October 7, 2010

Engaging the Whole Mind

by Samantha Lee, Pharm.D., Clinical Toxicology Fellow, Maryland Poison Center/University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Let’s begin with a simple exercise.  It doesn’t require a calculator to solve a kinetics problem or a reference book to look up a drug fact.  This only requires one thing: your brain.  Actually, the right side of your brain.  See that cartoon on the left side of the page?  Your task is to come up with a humorous caption to go with it.  Easy, right?

by Leo Cullum
Published in The New Yorker 8/21/2006
Available from the Cartoon Bank

This may seem like a fun activity that a middle school student might do, but it’s really a sample test question created for the Rainbow Project at Yale University.  As part of the project, they are developing an alternative scholastic aptitude test (SAT) designed to measure whole-minded abilities.  Concepts such as the Rainbow Project stemmed from the question: is our education system designed to help students to think creatively and express their true aptitudes, or are we just preparing them to survive rounds of multiple-choice exams that may not truly capture what they know and have learned?  Do we only place emphasis on standardization, routine performance and compliance?
In his book entitled A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, author Daniel Pink makes a case for the end of the “left-brain” era with a transition to the “Conceptual Age,” where the right brainers will flourish with their highly valued traits such as creativity, imagination and innovation.  While left brain thinkers have thrived over the past several decades in the Information Age, the once dominating traits of logics, functions, and linearity are no longer sufficient to meet the demands of a new world that values a more holistic and empathic big-picture view. 
Pink recognizes three factors that are causing this shift in change and which will impact the nature of our future employment: Asia (can jobs be done cheaper overseas?  We are seeing this in medical practice, such as radiology), Automation (can a computer do it faster?  We are definitely seeing automation in pharmacy with the use of robotics.  We don't have robot teachers . . . yet.) and Abundance (The world is awash in plentiful and cheap material goods.  Are we overloading the workforce with an abundance of pharmacy graduates as more schools are opening?)
Now the author isn’t saying we should only care about right brain thinking and let’s ditch the left, but rather it should be using both hemispheres of the brain to successfully navigate through this new era.  How can we capitalize on “r-directed thinking” in our classrooms?  Daniel Pink introduces his “six senses” to help develop the whole mind needed to meet the demands of the future.
1.     Not just function but also DESIGN – Function and significance should balance.  Basically, we want things that work, but it’s even better to have functional things that are pretty and engaging to the eyes.  For educators, this can be seen in the way we present our content - are we focusing solely on the content or can we balance it with an attractive presentation that would capture the students’ attention? 
2.     Not just argument but also STORY – Communication is as important as the story that it is told through.  Our minds gravitate better toward stories since many of our experiences and knowledge can be told through a narrative.  When I was in my third year of pharmacy school, I had to create a digital story to tell my leadership story by using video, pictures, music and audio. 
3.     Not just focus but also SYMPHONY – This is the ability to put the pieces together, connect the relationships and see the big picture.  In healthcare, it’s all about the symphonic interaction of the different professionals-the pharmacists working with the physicians, nurses and other staff ... and let's not forget THE PATIENT.   Many programs are now integrating interprofessional coursework into their curricula to ensure graduates are capable of working together ... and seeing the big picture.
4.     Not just logic but also EMPATHY – We all know this one. It’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  It’s essential for healthcare professionals to not just look at patient’s vitals, drug regimen, and physical exam, but get to understand the whole person.  How can we do this in pharmacy school?  As educators, are we exposing the students to activities and interactions that will bring out the humanistic side?
5.     Not just seriousness but also PLAY – “When you are playing, you are activating the right side of your brain.  The logical brain is a limited brain.  The right side is unlimited.  You can be anything you want.”  Using games as learning activities is one way for an educator to add the fun to learning.  Learning is about the content, but playing while learning is soul food for the brain. 
6.     Not just accumulation but also MEANING – “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”  Educating students is an opportunity to make a difference in the world.  We can impact those students ... and our students impact patients.  We need to help students connect with the meaning of our work as pharmacists - not just the content.
As Dr. Seuss once said, “Think left and think right and think low and think high.  Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”  As we embark on our path to academia, let’s rethink what we’re doing in the classroom to develop this whole new mind. 
P.S.  What was your cartoon caption?

[Editor's Commentary:  Left-brain thinking is logical, sequential, analytical. And there is little question that you need to be pretty good at that stuff to be a pharmacist.  But I think most of us would agree that being logical, sequential, and analytical isn't sufficient.  Our right-brain thinking abilities - creativity, sensitivity to design and aesthetics, empathy, and contextual awareness - are equally important.  Perhaps MORE important today because computers and other forms of automation are able to do the logical, sequential, analytical stuff far better than we humans could ever hope to do.  But computers have not yet mastered right brain thinking.  So, its time to flex some right brain muscle.  We need to spend more time teaching our students how to be creative, think holistically, and relate to people in an authentic manner. - S.H.]

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