Humanities as Medicine

This post was written by Holly Boud, Humanities Center Intern

On Thursday, the Humanities Center was pleased to host Dr. Hester Oberman of the Arizona State University. She gave an incredible talk about the new and emerging field of medical humanities and its place in the medical field, especially in terms of healing. She emphasized the importance of bringing in the humanities into the medical field, both for patients as well as for doctors. I think those of us invested in the humanities have had experiences involving the cleansing and healing power of the humanities—be it religion, philosophy, prose, poetry, drama, music, art, or what have you—but the scientific world seems to, at least academically, reject the power of the humanities in healing, partitioning it off into a separate sector from the one in which they work.

I have grown up in a family of medical professionals. My father is a physician, and many of our family friends are as well, and I have found it difficult at times to express the value of a humanities education to a group of scientists, engineers or doctors. Many of them see it as a hobby with no real bearing on the world around us, with very little practical application to address the horrors of the world in which we live or to improve our lives with technological advances. I am sure you know what I am talking about. You know the inevitable reply when you tell someone you have studied English or art history or a language or philosophy: “what are you going to do with that?” as if to suggest that there is no real connection to a humanities education and the “real” world. What Dr. Oberman researches in the medical humanities is instructive. Despite the clear application of their work to the “real” world, too many doctors, she says, suffer from depression, and their rates of suicide are shocking. What do we do? Dr. Oberman says we bring the humanities into the inner sanctum of our medical institutions.

I started thinking: what if we taught creative writing classes in medical school? What if we put on Shakespeare in hospitals for patients and personnel? What if we filled the walls of our hospitals with art that transports you to a new place rather than the depressing hotel art that so often hangs on the walls? What if our doctors were given an hour out of their day to write poetry or draw a picture or read a book—just as a reprieve from their hectic and stressful schedules? I know things must be kept sterile, but must hospitals look so starched and bleak? Finding purpose and solace in literature, art, writing, or music can help combat depression and feelings of defeat. Art puts to words the feelings and impressions of our innermost hearts. It lifts, instructs, and inspires. It allows for emotionally cathartic experiences in a book, a picture, or a song.

There is so much energy behind interdisciplinary studies such as this, and I am sure schools will continue to see the benefits of medical humanities going forward. If nothing else, Dr. Oberman’s research gave me vocabulary to discuss some of the ways in which humanities could help me better interact with the medical field. Her work on the healing properties of belief and art have inspired me to new avenues of research for my own scholarship.

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