Why Doctors And Cops Are Taking Art Observation Classes

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

Looking at art isn’t just a pleasurable way to spend a few hours. It also has real benefits for professionals who are far afield from the art world, from detectives to doctors.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school suggests that taking art observation classes could sharpen medical students’ visual analysis skills. This is important because the ability to correctly read and interpret images like X-rays and other kinds of scans is vital in the process of diagnosis–one that beginner medical students are often lacking, at least partially because it’s a skill medical schools don’t teach.

[Photo: courtesy Penn Medicine]

The study, published by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, focuses specifically on medical students studying ophthalmology–the medical field focused on the eyes–because so much of that discipline relies on doctors using observation to examine and diagnose patients. For the study, 18 first-year medical students took art observation classes, where they had six-hour-and-a-half sessions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while a control group also composed of 18 first-year medical students did not. None of the students had prior art training.

The art observation classes included lessons on color, shape and lines, perspective, and using observations to support a claim or provide the jumping off point for a question. The students in both groups took observation tests before and after the art classes, where they were asked to describe art images, retinal photographs, and photographs of people’s faces that showed signs of different types of eye disease. They were then graded on the overall quality of their descriptions as well as whether they included particular medical observations.

The researchers found that students who took the art observation classes dramatically improved in their second description test. And the students themselves found the skills immediately applicable. One student who took the classes told the researchers, “After just the first session, I found myself listening to a radiologist discuss the same principles we used to look at art in analyzing a CT scan.”

The students not in the class actually scored worse the second time around. In the paper, the researchers note that they are unsure about why this is, but ventured a guess that the medical school curriculum might actually hinder the development of observational skills at the beginning because of its strict focus on biology.

Other research has provided evidence that other types of visual training, like finding disguised objects in images or analyzing optical illusions might also improve medical students’ visual skills. And using art as a way of improving observation isn’t just applicable in the field of medicine. The visual perception expert Amy E. Herman brought police officers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to teach them about how to view a scene objectively and without injecting their own bias. Unrelated to this study, Herman also teaches courses to medical students and members of local and national law enforcement agencies to make people better at using their eyes.

This study backs up her work: Art might truly be able to help people better assess and analyze complex visual information. It holds a lesson for the rest of us as well. The power of observation may be a necessary type of analytical skill in our overwhelmingly visual world. It can even save lives. 

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