Why Med Schools Are Requiring Students to Take Art Classes, and How It Makes Med Students Better Doctors

I have followed several debates recently about the lack of arts and humanities education in STEM programs. One argument runs thus: scientists, engineers, and programmers often move into careers designing products for human use, without having spent much time learning about other humans. Without required courses, say, in psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature, etc., students can end up unthinkingly reproducing harmful biases or overlooking serious ethical problems and social inequities.

Technological malpractice is bad enough. Medical malpractice can have even more immediately harmful, or fatal, effects. We might take for granted that a doctor’s “bedside manner” is purely a matter of personality, but many medicals schools have decided they need to be more proactive when it comes to training future doctors in compassionate listening. And some have begun using the arts to foster creative thinking and empathy and to improve doctor-patient communication. The verbally-abusive Dr. House aside, the best diagnosticians actually have sympathetic ears.




As Dr. Michael Flanagan of Penn State’s College of Medicine puts it, “Our job is to elicit information from our patients. By communicating more effectively and establishing rapport with patients so they are more comfortable telling you about their symptoms, you are more likely to make the diagnosis and have higher patient satisfaction.” From the patient side of things, an accurate diagnosis can mean more than “satisfaction”; it can mean the difference between life and death, long-term suffering or rapid recovery.

Can impressionist painting make that difference? Dr. Flanagan thinks it’s a start. His seminar “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” asks fourth-year medical students to engage with the work of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, in exercises “ranging from observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists,” notes Artsy. “Through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.” Why not just study these subjects in psychology courses?

One answer comes from Penn State associate professor of art history Nancy Locke, who presents to Flanagan’s classes. “Art can make people see their lives differently,” she says, “Doctors will see people regularly with certain problems.” And they can begin to schematize their patients the way they schematize diseases and disorders. “But a painting can continue to be challenging, and there are always new questions to ask.” Impressionist painting represents only one road, among many others, to the ambiguities of the human mind.

Another Penn State professor, Dr. Paul Haidet, director of medical education research, offered a seminar on jazz and medical communications to fourth-year students in 2014 and 2015. As he mentions in the video above, Flanagan himself took the course. “Just as one jazz musician provides space to another to improvise,” he tells Penn State News, “as physicians we need to provide space to our patients to communicate in their own style. It was a transformational experience, unlike anything I ever had in medical school myself.” He was inspired thereafter to introduce his painting course.

One could imagine classes on the Victorian novel, modernist poetry, or improvisational dance having similar effects. Other medical schools have certainly agreed. Dr. Delphine Taylor, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, “emphasizes that arts-focused activities are important in training future doctors to be present and aware,” Artsy writes, “which is more and more difficult today given the pervasiveness of technology and media.” Arts programs have also been adopted in the medical schools at Yale, Harvard, and UT Austin.

The precedents for incorporating the arts into a science education abound—many a famous scientist has also had a passion for literature, photography, painting, or music. (Einstein, for example, wouldn’t be parted from his violin.) As the arts and sciences grew further apart, for reasons having to do with the structure of higher education and the dictates of market economies, it became far less common for scientists and doctors to receive a liberal arts education. On the other hand, todays liberal arts students might benefit from more required STEM courses, but that’s a story for another day.

via Artsy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The French Village Designed to Promote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visual Introduction to the Pioneering Experiment

Having seen firsthand in my own family how devastating Alzheimer’s disease can be to the sufferer and those who care for them, I acutely feel the need for better social remedies than those we currently have. Institutionalizing relatives places them at risk of abuse, neglect, or extreme loneliness and anxiety, over and above what they already experience. Relying on family members can result in highly overstressed caretakers who lack resources, time, and training. In either case, patients and caretakers can end up isolated, emotionally overwhelmed, and heavily reliant on medications.

While there is yet no cure for Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia, the good news is that there may soon be a treatment that provides sufferers with care, attention, dignity, and generous social interaction, while also giving researchers humane and ethical opportunities to study the progression of the disease. The not-so-good news is that it might require building an entire village, complete with a supermarket, hairdresser, library, gym and other facilities. But if an experiment in Dax, in southwestern France, proves viable, many other municipalities might willingly shoulder the expense.




Designed by Champagnat & Grègoire Architects and NORD Architects, the 12-acre Village Landais Alzheimer will cost a hefty $28 million, reports Newsweek. Curbed quotes the even higher figure of $34 million, “primarily funded by the government.” Expected to open at the end of 2019, the village will “house 120 patients, 100 live-in caretakers, 12 volunteers, and a team of researchers who will approach the treatment center as a testbed for alternative Alzheimer’s care.” Designed to replicate a traditional medieval town common to the area, the experiment was inspired by a similar undertaking in the Netherlands, in which residents showed increased well-being and lived longer than expected.

