Rediscovering Client Empathy Through Vincent van Gogh’s Art

Channeling Vincent van Gogh to transform professional development into engaging and memorable experiences.

Ironically, as healthcare practitioners become increasingly wedded to advanced diagnostic technology, studies indicate their patient empathy and interactive communication skills are eroding.

While our rapidly evolving medical technology equips practitioners with an amazingly detailed picture of human physiology, it is far less effective in assisting them to communicate a more holistic perspective of the behavioural and social impacts of illness and its extended recovery process.

Connecting Visual Art With Professional Development

Recognising that a picture is worth a thousand words, one Melbourne PhD graduate is discovering ways of connecting art with professional development and the results are truly fascinating.

Dr. Jim Chambliss obtained the world’s first dual PhD in Creative Arts and Medicine from the University of Melbourne. Chambliss’ intriguing PhD combines the Visual Arts, Medicine and Art Curation.

Art and Medicine Workshops: Vincent van Gogh Series

In May through to July 2017, Dr. Chambliss delivered a series of professional development workshops exploring the gains from integrating the visual arts in enhancing practitioner observation and empathy skills held at the National Gallery of Victoria in conjunction with the Gallery’s Vincent van Gogh exhibition.

The workshop program incorporated empirical research illustrating the way neurological conditions can stimulate creativity. The workshops’ objectives were to:

  • Advance healthcare professionals’ understanding of the cumulate influence medical and psychological conditions may exert on our health and well-being
  • Promote greater compassion and empathy within a diverse group of healthcare professionals
  • Improve healthcare professionals’ visual observation and communication expertise
  • Elevate creative thinking

The past two decades have witnessed the emergence of visual arts as a development technique in healthcare education. Increasingly, the visual arts are seen as an effective method for improving visual observation and patient communication skills whilst heightening practitioner awareness and empathy.

Pilot studies employing visual art in teaching diagnostic and communication skills proved so effective that today, 48 of the USA’s leading medical schools include the visual arts in their teaching curriculum.

Vincent van Gogh Creative Genius

Vincent van Gogh’s work clearly illustrates the interplay between neurological issues, behavioural shifts and creativity. The Art and Medicine Workshops adopt a sympathetic, educated, and respectful perspective. The precise origin of van Gogh’s suggested brain injury or psychological condition remains unknown.

Two doctors diagnosed van Gogh as suffering from epilepsy and was treated for a combination of depression, mania and epilepsy until his death at just 37 in 1890.

Heightened epilepsy symptoms and proximity to seizure triggers such as excessive absinthe consumption and sleep deprivation ran in tandem with the evolution of van Gogh’s artistic expression. While van Gogh’s mental and physical health declined, his creative growth also accelerated during the final two years of his life when he created some of his most evocative and landmark works, even as his episodes of seizures, depression and mania were at their height.

A Personal Odyssey

Many healthcare professionals and art historians alike have theorised how van Gogh’s underlying medical and psychological conditions shaped his art. What was elusive was a baseline understanding of the interaction between mental illness, or epilepsy, and creativity.

After a brain injury and the onset of epilepsy, Dr. Chambliss gained personal insights into the forces potentially shaping van Gogh’s mental state and creativity. The experience provided insights into the physiological and cognitive elements of these intricate and poorly understood illnesses.

Despite not possessing any previous artistic talent, Dr. Chambliss discovered his brain injury and epilepsy had triggered a newly won creative ability and passion for creating award-winning visual art.

Dr. Chambliss’ PhD dissertation, “Creative Sparks: Epilepsy and Enhanced Creativity in Visual Arts (2014)” was anchored on insights gleaned from more than 100 contemporary artists suffering from epilepsy.

Final Word

Dr. Chambliss’ pioneering work has resulted in a new approach to teaching visual observation and empathy skills for healthcare professionals. A highlight of Dr. Chambliss’ work is his proof that epilepsy can stimulate creativity as demonstrated by brain imaging showing how that occurs.

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