A dose of humanities is good medicine after all

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am

Will reading literature, listening to music and studying history make you a better person? First the bad news: not necessarily. Witness the second world war when Nazi officers relished Romantic poetry and music even as they flicked the death switches. The humanities - academic disciplines that reflect upon the human condition - manifestly weren't doing their job: they weren't humanising.

This bleak view of the humanities as a failed humanising project has cast a long shadow over debates about their purpose and usefulness.

The good news is that many vocational disciplines are championing the humanities, seeing value not only in the expressive aspects of literature and the visual and performing arts, but also in the analytic, critical and speculative approaches they bring to real-life problems.

So there is reason to be optimistic: recent evidence suggests that reading literature, listening to music and reflecting on art works may be good for your health, after all.

Health is perhaps the most exciting field in which exchanges with the humanities are making a quantifiable difference. In recognition of this, the University of Hong Kong has recently established the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine. The centre is the first of its kind in Asia, and one of a few worldwide to promote a two-way flow of expertise between medicine and the humanities.

As a place with a vibrant arts community, where different health care traditions overlap, at the forefront of biomedical research, with unique experience of dealing with communicable disease, Hong Kong provides the perfect setting for exploring the social and cultural contexts of the medical sciences and health care.

But what precisely do the humanities have to offer medicine? And how can medicine contribute to the humanities? As Richard Greene, host of the radio show Hollywood Clout!, put it to me recently, isn't fitting the arts into medicine like whacking a round peg into a square hole?

Actually, no. In the US, health care has become the hot potato that might yet derail the Obama presidency. The power struggle is symptomatic of seismic shifts affecting health care systems around the world as they respond to diverse pressures, such as the rise of consumer power, the medicalisation of society, the distancing of patients from physicians by technology, and the pervasive genetic revolution. Understanding these cultural reconfigurations is crucial for policy, and the humanities surely have a significant contribution to make.

There is abundant evidence that social and cultural factors are determinants of disease: not only of the 'lifestyle diseases', but of communicable diseases. Without addressing these factors, the threat of epidemics, even pandemics, will increase.

The humanities also have a role in ensuring the successful harnessing of science and technology, elucidating the basis, for example, of variations within and between countries in how technologies are received, rejected, absorbed, used or modified.

Another example is history's contribution as a tool for analysing the ways in which diseases became epidemics by underlying economic, social and institutional processes.

Finally, the analytic and interpretative methods of, say, literature, philosophy and anthropology can introduce new critical capacities to medicine and help equip students to cope with the challenges ahead.

The insights of those with first-hand experience of suffering in the clinic are crucial to the revitalisation of the humanities: this is the 'other side' of the medical-humanities equation. Some years ago, at an academic symposium, one eminent anthropologist challenged the idea of a transcultural human body. Suffering - indeed breathing - he suggested, was culturally contingent. It was, he implied, impossible to speak of the 'human'. It is this diminishing of humanity within the humanities, which medicine is well placed to challenge.

Robert Peckham is co-director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong