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October 16, 2002

Robert Ornstein To Speak at Library of Congress on Afghan "Teaching-Stories" and the Brain

Leading psychologist says little-known literary form develops thinking skills

A form of literature little-known in the West but common in Afghanistan can help develop thinking skills and perceptions, says neuropsychiatric expert Robert Ornstein.

The internationally renowned psychologist, pioneering researcher and author of more than 20 books--including "The Psychology of Consciousness," "The Roots of the Self" and "The Amazing Brain"--will discuss this form of literature, called the "teaching-story," at the Library of Congress Friday, Nov. 1, 6:30-7:30 p.m. in the Mumford Room, sixth floor, Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E. in Washington, D.C.

While Western educators and psychologists are just now beginning to acknowledge the effectiveness of this type of story in developing thinking skills and perceptions, it is still largely unknown here, though it has been used for such purposes elsewhere in the world for centuries, says Ornstein. Although found in many cultures, it is especially prevalent in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East, he notes.

On the surface, says Ornstein, teaching-stories often appear to be little more than fairy or folk tales. But they are designed to embody-in their characters, plots and imagery-patterns and relationships that nurture a part of the mind that is unreachable in more direct ways, thus increasing our understanding and breadth of vision, in addition to fostering our ability to think critically.

"These are stories with improbable events that lead the reader's mind into new and unexplored venues, allow her or him to develop more flexibility and to understand this complex world better," he says.

Ornstein, who has taught at Stanford, Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco, says psychologists have found that reading teaching-stories activates the right side of the brain much more than does reading normal prose.

"The right side of the brain provides 'context,' the essential function of putting together the different components of experience," he says. "The left side provides the 'text,' or the pieces themselves."

Ornstein sees stories as being part of our basic cognitive development, leading the child and then the adult to learn more about what happens in the world, when and how events come together. He points out that the stories of all cultures share more in this regard than they differ, and that an analysis of stories throughout the world shows that the same story occurs time and again in different cultures.

"Stories have been part of all cultures from time immemorial," says Ornstein, "but only recently has their psychological significance been discovered, especially in teaching-stories."

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PR 02-147
10/16/02
ISSN 0731-3527

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