Literature and Medicine

Poetry, Aristotle wrote, is capable of expressing the universal, while history excels at recording the particular.

There's a reason why many undergraduate programs have a set of core requirements that extend far beyond the narrower disciplines that students have chosen. MIT, for example, requires students to take almost 25% of their classes in subjects like philosophy and music.

Paul Kalanithi, the neurosurgeon who wrote the bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air, found himself torn between his interests in literature and medicine. He reports that the two disciplines can go hand in hand:

One recent [MIT] graduate who went on to medical school wrote about how her practice as a physician requires not only medical knowledge, but also the ability to interpret her patients’ accounts and stories β€” a skill she gained reading literature, studying the various forms of narrative, the many ways humans share vital information. β€œMIT biology prepared me for medicine,” she says. β€œLiterature prepared me to be a doctor.”

A historian, doctor, or any other type of technical specialist needs to be precise in their craft. But poetry and the rest of the humanities show us how our work fits into a broader context.

They remind us that information is not the same as wisdom, that logic does not represent understanding, and that the great truths in life lie somewhere in between the universal and the particular.


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