The myth that people are either right-brain dominant (creative and artistic) or left-brain dominant (logical, good at math, etc.) is just that – a myth. The truth is, we only have one brain – and the corpus callosum joins the left and right cerebral hemispheres because they are meant to work together. Numerous examples of people have excelled in both the sciences and arts.
Albert Einstein is remembered for being one of the most influential physicists in history, but a lesser-known fact is that he played the violin. In fact, he is quoted as saying that the most joy in his life has come from his violin. It is also reported that he used music as a technique to help with brainstorming.
Albert Schweitzer was a humanitarian, philosopher, organist, musicologist, and theologian who was also a physician and served as a medical missionary in what is now Gabon. Physicians and scientists who are actively engaged in the arts often report that their involvement in both realms is mutually beneficial. Steven Scheinman, former dean of the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, who is also an opera singer, summed it up so effectively with these words, “I could not be as good a doctor, or as open with my patients if I did not have the arts in my life.”
In addition to the therapeutic effect of music in the context of illness, it can also contribute to improved clinical skills, potentially impacting patient outcomes. The sharpened listening skills that are developed through years of musical training can translate into the ability to hear subtle cardiac murmurs on auscultation. Musical training can also foster active listening skills, which can be applied in clinical settings. Active listening involves paying attention to what is being said and how it is said, the tone of voice, the rate of speech, and even the moments of silence. Such skills can be strengthened through musical training. A medical school professor once told a story about how a patient could not move his arm, with no physical explanation. The patient was diagnosed with conversion disorder, and only after a medical student took the time to listen to his story was he able to move his arm. The opportunity to tell his story and express himself led to his healing, but this only came about because a medical student had taken the time to actively listen to him.
The academic medicine community now recognizes the importance of including the arts and humanities in medical education. Many medical schools have courses in the medical humanities for medical students, notably Penn State College of Medicine. In addition to the formal curriculum at Penn State College of Medicine, students, staff, faculty, and patients have the opportunity to publish narrative essays and artwork in a literary journal, Wild Onions.
Incorporating the humanities into the curriculum at the graduate medical education level has been more of a challenge, but there are ongoing efforts to do so, such as the medical humanities initiative at Reading Hospital- Tower Health. In addition to a formal curriculum addressing topics such as professionalism, spirituality, and medical ethics, there are enrichment activities such as museum visits, storytelling events, and opportunities to publish poetry, prose, and artwork in a new literary journal, Silver Linings.
Harvard Medical School has an Arts and Humanities Initiative that is co-led by Lisa Wong, a physician and musician who speaks about music as medicine in this Ted talk. Dr. Wong is also the former director of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, a Boston-based orchestra made up primarily of medical musicians.
In partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, researchers at the National Institutes of Health are exploring the potential of music to improve health through the Sound Health initiative. Their aims include exploring how the intricate circuitry in the brain that is involved with music can be harnessed for health and wellness. The Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine is an interdepartmental collaboration between the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Peabody Conservatory that actively explores the healing power of music through various research initiatives. Researchers are studying the impact of music on patients with various conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The availability of non-pharmacologic interventions that are effective in the treatment of neurological diseases would be a significant contribution to the field. We all stand to benefit from a holistic approach to science and art, and the recent emphasis on exploring the impact of music on healthcare and including the humanities in medical training are steps in the right direction.