Neurologist and epidemiologist Jean-François Dartigues explains the purpose of the village as maintaining “the participation of residents in social life,” a proven factor in slowing memory loss and improving mental health, as studies have shown. The village will also give residents a sense of freedom and control over their environment, while making sure attentive care is on hand at all times, and it will “host trained dogs,” reports the BBC, “to help residents escape their psychological isolation.” Moreover, “drug treatments will be set aside,” along with the side effects of medication that can negatively affect quality of life.

The previous experiment and current state of the research predict that Village Landais Alzheimer will be successful in improving the lives of its residents. While one can imagine this idea taking hold among private investors willing to build exclusive villages for wealthy patients, the question is whether countries far less inclined to fund healthcare would invest public resources. Local officials in Dax at least “have promised,” Curbed reports, “to match nursing home fees and make some form of government assistance available so as not to prevent poorer patients from residing in the facility.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Use Psychedelic Drugs to Improve Mental Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

The history of research on psychedelic drugs is so sensational that more sober-minded experiments (so to speak) often get obscured by the hip, the weird, and the nefarious, the latter including secret CIA and Army testing of LSD and other drugs as a means of psychological warfare and “enhanced interrogation.” These experiments inadvertently led to Ken Kesey’s infamous “Acid Tests” in Northern California. On the other side of the country, Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary used questionable methods in his psilocybin experiments with prisoners and students, before getting fired and going on to expand the mind of the counterculture, earning the distinction of having Richard Nixon call him “the most dangerous man in America.”

Meanwhile, working in relative obscurity in very different circumstances in the late 50s, a UC Irvine psychiatrist named Oscar Janiger brought volunteer subjects, including several dozen artists, to a house outside L.A., where they were given LSD and psychotherapy. Janiger’s work has its sensational side—a cousin of Allen Ginsberg, he reportedly introduced Cary Grant, Anais Nin, Jack Nicholson, and Aldous Huxley to acid. But his primary achievement, in data that remained mostly unpublished during his lifetime, were his discoveries of the therapeutic and creative use of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions with subjects who were prepared for the experience and guided through it by trained professionals.




The experiments conducted by Janiger and others differed markedly from the freewheeling recreational drug use of the counterculture and the weaponization of psychedelics by the U.S. government. In recent years, scientists and psychologists have conducted similar kinds of research under even more tightly controlled conditions, substantiating and expanding on the conclusions of early experimenters who found that psychedelics seem remarkably effective in treating depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other stubbornly destructive human ills. This research supports with sound evidence LSD inventor Albert Hoffman’s description of his drug as “medicine for the soul.”

While research organizations like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) have centralized and promoted much of the current research, it’s now getting a huge popular boost from none other than food writer Michael Pollan, bestselling author of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. “A self-described ‘reluctant psychonaut,’” writes NPR, Pollan submitted himself as a test subject for experiments with “LSD, psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT, a substance in the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad.” He has described his experiences and the work of the research community in a new book titled How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

At the top of the post, see Pollan describe the book in a short video from Penguin. He discusses such ancient ideas (as he has in past writings) of psychoactive drugs as “entheagens”—or chemical conduits to the divine. "In the Darwinian sense,” he says, the evolutionary purpose of psychedelic experiences may be an increase in cognitive variety and the stimulation of “more metaphors, more insights.” In his Fresh Air interview above, Pollan further explains how this works therapeutically. “One of the things our mind does is tell stories about ourselves,” he says. “If you’re depressed, you’re being told a story perhaps that you’re worthless, that no one could possibly love you... that life will not get better.”

“These stories,” Pollan says, “trap us in these ruminative loops that are very hard to get out of. They’re very destructive patterns of thought.” Psychedelic drugs “disable for a period of time the part of the brain where the self talks to itself. It's called the default mode network, and it's a group of structures that connect parts of the cortex — the evolutionarily most recent part of the brain — to deeper levels where emotion and memory reside.” Disrupting old narratives helps people to write better, healthier stories.

As Pollan says in the Time video above, psychedelics have been popularly conceived as drugs that make you crazy—and in some cases, that happens. But they are also “drugs that can make you sane, or more sane.”  One of the major differences between one outcome and the other is the conditions under which the drug is taken. When quality and dosage of the drugs are controlled, and when subjects are prepared for “bad trips” with specific instructions, even frightening hallucinations can contribute to better mental health.

