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Akhyayikas | How and Why We Learn Through Stories

What does “Akhyayikas” mean? Amidst the congratulatory messages, this was the most common question I was asked by almost everyone who responded to my third book getting listed on Amazon.

#Akhyayikas is the modified plural for Akhyayika (आख्यायिका) which is a word of Sanskrit origin and means a fable, a chantefable, a short episodic narrative (short story) or an anecdote. The book itself is an anthology of short stories and anecdotes.

Storytelling has been an intrinsic part of Indian tradition, right from the Vedic ages. Gavin Flood, in his book “An Introduction to Hinduism” places the oldest of them around 900 BCE – the dates are of course an approximation and depends on the inferential methods adopted and standards of evidence.

The best example is the Mahabharata, which is not just a masterpiece of epic storytelling, but truly a discourse on life and living. Almost all of us, right from birth, been enchanted and entertained by stories from our grandparents, parents, teachers and books. And there is a reason why stories have played such an important role in the life of human beings – they teach without appearing to do so.

Learning happens through connection, i.e. we learn by association and identification and through language. We make sense of new information by forging connections to something we already know. That which helps you to connect with what you already know, reinforces the learning. Stories do this through metaphors, similes and analogies. A metaphor means to transfer ideas from one set of concepts to another. A simile is a metaphor that uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to make the description more emphatic. An analogy is a comparison between one thing and another, for the purpose of explanation or clarification.

We all enjoy a good story, whether it's a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events? Research tells us that whilst listing to a narrative, not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are also activated!

A story has the inherent capacity to put your whole brain to work!

Preaching or advocating or recommending a belief or course of action does not work with either children or adults. Whereas the message within a story becomes apparent to the reader who often thinks, ‘I know this’ even as the person is reading the story. The belief or consequential course of action is therefore ‘self-initiated’ by the reader itself.

Why do we have a ‘narrative mind’? We are wired that way. All day long, from the time we wake up until we go to sleep, we think in narratives, no matter if it is about the ‘to-do’ list, buying groceries, work or family. We make up ‘short episodic narratives’ (short stories) in our heads for practicaly every action and conversation. Talking to yourself, narrating personal stories and engaging in gossip makes up almost 100% of our conversations.

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That's why metaphors work so well with us. The simpler a story, the more likely it will embed itself into your subconscious mind. The best way to truly learn and relate is through a short story with simple language and low complexity.

Metaphorical thinking is fundamental to cognition, communication and our ‘narrative mind’. This makes it a valuable tool for helping friends, family, colleagues and clients gain new perspectives on their lives. Using a metaphor is a helpful way of talking about emotional and relational experience. The mind has the innate capacity to understand new ideas by relating them to concepts it is familiar with.

Using metaphor has been a tradition in all the major schools of therapy and is a particularly helpful way of talking about emotional and relational experience. No amount of lectures, power points or vision and mission statements can so pithily and impressively convey what a story can.

Each little story in “Akhyayikas” will leave a definite imprint on your subconscious mind, changing the way you think and behave, by instilling new ideas, by relating them to concepts, by creating new values and morals; thus inspiring you to greater heights.

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