dhar­ma, Artha, Kama and Mok­sha. They teach us how to expe­ri­ence plea­sure (kama) and acquire mate­r­i­al pros­per­i­ty (artha) guid­ed by a larg­er pur­pose, ethics and sus­tain­abil­i­ty (Dhar­ma). Vic­ar­i­ous learn­ing hap­pens while lis­ten­ing to these com­plex sto­ries where not every­thing is black and white. The Ithi­hasa Purana also cre­ate an aspi­ra­tion for Mok­sha and to go beyond the sense of lim­it­ed iden­ti­ties. While many of us assume that the Mahab­hara­ta is about war, greater empha­sis is on Shan­ti (peace) and Mok­sha (lib­er­a­tion). The Mok­sha dhar­ma par­va of the Mahab­hara­ta gives numer­ous guide­lines for one to attain mok­sha.

In Anan­davard­hana’s Dhvanyalo­ka, he says that the pre­dom­i­nant rasa in Mahab­hara­ta and Ramayana is Shan­tarasa. San­tarasa is that which brings hap­pi­ness and wel­fare to all beings and which is accom­pa­nied by the sta­bi­liza­tion (saṃsthitā) in the Self”. It has as its sta­ble emo­tion (sthāy­ib­hā­va) as impas­siv­i­ty (sama) which cul­mi­nates in detach­ment (Vairā­gya) aris­ing from knowl­edge of truth and puri­ty of mind. (Though Bhara­ta Muni did not include Shan­tarasa in his navarasa, Abhi­nav­agup­ta’s com­men­tary includes the same). Anan­davard­hana says that Mahab­hara­ta is a Sas­tra, Akhyana and Kavya. Because of var­i­ous episodes filled with sor­row, the Mahab­hara­ta leads to vairagya due to ces­sa­tion of all taste for plea­sure (tṛṣṇākṣaya­sukha). This makes the mind calm and relaxed.

Not only do the Ithi­hasa Purana puri­fy emo­tions, they also bring sci­en­tif­ic rig­or and a spir­it of inquiry. To be able to read the orig­i­nal text one needs the sup­port of the Vedan­gas: Shik­sha (pho­net­ics), Chandas(meter), Niruk­ta (ety­mol­o­gy), Vykarana(grammar), Kalpa(rituals) and Jyotisha(astronomy and astrol­o­gy).

Shad Vedangas (षड्वेदाङ्गानि) - Dharmawiki

The Mahab­hara­ta has hun­dreds of astro­nom­i­cal ref­er­ences which are now being used by sci­en­tists to date the Ithi­hasa. Mahab­hara­ta and Ramayana are writ­ten in Anush­tubh meter and when one delves into the world of meters one devel­ops the appre­ci­a­tion for the com­plex­i­ty of com­po­si­tions. The Mahab­hara­ta is also filled with com­plex vers­es that have a hid­den mean­ing requir­ing exper­tise to decode them. Just a sin­gle Ithi­hasa or Purana takes years to study and analyse and sets the learn­er on a reward­ing and rig­or­ous jour­ney.

Hence expos­ing today’s chil­dren and youth to the rich sto­ries of India is extreme­ly impor­tant. This builds the right set of val­ues and guides aspi­ra­tions of life.

More about the Katha tra­di­tion in anoth­er arti­cle!

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