In his psilocybin experiment, for example, Pollan was accompanied by two “guides” and given “a set of ‘flight instructions,” including what to do if you see a monster.

…don't try to run away. Walk right up to it, plant your feet and say, "What do you have to teach me? What are you doing in my mind?" And if you do that, according to the flight instructions, your fear will morph into something much more positive very quickly.

In another example, another psylocybin subject, Alana, describes in the Vox video below her guided experience with the drug during a smoking cessation trial at Johns Hopkins. “There were scary parts, foreboding parts,” she says, but thanks to controlled conditions and the reassuring presence of a guide, “I always knew there was joy and peace on the other side of it. It was freeing.”

Using psychedelics to confront and conquer fears goes back many thousands of years in traditional societies. Modern technological culture has largely turned to antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals to regulate anxiety, but as Pollan points out, “Prozac doesn’t help when you’re confronting mortality,” the deepest, most universal fear of all. But psychedelics—as Aldous Huxley found when he took LSD on his deathbed—can “occasion an experience in people—a mystical experience—that somehow makes it easier to let go.” Surely, there are other ways to do so. In any case, psychedelic drugs seem so beneficial to psychological well-being that they can be, and hopefully will be in the future, used to positively (responsibly) shift the consciousness and creative potential of millions of suffering people.

For more on this subject, read Pollan's latest book--How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Sitting Is The New Smoking: An Animated Explanation

In recent years, sitting has become the new smoking. "Past studies have found," declares a 2014 article in The New York Times, "the more hours that people spend sitting, the more likely they are to develop diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and potentially to die prematurely — even if they exercise regularly." What's the science behind this alarming claim? The animated TED-ED video (watch above) begins to paint the picture. But it doesn't get into the latest and perhaps most important research. According to science writer Gretchen Reynolds, a recent Swedish study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that when you sit all day, your telomeres (the tiny caps on the ends of DNA strands) get shorter. Which is not a good thing. As telomeres get shorter, the rate at which the body ages and decays speeds up. Conversely, the study found "that the telomeres in [those] who were sitting the least had lengthened. Their cells seemed to be growing physiologically younger."




Several years ago, KQED radio in San Francisco aired a program dedicated to this question, featuring medical and ergonomics experts. To delve deeper into it, listen below.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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The Illustrated Medicinal Plant Map of the United States of America (1932): Download It in High Resolution

Two years ago, we highlighted collector David Rumsey’s huge map archive, which he donated to Stanford University in April of 2016 and which now resides at Stanford’s David Rumsey Map Center. The opening of this physical collection was a pretty big deal, but the digital collection has been on the web, in some part, and available to the online public since 1996. Twenty years ago, however, though the internet was decidedly becoming an everyday feature of modern life, it was difficult for the average person to imagine the degree to which digital technology would completely overtake our lives, not to mention the almost unbelievable wealth and power tech companies would amass in such short time.

Similarly, when the above 1932 Medicinal Plant Map of the United States (see in a larger format here) first appeared—one of the tens of thousands of maps available in the digital Rumsey collection—few people other than Aldous Huxley could have foreseen the exponential advances, and the rise of wealth and power, to come in the pharmaceutical industry.




But the pharmacists had a clue. The map, produced by the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association, “was intended to boost the image of the profession,” writes Rebecca Onion at Slate, “at a time when companies were increasingly compounding new pharmaceuticals in labs,” thereby rendering much of the drug-making knowledge and skill of old-time druggists obsolete.

Although the commercial pharmaceutical industry began taking shape in the late 19th century, it didn’t fully come into its own until the so-called “golden era” of 1930-1960, when, says Onion, researchers developed “a flood of new antibiotics, psychotropics, antihistamines, and vaccines, increasingly relying on synthetic chemistry to do so.” Over-the-counter medications proliferated, and pharmacists became alarmed. They sought to persuade the public of their continued relevance by pointing out, as a short blurb at the bottom left corner of the map notes, that “few people realize the extent to which plants and minerals enter into the practice of pharmacy.”

The map appeared during "Pharmacy Week" in October, when "pharmacists in Anglo-Saxon countries" promote their services. Losing sight of those important services, the Druggists’ Association writes, will lead to suffering, should the traditional pharmacist's function “be impaired or destroyed by commercial trends.” Thus we have this visual demonstration of competence. The map identifies important species—native or cultivated—in each region of the country. In Kentucky, we see Nicotina tabacum, whose cured leaves, you guessed it, “constitute tobacco.” Across the country in Nevada, we are introduced to Apocynum cannabinum, “native of U.S. and Southern Canada—the dried rhizome and roots constitute the drug apocynum or Canadian hemp.”

