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Malcolm Gladwell Weighs in on Humanizing Doctors Through Aesthetic Interests

Malcolm Gladwell (along with coauthor David Epstein) is well known for his national bestsellers The Tipping Point, Blink, and Out¬liers; all addressing the psychosociologic side of human behaviors and trends. In this issue of Ophthalmology, he describes the "Termin Effect" and how to make better doctors, by sending medical students art school. (Citation source:

The Temin Effect is based on Howard Temin, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of reverse transcriptase. Essentially it implies that great advances come from those who have many interests and hobbies well outside their field of specialty. Temin challenged central dogma in proving how reverse transcriptase works. Gladwell believes this stems from his "thinking outside the box". 

The authors point out that scientists have the same number of hobbies as the general public. But scientists from the national academies tend to have more and Nobel laureates have more still, 22 times more; often involving serious aesthetic interests.

Gurwin et al studied a group of medical students at the University of Pennsylvania who were given six 90-minute training sessions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and were taught by museum art educators how to observe and describe and discuss works of art. The control group received no art training but received a free membership to the museum.

Observation skills tests were administered before art training and then again at the completion of the course to see if training improved students' observational skills and empathy.

They found that art training improved the students' observation and diagnostic skills, with the authors believing such art skills would translate in clinically meaningful ways at medical school. Gladwell suggested that "Taking would-be physicians out of the hospital and into a museum - taking them out of their own world and into a different one - made them better physicians."

Interestingly, the control students who didn't get art training were by the end of the study, raising the possibility that the initial medical school curriculum, with its intense focus on memorization, may have the effect of eroding the skills of the future physicians.

Gladwell believes that with medicine moving toward greater specialization, there may be a deficit of well rounded physicians, capable of the Temin Effect. 

The editorial suggests the need for exploring the benefits of cross-disciplinary preparation. He says this study reminds us that "the best expert is the one who also belongs to the wider world."

The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose related to this subject

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