I wanted to be an artist from the time I was a young boy. When I was 12, I studied with a local master, and I began exhibiting my work when I was 13. I attended art school and only later started on a circuitous path to medical school. You would think that I would buy the notion that “by observing art, medical students learn art of observation” but I’m not so sure. The thing is, I’m not really sure that artists really see things all that differently. Although I think that taking medical students to art museums to view paintings may contribute to humanism and other virtues in medicine, I don’t think these efforts should focus on how artists see the world, but on how they think. Artists don’t see things differently, they think things differently. In fact, Picasso famously said, “I don’t paint things the way I see them, but the way I think them.” And thinking things differently is just as important a virtue in medicine as it is in art.
I think that medical school makes students think differently about people and about life. It doesn’t happen after just one day. It takes many days, many weeks, many years. Other people see a tall, gangly teenager walking down the street. You see a young man with the Marfan syndrome, and you wonder about his aorta. I think that observing art may make medical students think differently, but only after quite a while, and only after a lot of reflection and deep thought. A single visit… or two or three… to an art museum won’t do it. Go a couple of times a month. Spend some quiet time looking, and also time thinking about what the artist was thinking, and you may start to think differently yourself.
Roy Ziegelstein, MD
Vice Dean of Education, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
as featured in The New York Times article, “By Observing Art, Medical Students Learn the Art of Observation,” January 2, 2001.