The better-known Cannibus sativa also appears, in one of the boxes around the map’s border that introduce plants from outside North America, including Erythroxylon coca, from Bolivia and Peru, and Papaver somniferum, from which opium derives. Many of the other medications will be less familiar to us—and belong to what we now call naturopathy, herbalism, or, more generally, "traditional medicine." Though these medicinal practices are many thousands of years old, the druggists try to project a cutting-edge image, assuring the map’s readers that “intense scientific study, expert knowledge, extreme care and accuracy are applied by the pharmacist to medicinal plants.”

While pharmacists today are highly-trained professionals, the part of their jobs that involved the making of drugs from scratch has been ceded to massive corporations and their research laboratories. The druggists of 1932 saw this coming, and no amount of colorful public relations could stem the tide. But it may be the case, given changing laws, changing attitudes, the backlash against overmedication, and the devastating opioid epidemic, that their craft is more relevant than it has been in decades, though today's "druggists" work in marijuana dispensaries and health food stores instead of national pharmacy chains.

View and download the map in a high resolution scan at the David Rumsey Map Collection, where you can zoom in to every plant on the map and read its description.

via Slate

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“Every Concussion in the NFL This Year” Documented in a Chilling Five Minute Video

Over at  The Intercept, Josh Begley, a data visualization artist, has posted a video entitled "Field of Vision - Concussion Protocol." By way of introduction, he writes:

Since the season started, there have been more than 280 concussions in the NFL. That is an average of 12 concussions per week. Though it claims to take head injuries very seriously, the National Football League holds this data relatively close. It releases yearly statistics, but those numbers are published in aggregate, making it difficult to glean specific insights.

I have been tracking these injuries all season. Using a variety of methods, including reviewing daily injury reports from NFL.com, I have created what I believe is the most complete dataset of individual concussions sustained during the 2017-2018 season.

The resulting film, “Concussion Protocol,” is a visual record of every concussion in the NFL this year.

He goes on to add: "This film does not make an argument for ending football. Rather, it invites a set of questions... When we watch American football, what are we seeing?" Or, really, what are we missing? It's only by "cutting together these scenes of injury — moments of impact, of intimacy, of trauma — and reversing them," that we "see some of this violence anew" and underscore the sheer brutality of the game.

It's worth reading Begley's article in full here.

via Kottke

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The Health Benefits of Drumming: Less Stress, Lower Blood Pressure, Pain Relief, and Altered States of Consciousness

Drumming—from tablas to tympani to djembes—is universal, so much so, says author Sayer Ji, that it seems “hard-wired into our biological, social and spiritual DNA.” Drumming may well be “an inborn capacity and archetypal social activity.” But many modern people have become alienated from the drum. We outsource drumming to professionals, and machines. Neuroscientists theorize that drummers may have different brains than “non-drummers”—findings that suggest the activity is confined to specially-designed people. Not so, say many scientists who believe that “drumming has some profound and holistic uses,” as Luke Sumpter writes at Reset.me, “to enhance physical, mental and emotional health.”

In addition to anthropological evidence noting the centrality of drumming to human culture, abundant research has demonstrated its potential for personal healing. While drum therapy may be nothing new for cultures who have retained the practice, those who haven’t can learn group drumming easily enough with teachers like Peter Marino in the short clip above. The benefits, as studies have shown, include reduced stress and increased immunity. Group drumming may reduce anxiety and blood pressure, it may work as pain relief and boost positive emotions, and may even lead to “improved executive function” and a growth in white matter in the brains of patients with Huntington’s disease and other neurological conditions.




The evidence-based approach to group drumming’s socio-physical benefits should sway skeptics, even those likely to see drum circle therapy as some kind of hippy-dippy woo. Science-minded people without such hangups may also take an interest in studies of drumming as a “shamanic” activity that “induces specific subjective experiences.” As Michael Drake reports, one recent study “demonstrates that even a brief drumming session can double alpha brain wave activity,” which is “associated with meditation, shamanic trance, and integrative modes of consciousness.” Drumming with others “produces greater self-awareness” as well as a sense of interconnectedness, and can strengthen social bonds among adults as well as children.

While much of the writing about group drumming as therapy stresses more intangible, mystical benefits, no small amount of data suggests that the physical effects are measurable and significant. This is not to minimize the musical prowess of your favorite drummers, or to belittle the musical value of machine-made beats. But the research strongly suggests that not only is most everyone able to pick up a drum and get into a groove, but also that most everyone who does so will be happier, healthier, and more peaceful and tuned-in.

via Reset

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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