The Fine Art of Healing

March 15, 2011

Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences is venturing into new territory with an ambitious new undergraduate class called Visual Arts and Healing. Intended to serve as a model for other universities and medical schools, it explores virtually every way art has a bearing on medicine.

As part of the varied curriculum, pre-med students are involved in a wide range of creative activities. Students are scrutinizing art by such greats as Rembrandt and Picasso to hone their perception skills. They are creating self-portraits and other forms of art. They are studying art therapy done by patients trying to improve manual skills after strokes or injuries -- or simply to express pain and loneliness. And students are working with patients and practitioners at a clinic to design art for a healing atmosphere.

"What Baylor's doing is pretty amazing," said mixed-media artist Mindy Nierenberg, a consultant with the Society for the Arts in Healthcare in Washington, D.C. As a grant-funded adviser, she worked with Dr. Karen Pope, historian of 19th-century art at Baylor, and Linda Bostwick, a family nurse practitioner in health services at Baylor, to compose the curriculum for the new course.

A growing number of medical schools are exploring medical humanities programs that include literature and medicine, philosophy of medicine, history of medicine and religion and medicine.

Baylor is a step ahead by offering a medical humanities major at the undergraduate level for students who plan to become doctors, nurses, therapists and medical administrators. And the new course will move them ahead even faster, Nierenberg predicted.

"Having students make art increases their creative thinking skills," Nierenberg said. "The way medical students are trained is very linear. You come up with a problem and solution. Artists have multiple paths. Thinking outside the box is what's needed."

David Windler, 21, of Bossier City, La., a senior medical humanities major who plans to become a physician, said he has been surprised and delighted by the course's depth.

"I thought it was going to be art therapy from start to finish, but then they starting telling us about visual thinking strategies, really noticing details," he said. "Every week was different from the week before.

"This can help you see a patient as a person and not a biological specimen. I think it could be a good way to ground yourself, center yourself, before going on hospital rounds ... So many physicians say they wish they had this foundation."