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Making a Case for the Arts in Pain Care Practice

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

By Lissanthea Taylor

Pain Geeks have been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s stunning book “Never Let Me Go” over the past


For a group that is so focused and dedicated to wide reading in the area of science and philosophy, reading a fiction book might seem like an odd choice of text.

What does studying literature, art and poetry (and other expressive and embodied arts) offer to someone that is dedicated to using a contemporary science-based and people-centric approach to treating pain and sensory changes?

Engagement with the arts forms an essential platform for developing

effective clinical skills whilst supporting human thriving for all involved in the act of clinical care.

Here’s 5 ways how the arts make you better in pain care:

1. It fosters creativity

Working with people in the clinic is inherently a creative, intersubjective act involving many different characters, seen and unseen, and different scenes in which these characters take on different roles.

Knowing who, and how, to interact with the various characters that we might meet in the course of our clinical work day might make your workplace feel more like a theatre stage than a clinic. You might recognise this as “bedside manner”, “communication skills” or perhaps just be “being good with people”.

No one really tells you during your education that these acting and performance skills are critical to your professional success. Once you’re in the real world of the clinic, you might find yourself wondering how to fill that gap in a way that enriches you and your work.

Engaging with the humanities is a good starting point.

Reading literature is a participatory activity of creativity that helps you to recognise the various ways that characters, scenes and plots work.

You have to show up to the page and let the words work on you.

You, as the reader, are a key part of how the story unfolds for you, whether you’re aware of that or not.

The stories that people tell in the clinic are creative outputs also.

The capacity we build for these creative outputs determine how well we can set aside judgements, biases and pre-conceived notions about how things “should be” and witness them as they are.

It’s a creative and defiant act to be fully open to the possibilities of co-creation and

collaboration that clinical care holds in the relationship that can develop between people. Your professional success and career longevity in the clinic depends upon on these skills.

2. It gives you permission to be a whole person

When we ask people about their lives and their experiences in the clinic, we are inviting them to share their world with us, so that we can stand alongside them through processes of change in their health and life status.

When we take the stance of engaging with the fullness of the person sitting alongside us in the clinic, it might show us the way in which we have become lessened and diminished by our professional roles.

Outdated educational pedagogies and the normalization of unhelpful workplace practices seem to be common place in health professions. Not having time to eat lunch, or mountains of paperwork, or seeing 20 patients back-to-back each day is something we can only manage for so long. We lose great clinicians from our professions due to burnout, and some of them we lose from the world too.

Various areas of academic study show us how studying literature can enlarge different cognitive skills.

It’s helpful to know there’s research that says that reading is good for you, but we really don’t even need that justification or permission to step away from reading within our specific discipline or practice.

As clinicians, we’re also allowed to pursue joyfully flexing our mental muscles with the arts, and giving it some priority in the frantic hustle of modern life. Single-tasking and letting stories unfold in time is a salve to the relentless pressures of clinical work.

The magic of the arts is that they are enriching, enlivening, inspiring and revealing simply by their existence. Seeing an art exhibition, reading a novel or listening to a poetry reading is a multidimensional restoration of some of the capacity needed to keep showing up to the care role each day.

3. It helps you to practice paying attention

Everyone, in the clinic or elsewhere, wants to be listened to and have their words valued. No matter how much we talk about the importance of listening, it’s not something that can be developed in theory. It takes practice and repetition to be present to the important plot points that a book, or a person in pain, might reveal when you pay full attention to the whole story.

Sitting down to an open book, with all the internal and external distractions of the world threatening to pull you away is a good way to practice mindful awareness.

Paying attention to each word, sentence, paragraph and chapter is an engagement with the temporal nature of the work we do in the clinic, and the way that those stories unfold from within the distress and turmoil of persisting pain states and interrupted lives.

As clinicians, the skills that we have to be present and to be a receptive vessel for stories to unfold, will determine the way that stories are told to us.

Practicing close reading and mindful attention to the page (or the canvas) helps you to model the attuned and present state that people in pain need to develop as part of their recovery journey.

4. It exposes you to difficult stories

Stories authored by skilled writers help us to understand the way that stories work when they are sleek, shapely and well-edited.

Writers are so practiced and skilled in their craft that they can create believable fantasy worlds which we can escape to and feel at home. We’re able to

suspend disbelief, although we know this is only a story, we can become a part of the world of the characters in the story.

If we practice developing that skill of perspective taking in a novel, we can transfer it to the stories of health and care that people in pain tell us.

The stories that the people tell you in the clinic should be read like science-fiction, but they’re not written by a skilled author. Their world is a different world to yours, even though you may live in the same neighbourhood.

To help you understand their world and what matters to them, they might use clunky metaphors, leave out parts of the plot or seem to be missing the point

when they get caught up in a long-winded account of something you might judge as irrelevant.

There’s no such thing as a bad story. They are all important and serve their purpose to create shared meaning and understanding. Some stories are straightforward and easy to understand, they are more shapely and structured so you can follow them. These are not the stories you will get in the clinic when you ask someone to share their journey with you, so you’d better practice understanding the nuts and bolts of how stories work with celebrated literary authors first.

When you understand how stories should work, you are more attuned to the omissions and the variations that tell their part of the challenges of living with persisting pain.

5. It teaches you the power of oblique learning

The humanities exists to share the multidimensional human experience, so that others may see it, critique it, learn from it, and use it as a stimulus for change.

Reading literature and poetry, looking at art, visiting the theatre or a dance performance are gateways to deeper and broader thinking about the world that we inhabit.

Immersing ourselves into the world of others gives us a new lens in which to see our world, and consider the issues and concerns that we may not have seen otherwise.

Authors and artists use their creative skills to create the opportunity for the reader to look at their world in a new way. This paves the way for considering the ethical, social and philosophical considerations from an oblique angle of meaningful interaction of a character in their world, and the way they might mirror the issues that we contend with in ours.

I’m looking forward to joining the Pain Geeks discussion this week to see how these five points apply to “Never Let Me Go”.

You can follow Lissanthea on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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