The Arts, Humanities and Health


The Arts, Humanities and Health

By guest blogger, Dennis Kratz

I started to write something about the importance of ongoing efforts to integrate engagement with the arts into the education of future and practicing physicians. Then last week I had the opportunity over several days to observe physicians, nurses and other healing performers at work in a hospital. I saw injections given, medications administered, smiles, expressions of concern, and more readings of blood pressure and other physical functions than I could count. I heard questions to patients about how they felt emotionally as well as physically; kind Wordsworth patients from nurses, physicians, technicians, and fellow patients; a few diagnoses; dreams of future medical advanced; and conversations about valuing family, changing behaviors, and celebrating the return to health. My original subject, in retrospect, struck me as incomplete, as is the attitude that the arts -like the humanities – at best only complement the science of medicine.

I have come to believe that we should educate future physicians to approach the practice of medicine as the harmonizing of three powerful forces, each vital but ultimately incomplete without the others. Science is self-evidently not only essential but also irreplaceable as the guide to attain, recover and maintain good health. The arts and humanities, however, are equally essential to the health of individuals and communities. They are more than an accompaniment or an assistant to the healing process. They should play a role, hand in hand with scientific knowledge, in how we not only go about healing but also what we mean by “health.” Science refers specifically to the disciplined search to understand and explain the physical processes at work in the world. Art emerges from the innately human desire to make our experience “special.” Engagement with the arts – as creator and responder – hones our ability to imagine the “what could be” lurking behind “what is.” Among the best artistic expressions of artful thinking that I know is Rene Magritte’s painting “Clairvoyance,” often also known as “Perspicacity.” [My ideas about the nature of art are strongly influenced by the writings of the anthropologist Ellen Dissenayaki.] The Humanities study the processes by which we fill our need to find and express meaning in life. They enlarge the ethical and cultural contexts within which we assess the value of our actions.

Health, like every scientific theory or artistic creation (the list could go on an all) is partial and provisional – always susceptible to change thanks to new evidence or new perspectives. Health is more than a temporary biological condition like the absence of disease or the lack of obvious symptoms of sickness. What are the positive characteristics of a truly healthy person, community, nation or world? It is a question that physicians, philosophers and artists have long pondered. The philosopher Georges Canguilhem suggested that the essential characteristics of a healthy organism include the ability to respond to environmental change and adapt to new situations. He also suggested that energy, and a confident sense of adventure, are components of real health. I really like that image of health. I saw reflections of this more embracing concept at that hospital. Science and medicines alone can take us to the first stage of health – a biological system working as it should. Advertisements from pharmaceutical companies to the contrary, it can’t produce deep happiness or a meaningful existence. That requires the thinking, imagining and empathy enhanced by the arts and humanities. We should integrate these profound complementary forces of understanding – science, art, Humanities – into the education of physicians because we should integrate them into the education of everyone if we want to foster a truly healthy society. I would like to see the power of science enlarged by imagination and humanized by genuine respect for the welfare of others that I witnessed last week on display everywhere and every day throughout our society.

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