In the summer of 1941 a Swiss engineer returned from a walk in the woods near his home in Geneva. He was astonished at the dozens of prickly seedpods—burrs—that stuck, tenaciously, to his socks, trousers, shirt and dog. Out of curiosity he looked closer and saw that each burr was covered with hundreds of miniature hooks that caught in the fur and fabric of whatever brushed up to them. He wondered, "Would it be possible to construct a man-made version of these burrs as a way of attaching materials without glue, buttons or zippers?" The answer was yes, but it would take seven years to refine this leap of imagination. Finally, in 1948, George de Mestral brought his curiosity to the market as Velcro, an invention inspired by nature, and now so ubiquitous that we take it for granted.
In 1972 a young student dropped out of Reed College but then hung around campus and audited a course on calligraphy. Many years later, in a famous commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs pointed to that class as the inspiration for the Apple Macintosh's sophisticated typography. "If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them."
Aside from being distinctive and charming origin tales of products that are indispensable in our lives today, there is an important commonality here: Both George de Mestral and Steve Jobs took time to notice things, to see with real curiosity, while immersed in an area outside their discipline. These men were individuals with exceptional talents and insight. But can one teach the kind of observation that made their breakthroughs possible? A class at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City aims to do just that.
On a cool evening this past October I walked into the Annenberg building of the Mt. Sinai Hospital complex on Madison Avenue, took the elevator to the thirteenth floor, and found myself in The Pulse of Art, a class taught by the husband and wife team of Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller.
A dozen medical students sat around a large conference table facing a screen, on which was projected an image of a young woman holding a dog. Painted in 1782 by George Romney, "Lady Hamilton as Nature" captures the teenage Emma Lyon glancing upwards towards the viewer, her hair flowing backward as if gently ruffled in a breeze. The students stared at the image for a few minutes. Bobbi Coller then asked them what they saw. They were reticent — no one said anything. Unfazed, she asked if Emma looked healthy. A few students nodded their heads but remained silent. Hesitatingly, one student observed that Lyon's hair was full and brown, and there was a lot of it. "Good," said Barry Coller. "Full hair is a sign of health. Anything else?" Slowly the class commented on her eyes, lips and blushing cheeks.
The next image appeared on the screen. It was also a portrait of a woman. The subject stood but faced away from the viewer, one hand draped against the side of her black evening dress, the other resting on a table behind her. "Talk to me about the color of her skin," said Barry. A student remarked that she was pale, almost cadaverous in her coloring. "That's right," said Bobbi. "And Madame Virginie Gautreau, who posed for the painter John Singer Sargent, was not the only one who looked like this in 1883." The Collers then launched into an explanation of the dangerous beauty trend, in the late 19th century, of upper-class women ingesting arsenic to whiten their skin.
Barry Coller, chief physician and professor of medicine at Rockefeller University, and Bobbi Coller, an art historian and curator, created The Pulse of Art to encourage medical students to look more closely, to see things about their patients that might be unexpected, but critical in making a diagnosis. Benefitting from the school's location right next to New York's Museum Mile, the Collers also take their class to the Guggenheim Museum and the rare book room of the New York Academy of Medicine, so that students can interact with original works and see where medical history and art come together. An opportunity to move from viewer to creator by picking up the brush themselves is always a highlight of the semester. This year artist Hope Grayson visited the class and taught them how to match their skin tones by mixing colors from an artist's palette.
The Pulse of Art is not the first class at a medical school to use art to refine students' observational skills. Nearly 20 years ago the Yale School of Medicine and the Yale Center for British Art launched a program that introduced all first-year medical students to the practice (and joy) of active observation with subject matter entirely outside what they study in their anatomy or physiology classes.
The Academy for Medicine and Humanities at the Icahn School of Medicine goes even further. Formed in 2012 as part of the department of medical education at Icahn, the academy incorporates music, writing, philosophy and visual art into the standard medical school curriculum. While most of the courses are elective, those students who embrace what other disciplines can teach them about medicine also advance their careers in striking ways. In a discussion about the impact of the arts on his students, Barry Coller told me that active participants in the Academy graduate in the top 20% of their class, and go on to be chief residents and leaders in their medical specialties.
Towards the end of the class I attended, a haunting but riveting image flashed onto the screen. "Death in the Sickroom" by Edvard Munch is a remembrance of the painter's family reacting to the death of his sister Sophie from tuberculosis. Students pointed out that each member of the family seemed to be very alone in confronting the death of their loved one. "As the doctor in the room," asked Barry, "who would you speak to?" It was a powerful moment.
Paying attention does not happen automatically. It's something we learn and relearn our entire lives. Whether an engineer walking in the mountains, the co-founder of one of the most valuable companies in the world sitting in a calligraphy class, or medical students engaging with works of art, those who challenge themselves to see what is truly there remain keen and open to new ideas. It is a lesson for all of us.
Published here on Forbes.com
January 7, 2018