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Stories, Handwork, and More Neuroscience

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Listening to stories together can synchronize heart rhythms in the listeners; this is more effective when the listeners are able to maintain focus, and the ability to maintain focus predicts the ability to recall and remember the story. This phenomenon is not related to the synchronization of breathing rhythms, and this heart-rate synchronization happens even when listening to a story alone, if the listener is paying attention. Most remarkably, these heart-rate fluctuations can help to reveal the state of consciousness in unresponsive (e.g. comatose) patients!

The authors write “simply following a story and processing stimulus will cause similar fluctuations in people’s heart rates. It’s the cognitive function that drives your heart rate up or down.” The effort and ability to follow the narrative thread will result in physiological changes. The study demonstrates that this is true whether emotions are involved or not. Listening to a long story like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or watching a short instructional video produces the same results.

The researchers found that fluctuations in heart rate predicted how well the listeners remembered the content of the narrative. “Neuroscience is opening up in terms of thinking of the brain as part of an actual anatomical, physical body,” one of the study’s authors says, “This research is a step in the direction of looking at the brain-body connection more broadly.”

Where do we see this in Waldorf Education?

Story-telling is used by Waldorf teachers - all the time. Kindergarten and EC teachers regularly tell a story, day after day, easing the cognitive flow for the young children by telling the story practically verbatim, and without dramatic emphasis on any part of the story. The smooth flow of the narrative is not interrupted by heightened feelings or discrepancies in tone or descriptive details which could detract from a child’s consistent level of attention.

In the early grades, stories are not often told repeatedly, and there is a regular practice of ‘reviewing’ the story the following day, something not required of children before first grade. Both of these aspects test - and more importantly exercise - the children’s ability to recall, and implicitly emphasize the importance of listening attentively when a story is told.

These cognitive muscles are further exercised in second grade, when the short and pithy animal fables are contrasted with the more expansive, descriptive legends of human beings who overcome the limitations of their lower (animal) nature.

Throughout the grades, history is told through stories and biographies, The stories become longer and more complex and are gradually linked together, as in stories of the Ramayana in 5th grade, or of the historical background to the geographical explorations of 7th grade. The stories and biographies in the grades lay a firm and sturdy foundation for the recall and analytic study of these same historical periods in High School.

What are the implications for story-telling in handwork classes?

Introducing handwork skills in the early grades by telling a story means these skills will be better retained by the students. The crochet coyote, Prince Purl and Knight Knit, Jane and Jeremy’s adventures in learning to knit, are proven to be effective teaching tools. Telling stories will allow the teacher or parent-teacher to customize the story to the listeners, increasing interest and attention and supporting the listeners’ focus on the narrative thread.

Recalling the story is probably almost as important as telling it. This strengthens the cognitive muscles, as articulating what is remembered (after a night’s sleep to assimilate it) will reinforce the content. The importance of listening and paying attention will also be implicitly communicated (much more effective than saying anything like “sit up and pay attention” as we all know).

Carrying the thread of a story forward, extending the narrative over the course of weeks will further exercise the same cognitive muscle, actively preparing the young person for future academic success.

Establishing the habit of listening attentively to a narrative without the distraction of engaging in handwork is also proven by this study to improve recall and future cognitive outcomes. (Note: listening to a narrative is different from participating in a faculty or college meeting!)


The authors of the study conclude that heart rate fluctuations are partially driven by conscious processing, and depend on the attentional state of the listener. The physiological effects are consistent between people when they are presented with an auditory or audiovisual narrative. The effects are reduced when subjects are distracted from the narrative.

Drawn from a scholarly, informative article written by neuroscientists on the value of stories:

by Jacobo Sitt et al.

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