Rearticulating Medicine and the Humanities: An Undergraduate Perspective

By Shruti Patil

My strengths have always been in the hard sciences. I understood equations, tables, diagrams and graphs and therefore spent much of my childhood performing rudimentary science experiments. My windowsill was perpetually lined with salt crystals growing in cups and budding lima bean plants, and my floor had scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle of the human anatomy. While I excelled in my science and math classes, I suffered through my English and writing courses – an experience to which I think a lot of students in the sciences can relate. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school, when my English courses became more challenging, that I felt compelled to take them seriously. Up until this point, English seemed like a trivial subject, one that relied on fickle interpretation rather than on hard facts. My entire upbringing had championed the value of observable evidence, and the interpretative nature of the humanities struck me as a useless pastime. But I quickly learned that an insincere effort yielded less that optimal results in my classes, and so I was forced to seriously engage in the texts I was assigned in order to succeed. Eventually, I found myself invested in the things I was reading and began to grasp the power literature has to move and mold people. I developed enough of a passion in literature by the end of my high school career that I decided to double major in English and neuroscience.

When I entered UT this fall, I grappled with how best to integrate these two disparate fields. They simply were not areas I expected to see in communication with each other in academia. I desperately wanted to avoid the institutional silos that would have me to attending my science classes in one part of my day and my English classes in another. Through some idle summer research, I happened upon the faculty page of Dr. Philip Barrish, Professor of English, and noticed that he listed “medicine and literature” as a focus of his research. I was initially astonished by mention of this interdisciplinary field. In my past education, science and English had been isolated from one another and the thought that they could not only coexist but complement each other delighted me. Until this point, I believed that science and literature were incompatible fields of study, and I regarded my English major as combatting the stereotype that STEM majors make poor writers.

For me, the possibility of bringing the sciences and humanities into conversation with each other in my studies validated the presence of humanistic methods in the STEM environment—an environment often casually hostile to the idea that the humanities are an integral part of progress in culture and society. Many students may assume that the sciences and humanities offer distinct, disconnected approaches to understanding and experiencing the world. Yet, the 21st century has, so far, been largely characterized by movements to understand how such disparate fields are in fact related and to break down institutional silos. Even for those who entered the hard sciences hoping to never step foot inside the College of Liberal Arts, literature is still a major influential force in society and on our ability to progress. Literature explores how we relate to one another and how a unifying sense of humanity develops between us.

Even for those striving to be medical professionals, like me, the humanities still carry a lot of weight. The MCAT has an entire section dedicated to “critical analysis and reasoning,” arguing that prospective doctors must be adept at reading between the lines of what their patients say and at teasing out meaning from academic articles. Medical schools are slowly integrating “medical narrative” or “narrative medicine” courses into their curricula. These courses work to investigate how literature can be used to refine patient treatment and explore how people react to illness and suffering.

In a field that’s almost obnoxiously objective, surrounded by red tape and bureaucracy, doctors and patients are often emotionally miles apart. Doctors are taught to treat patients as lists of symptoms asking for a diagnosis, while illness for patients are often extremely sensitive ordeals. Literature is a deeply human force, and it has the capacity to teach practitioners empathy, how to connect with and understand patients. Even beyond that, literature can be used as a coping mechanism and companion to help patients deal with illness as well as to expose doctors to concept as suffering as an emotional force rather than a symptom awaiting treatment.

In short, the intersections of medicine and literature are hugely important to both medical professionals and to patients. We are only just beginning to more fully explore how literature can be used to connect patients and practitioners. Indeed, in the Renaissance Era, medicine and art were deeply entwined with each other; the human, the idea of which ultimately motivated the formation of the humanities, was widely perceived as originating in suffering. The disarticulation of medicine and the arts, the sciences and the humanities, might be traced back to René Descartes, who argued that we should not trust our senses but rather the rational mind. This Cartesian mind/body split came to characterize Western medicine. Now, the medical humanities are reviving an understanding of these fields as inextricably linked to each other. With new societal and technological advances, returning the humanities to the sciences has the potential to uncover new ways of understanding the sciences as well as thinking in general. Broad exposure to interdisciplinarity, for example, makes doctors more creative because they are better able to imagine alternative systems. The Humanities Institute at the University of Texas at Austin is among the institutions committed to fostering medical humanities research. I have found that being a part of the medical humanities is akin to being part of a social movement. The medical humanities seeks to reimagine how healthcare is delivered, what it means to be well and what it means to suffer, how we talk about disease to those in surrounding communities, and the role of the practitioner in a profession characterized by rapid technological development. I’m still quite inexperienced and young, but just being able to catch a glimpse of the potential of this field carries deeply excites me, and I look forward to being a part of this progress.

Shruti Patil

Shruti Patil is an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, double majoring in English and Neuroscience, and is a member of and council representative for the Health Science Scholars honors program within the College of Natural Sciences. She is also an undergraduate researcher in the Zemelman Lab and she recently joined the Humanities Institute as a research assistant.

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