Medical students taking humanities courses? Hanging out in art museums? Sounds like this would be a fun break from the grind of biochemistry, physiology, and all those other left-brain courses that are necessary to know something about the ‘human machine’ and what makes it sick or well. An article featured in Monday’s New York Times --
-- talked about how some medical schools are now requiring such a course to hone prospective doctors’ observational skills:
“…at least one study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001, has found that looking at painting and sculpture can improve medical students' observational abilities… With heightened observational skills physicians can often ask the questions necessary to make correct diagnoses without relying too much on costly blood tests and X-rays."
Several medical schools are incorporating courses like these into their curriculum, though not all of the courses feature art appreciation as the humanities focus. The inspiration behind the course at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine is Rebecca Hirschwerk, an art educator, who developed the idea for the course while her husband was a resident at Mount Sinai. She began to think about how, in listening and poring over charts, doctors sometimes had little time actually to look at their patients, especially under the pressures of today's managed medical care. "I can't think of many places outside art where you can be in a moment, and just look, for as long as you can take it," she said.
So these courses take the medical students away from the organ system, the body part that is aching, the partitioning off of the disease from the rest of the human being, which, in my mind, is the tragedy of medicine today. It helps them to step back, hopefully, and see with new eyes that a human being is before them, a being that has feelings, a history, a life, burdens and triumphs [a soul!], and needs expertise that will affect the whole person.
The art of observation is underrated in our hurry/busy lives. Multi-tasking becomes a way of life, which means that we don’t do any of the tasks with our full power of focus. And I have to admit that I can go through hours of the day with my primary preoccupation being on things totally unrelated to what I’m doing/seeing/sensing. Which means that I pass through large chunks of time without taking in the wholeness of my experience, the wholeness (or even a sizeable partiality) of the pageant that unfolds around me, a pageant that includes me if I were awake enough to take it all in.
I think back to a class I took in my graduate school of social work many years ago where we were asked to go to a public place and find someone to observe over time, recording their every movement. Every movement --and what patterns we might find. I remember being totally intimidated by that exercise. I went to a restaurant with my notebook and looked around the room for someone I could observe without being obvious. I found a woman who was several tables away – I could not hear the conversation, and I could only see part of the backside of the man she was sitting with. But I began recording, and I could tell that a drama was unfolding at that table – she showed evidence of being upset and anxious, and whatever they were talking about was important and difficult. The tension built over about a half an hour, then a high moment of catharsis, then the tension evaporated considerably – I could almost ‘feel’ it across the room. Something major cleared in that time, and I was a witness to a powerful human drama, one of billions that play out each day, and it felt holy. It changed me!
Meditation helps me focus more, allowing me greater access to a power of observation that is more inclusive. Writing does too. As does communing with nature. Isn’t this what spiritual discipline, spiritual practice is all about? To increase our availability to the holy moments – or wholly moments – that can crowd our days if we pay attention with more carefully honed skills of observation?
Maybe I’ll go to an art museum on my day off…