Back to School: Medical Students Practice Empathy Through Art

As I walk into the Blanton Museum of Art on a cool, fall day, I laugh to think that the experience ahead of me—yes, in an art museum—is the closest I might ever come to studying medicine.

Thanks to an ongoing series of interdisciplinary workshops for first-year Dell Medical School students, I’m at the Blanton to join Ray Williams, director of education and academic affairs, and Siobhan McCusker, museum educator, for a lesson on empathy and communication. Williams begins by citing research from the medical community that notes a perceived “erosion in empathy,” and while he notes that it’s hard to quantify that, this course is designed to help first-year med students see the importance of empathy in their careers.

Before delving into art, Williams and McCusker ask us to arrange ourselves in a line from the darkest eye color to the lightest without speaking. “The extra beat [while you notice someone’s eye color] shows that you really see them,” Williams explains to us before we begin. “You’re focused on the patient’s individual humanity,” and, he notes for this particular crowd, “it’s also good for the doctor.” After minimal giggling, we find ourselves in a line, ready to move into the gallery.

Inside, Williams has us sit in front of a Renaissance painting depicting a young man in regal, albeit ill-fitting clothes, resting his hand on an enormous severed head; the duo, we learn, is David and Goliath. Williams asks what emotions we feel. The painting made us feel drained, remorseful, exhausted, solemn.

“We are all looking at the same thing, trying to interpret,” Williams says. “The artist used visual tools to focus on David’s psychological experience, from his ambiguous facial expression to his gentle, almost tender, touch on the severed head of the giant.”

A student seated in the back pipes up: “I think you’re trying to read too much into the story.” Williams smiles and responds, “That’s part of the pleasure.”

Our second group activity elicits more giggling than the eye color activity, but after a few minutes, our group finishes a poem about the painted subject before us: a regal-looking Venetian woman and her dog, both seated for a portrait. I read my line to my group, and they laugh: “Of course, the writer has such perfect prose!” Our poem is imbued with judgements that come from our predisposed notions; collectively, our thoughts tell a complete story from different perspectives.

Next, Williams leads us to a sculpture called “Border Crossing,” by Luis Jiménez. Silently, we walk around the immense work of art: a barefoot man carrying a woman on his shoulders. I notice their tattered clothes; the man’s strength fully employed; sadness across their fiberglass faces; and finally, I see the baby swaddled closely to the woman’s chest, one small hand outstretched.

Williams has each of us ask a question beginning with, “Tell me … Will there be a welcome? Does he have treatment for his feet? What are you fleeing?” Williams says that the artist asks us to extend our empathy in this direction and then continues the conversation more candidly: “Who deserves health care?”

Moving on, we find ourselves in a gallery depicting many artistic interpretations of loss. A timer beeps when it’s time to move on to the next piece, and we discuss elements of happiness and distress in the artwork. “Art is rooted in and evocative of a wide range of human experience,” Williams says. “We have joys and struggles, and it’s OK to talk about both.”

We turn the corner to our last stop along the way. The stools are arranged into a tight spiral, so that as we take a seat, we are inextricably wound together and unavoidably close; it calls to mind our collective journey inward. We’re asked to write what we noticed today, and then share, one by one, unraveling from the center.

Beginning with, “And I noticed,” each of us takes a turn. “The importance of sitting with the uncomfortable.” “I was at peace, which is rare.” “Vulnerability leads to empathy.” “Art is very revealing in very subtle ways.” “Empathy is spread by stories that move.” “Your generosity of spirit—and some laughter.” “And I noticed the color of all your eyes.”  “We were all very vulnerable today.”

Williams says each time he leads this class, he is always amazed by the vulnerability of the students. Curiosity, he says, leads to vulnerability—and that leads to awareness. Emotions are also information, Williams points out, and his hope for these students is that they will notice emotions as an integral part of the healing process, learning to exhibit cognitive empathy, or consciously recognizing another’s emotional state and perspective. By exploring emotional information with a group of doctors, the course of treatment not only becomes more well-rounded; it can also become more collaborative and communicative. And that, Williams says, will lead to more compassionate health care. “Empathy can’t be taught,” he cautions, “But it can be cultivated.”

Empathy, from the museum to the hospital and out in the real world, means noticing how our individual stories influence our interpretation of the art or the person before us. Practicing empathy, not just as doctors-in-training, but as citizens in this world means to allow that extra beat to notice, truly notice, the person we’re interacting with. In that moment, we have a chance to transcend our inherent biases and connect in a more vulnerable, compassionate way. Maybe we’ll notice the color of one
another’s eyes.

Illustration by Peter Hoey


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