Experiencing art has unexpected effects on medical students.

By Caroline Rogers
January 25, 2019
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Looking at art has a variety of effects—some scientifically proven, some not (yet). When walking through a museum, you may feel calmer. When making art, you may experience an overall reduction in stress. Over the years, studies on the effects of experiencing art have been done in several spheres, and one, in particular, takes a fascinating—and, some might say, surprising—look into the effects of art on medical students.

It turns out, looking at art can help expand students’ powers of observation. One study conducted by Columbia University School of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College tracked a six-week course entitled “Observation and Uncertainty in Art and Medicine.” The study ended in 2017, and according to Artsy, “The data that was collected from four years of students taking the course suggested much of what the researchers had hypothesized: Students’ capacities for personal reflection, tolerance for ambiguity, and personal bias awareness had all increased.”

Courses such as this one invite med students not only to observe art, but also to converse with each other about it, which has the additional effect of expanding their perspectives. Artsy describes, “Most significantly, however, was [the students’] improvement in reflection—their ability to understand a situation from different points of view, to empathize with another person’s dilemma, and to acknowledge different ways of thinking.” This may also have important implications in clinical contexts. 

Another study, one published in Ophthalmology from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, researched an “Artful Thinking” course at the school, and there, “the team saw significant improvement in observational recognition skills among students who took an art observation course and demonstrated that art training alone—without a clinical component—could help teach medical students to become better clinical observers.” The studies show that this exercise in critical awareness has potentially powerful effects across the disciplines.

One of the first “art in medicine” classes was started by Yale University’s Dr. Irwin Braverman, a professor of dermatology, who, as described in The New York Times, “thought asking students to describe something nonmedical, like art, might help them collect and relay visual information. His intuition was correct: Students who took his course were 10 percent more likely to pick up on important details in their patients.” These "important details" have the potential to make all the difference when working with patients during phases of diagnosis and treatment, and observing art could play a vital part in honing those skills. You can read a first-person account of one such art class and its effects in “What Doctors Can Learn from Making Art” from The New York Times.

Art and medicine—who knew? If you’re interested in adding more art to your life, check out our lists of Art Museums Every Southerner Should Visit and The South’s Best Museums.

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Do these findings surprise you? What are your favorite art museums, and what pieces of art do you find yourself thinking about and revisiting year after year?

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