More than visual literacy: Art and the enhancement of tolerance for ambiguity and empathy

Miriam Ethel Bentwich, Peter Gilbey

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67 Scopus citations


Background: Comfort with ambiguity, mostly associated with the acceptance of multiple meanings, is a core characteristic of successful clinicians. Yet past studies indicate that medical students and junior physicians feel uncomfortable with ambiguity. Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a pedagogic approach involving discussions of art works and deciphering the different possible meanings entailed in them. However, the contribution of art to the possible enhancement of the tolerance for ambiguity among medical students has not yet been adequately investigated. We aimed to offer a novel perspective on the effect of art, as it is experienced through VTS, on medical students' tolerance of ambiguity and its possible relation to empathy. Methods: Quantitative method utilizing a short survey administered after an interactive VTS session conducted within mandatory medical humanities course for first-year medical students. The intervention consisted of a 90-min session in the form of a combined lecture and interactive discussions about art images. The VTS session and survey were filled by 67 students in two consecutive rounds of first-year students. Results.: 67% of the respondents thought that the intervention contributed to their acceptance of multiple possible meanings, 52% thought their visual observation ability was enhanced and 34% thought that their ability to feel the sufferings of other was being enhanced. Statistically significant moderate-to-high correlations were found between the contribution to ambiguity tolerance and contribution to empathy (0.528-0.744; p ≤ 0.01). Conclusions: Art may contribute especially to the development of medical students' tolerance of ambiguity, also related to the enhancement of empathy. The potential contribution of visual art works used in VTS to the enhancement of tolerance for ambiguity and empathy is explained based on relevant literature regarding the embeddedness of ambiguity within art works, coupled with reference to John Dewey's theory of learning. Given the situational nature of the tolerance for ambiguity in this context, VTS provides a path for enhancing ambiguity tolerance that is less conditioned by character traits. Moreover, the modest form of VTS we utilized, not requesting a significant alteration in the pre-clinical curricula, suggests that enhancing the tolerance of ambiguity and empathy among medical students may be particularly feasible.

Original languageEnglish
Article number200
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - 10 Nov 2017

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© 2017 The Author(s).


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