Art Training makes us better at what we do

Posted on under Today's research

In his bestsellers The Tipping Point, Blink, and Out¬liers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the unexpected implications of scientific research, urging readers to think differently. In an editorial published this month in the journal Ophthalmology Gladwell offers another example of his stock in trade: To make medical students better doctors, send them to art school.

The basis of Gladwell’s opinion is a study 36 first-year medical students at the University of Pennsylvania who were randomized to attend six 90-minute art observation sessions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Professional art educators from the museum taught the students how to observe and describe and discuss works of art. The control group received no art training but received free membership of the museum. Students completed observation skills testing before art training and then again at the completion of the course to see if training improved students’ observational skills and empathy.

They found that it did, significantly. The lead investigator showed that art training improved the students’ observation and diagnostic skills. In a questionnaire, students also reported applying the skills they learned in the museum in clinically meaningful ways at medical school. As Gladwell explained: “Taking would-be physicians out of the hospital and into a museum—taking them out of their own world and into a different one—made them better physicians.”

The implications of this study are broad, Gladwell writes. The trend in medicine has been toward greater specialization as physicians are required to master greater amounts of information in their complex field. Medicine in the modern age demands great focus. But intense preparation doesn’t need to take place exclusively in medical school, he says.

Interestingly, the study found that the observation skills of the students who didn’t get art training were worse at the end of the study, raising the possibility that the initial medical school curriculum, with its intense focus on memorization, may have the effect of eroding the skills of the future physicians.

The idea of the importance of different kinds of training is not new. But, Gladwell writes that this study should prompt a bigger push in exploring the benefits of cross-disciplinary preparation. He says this study reminds us that “the best expert is the one who also belongs to the wider world.”

So what? This study has great implications for us all. It is vitally important for technological experts to be taken out of the realm of technology and into the realm of people so that they can understand better the effects of what they are doing. Also for managers and business leaders to be taken out of their respective bubbles and introduced to other aspects of the world.

We are increasingly locked into our own sphere—we only talk to those who share our expertise, or our interests and we only read that which Google or Facebook select for us according to those specializations and interests. If art—or any other creative endeavor—can make us better, more empathetic, physicians it can also make us better leaders, scientists, managers or lawyers.

What now? Seeing how the world actually works, and observing it from a different more empathetic perspective should be essential training for all specialists. I would add especially business leaders, technologists and Silicon Valley types. I believe our future may depend on it.

By Dr Bob Murray