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Looking and Seeing: Lessons about Medicine from the World of Art

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Stephanie Pouch, MD
mory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, GA, USA

I recently read that visitors to the Louvre spend an average of fifteen seconds examining the Mona Lisa. Fifteen seconds. I was initially shocked and wondered how this could be enough time to take in the coloration, contouring, shadowing, and meaning of the painting. I have admittedly not yet visited the Louvre, but I assume that the large crowds play a significant role in museum throughput. Nonetheless, the "Mona Lisa fifteen seconds" made me think about the principles of looking and seeing; concepts that were taught in my college art history classes, but which have also resonated with me as a physician.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that to look is to "ascertain by the use of one's eyes," while to see is to "perceive by the eye" [1]. While the difference between the two may seem semantic at first, in the world of art, looking and seeing are intrinsically different actions. In Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, the famed art historian, Erwin Panofsky, delineated a three-pronged approach to understanding and interpreting art; this has more recently been described as "Look, See, Think" [2,3]. When we look at a piece of art, our brain recognizes a general motif such as a painting, photograph, or sculpture. This most basic understanding permits us to describe shape, texture, and general content; however, when we see a piece of artwork, we begin to apply meaning. For example, we may recognize a group of thirteen people sitting at a dinner table as an image of the Last Supper or a depiction of a bearded man holding a lightning bolt as Zeus. When we think about a piece of art, we ponder its deeper meaning and ask questions such as, "who was the artist and why did she depict the subject this way?"

Seeing is equally as pertinent to medicine as it is to art. On the first day of rounds, one of my favorite medical school professors (who also happens to be a professional painter) would routinely ask his team of medical students and house staff what they saw after leaving a patient's room. Most would accurately describe physical exam findings; however, the group would rarely be able to provide a description of other pertinent findings, such as a bible tucked under the patient's arm or the content of family photos on the bedside table. In essence, the team looked but didn't see. Appreciation of such details is equally as important as the physical exam itself and allows us to understand the larger context of a patient's illness and better treat that patient; it is the factor that allows us to move from "the disease a person has" to "the person who has the disease."

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." In medicine, seeing is an art that makes us better providers. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com
  2. http://tems.umn.edu/pdf/Panofsky_iconology2.pdf
  3. https://theconversation.com/three-simple-steps-to-understand-art-look-see-think-33020

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