AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 4, 2019


The Art of Neurosurgery

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By day, I am a medical student. I often come home late at night and contemplate what I have learned or witnessed in the hospital. Removed from the endless stack of textbooks, it is clear that being a doctor is not just spitting out facts. In medicine, we are regularly inserted into profound moments of a person’s life and learn how to counsel in times of distress. These moments often carry an array of emotions, not only with the patient, but also with their family. There is something raw and indescribable about being present when someone’s life takes these abrupt turns and realizing that I and all that I hold dear are undeniably mortal. While medicine has always come first in my life, I started painting regularly earlier this year. My art became a mechanism of absorbing the challenges of being in medicine. In my art, I try to capture human experiences of deep uncertainty about one’s health and future. Freezing those moments in time helps inform me about how I want to live life. For those not in medicine, I try to expose the depth and significance of these experiences and represent something that hardly anyone sees.

Through my art, I have come to realize that physicians and artists study the human body in similar ways – with a keen observance of the intricacies of not only superficial anatomy, but also the complexities of the human condition. Both endeavors challenge individuals to train their eyes to see beyond the obvious, to grasp for a deeper understanding of the person or circumstance that lay before them.

Medical professionals are asked to do what sometimes seems impossible. There is often a very short amount of time with a patient to diagnose a disease or injury and establish a care plan. In neurosurgery, many patients are severely ill and require complex surgeries and long-term care. As doctors, we are trained to develop critical thinking and observational skills that are necessary to deliver difficult and life-altering information to patients. At the same time, we must do so with compassion. It is a profession in which we are always acquiring knowledge, both as healers and as human beings, and constantly questioning what we understand.

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Artists are trained to develop these same skills, but in a different manner. They perceive details and ideas from the physical and emotional world that surround us. Their creations communicate ideas that may not be so easily discerned or verbalized. Artists’ attention to detail – whether it be through careful brushstrokes to capture a distinct facial expression or an abstract drawing to depict an intangible feeling – inform us of what is key to understanding people. They portray truths that help us to better grapple with life’s difficult trajectories and unforeseen events. Communication is a fundamental component of connecting with patients and fellow human beings in times of distress and art provides a vehicle. It is a method of conveying what often cannot be said or audibly understood in a way in which meaning can be found.  

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words – but why is that? When observing a piece of art, we ask ourselves not to merely look at it, but to see it. The ambiguous nature of trying to discern another’s thoughts mirrors the uncertainty that is an authentic part of medicine and of life. We ask what the artist is thinking or what they are trying to tell us, but we may never know. It creates a critical consciousness within the observer. It is subtle and inexplicit, yet penetrates deep within our thoughts. With art, we feel and know before we can think or speak. In both art and medicine, we must magnify our vision to see the precise details, but then must zoom out to appreciate the work or the patient as a whole. If we fail to see the small features, we will miss the diagnosis. But if we fail to take a step back, we will miss the inherent attributes of who the patient is as an individual. Therein lies the importance of learning through art: to bring heightened inner awareness of what makes us all human.

Writer Anatole Broyard contemplated his own terminal illness:

“My friends flatter me by calling my performance courageous or gallant, but my doctor should know better. He should be able to imagine the aloneness of the critically ill, a solitude as haunting as a Chirico painting. I want him to be my Virgil, leading me through my purgatory, pointing out the sights as we go […] The doctor has little to lose and everything to gain by letting the sick man into his heart. If he does, they can share, as few others can, the wonder, terror, and exaltation of being on the edge of being, the natural and the supernatural.” 1

As doctors, we are privileged to be a part of the most profound moments of the human experience – birth, illness, injury, disease, suffering and death. In medicine and my art, I can observe, record and create the stories that make us human. Witnessing these moments reminds us that while medicine prolongs life, meaning makes life worth living. In the end, the greatest desire of the human heart is to be understood. Art may be a way to accomplish this goal.


1. Broyard, A. (1993). Intoxicated by my illness: And other writings on life and death. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

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