Why drawing isn’t just an art

(GoaShape via Unsplash)

There's a growing understanding that drawing is much more than an art form: it's a powerful tool for learning.

  • We often think of drawing as something that takes innate talent, but this kind of thinking stems from our misclassification of drawing as, primarily, an art form rather than a tool for learning.
  • Researchers, teachers, and artists are starting to see how drawing can positively impact a wide variety of skills and disciplines.
  • Drawing is not an innate gift; rather, it can be taught and developed. Doing so helps people to perceive the world more accurately, remember facts better, and understand their world from a new perspective.

Most of us have spent some time drawing before, at the very least because of compulsory art classes. It's also likely that you've scribbled curlicues in the margins of your notes during some particularly boring lecture about how the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell or how to graph linear equations.

But at some point, most of us stop drawing. There are people who don't, obviously, and thank god for that: a world without designers and artists would be a very shabby one indeed. But the vast majority of adults quit doodling when they quit having to take notes, and the closest they get to making something visually creative is applying a wacky font in a PowerPoint presentation.

But some argue that so many adults have abandoned drawing is because we've miscategorized it and given it a very narrow definition. In his book, Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice, Professor D.B. Dowd argues that "We have misfiled the significance of drawing because we see it as a professional skill instead of a personal capacity. This essential confusion has stunted our understanding of drawing and kept it from being seen as a tool for learning above all else."

Dowd argues that we mistakenly think of "good" drawings as those which work as recreations of the real world, as realistic illusions. Rather, drawing should be recategorized as a symbolic tool. In an interview with Print Magazine, Dowd said:

Drawing is an ancient human activity, practiced by all persons. How do I get to the airport? Pretend your phone is dead, so forget GPS. Anyone trying to answer that question is likely to say, "Here, let me show you…" and grab a pencil and an envelope to scribble on. That's drawing! We use it all the time. Explain the rules of hockey. Describe geology. Help me understand "The Mason-Dixon Line." These things have to be manifested visually.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The cortical homunculus has body proportions based on how many nerve endings there are in the relevant body part. Notice how large (and therefore how sensitive) the hands are; this is because humans are built to handle subtle tools, like pens and pencils.

Human beings have been drawing for 73,000 years. It's an inextricable part of what it means to be human. We don't have the strength of chimpanzees because we've given up brute strength to manipulate subtle instruments, like hammers, spears, and — later — pens and pencils. The human hand is an extremely dense network of nerve endings; the somatosensory homunculus (a sculpture of a human being where the body proportions correspond to how sensitive the associated nerve networks are) demonstrates this well. In many ways, human beings are built to draw.

In fact, doodling has been shown to affect how the brain runs and processes information in a significant way. Some researchers argue that doodling activates the brain's so-called default circuit — essentially, the areas of the brain responsible for maintaining a baseline level of activity in the absence of other stimuli. Because of this, some believe that doodling during a boring lecture can help students pay attention.

Evidence has shown that doodling does actually improve memory. In one study, participants were asked to listen to a list of names while either doodling or sitting still. Those who doodled remembered 29 percent more of the names than those who did not.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Darwin's sketches of finches were crucial to illustrate his theory of evolution

It's not just absent-minded, abstract doodling that helps the brain either; drawing concepts and physical objects forces your brain to engage with a subject in new and different ways, enhancing your understanding. For example, some researchers tested study participants' ability to recall a list of words based on whether they had copied the word by hand or drawn the concept — like writing the word "apple" versus drawing one. The drawers often were able to recall twice as many words.

There's also evidence that drawing talent is based on how accurately someone perceives the world. The human visual system tends to misjudge size, shape, color, and angles but artists perceive these qualities more accurately than non-artists. Cultivating drawing talent can become an essential tool to improve people's observational skills in fields where the visual is important.

In biology, for example, describing and categorizing the shape and form of living things is critical. Prior to the invention of the photograph, biologists were trained draftsmen; they had to be in order to show the world the details of a new species. Now, some biology professors are reintroducing physical drawing in their biology courses. The reasoning is that actively deciding to draw helps people see the world better.

Rather than think of drawing as a talent that some creative people are gifted in, we should consider it as a tool for seeing and understanding the world better — one that just so happens to double as an art form. Both absent-minded doodling and copying from life have been shown to positively affect your memory and visual perception, so raise hell the next time your school board slashes the art department's budget.


3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.

Imagine that a health emergency strikes and you need an organ transplant – say, a heart. You get your name on a transplant list, but you find out there's a waiting period of six months. Tens of thousands of people find themselves in this dire situation every year. But 3D printing has the potential to change that forever.

The technology could usher in a future where transplantable organs can be printed not only cheaply, but also to the exact anatomical specifications of each individual patient.

What other innovations could 3D printing bring to medicine and health care? The sky is the limit, according to Dr. Todd Goldstein, a researcher with the corporate venturing arm of Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider and an industry leader in 3D-printing research and development.

"It comes down to what people can think up and dream up what they want to use 3D printing for," Goldstein says. "Ideally, you would hope that 50 years from now you'd have on-demand, 3D printing of organs."

While that's still on the horizon for researchers, 3D printing is already improving lives by revolutionizing medicine in three key areas.

​Printing realistic, customized organ models

3D printers can take images from MRI, PET, sonography or other technologies and convert them into life-size, three-dimensional models of patients' organs. These models serve as hands-on visualization tools that help surgeons plan the best approaches for complex procedures.

They also allow doctors to customize patient-specific models prior to surgery. For example, Northwell employs 3D printing in several clinical applications:

  • Tumor resection models clearly highlight the tumor and surrounding tissue
  • Orthopedic models are useful for pre-surgery measuring and medical device adjustments
  • Vascular models identify malformations in organs, tumors, sliced chambers, blood flow, valves, muscle tissue, and calcifications
  • Dentistry oral implants and appliances can be created in just one day, significantly reducing wait periods for Northwell dentists and their patients

Using realistic models not only delivers better health results but also shortens operating times. That gives patients less time under anesthesia, and hospitals potential savings of millions of dollars over just a few years.

Being able to visualize procedures before they occur also helps to comfort patients and their families. Take, for instance, the case of Barnaby Goberdhan, a man who discovered that his young son, Isaiah, had an aggressive tumor in his palate. Goberdhan met with Neha A. Patel, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Cohen Children's Medical Center, a Northwell Health hospital, to discuss the procedure and learn about it with help from a 3D-printed model.

"Having a 3D printed depiction of my son was really helpful when talking with the doctor about his surgery," said Mr. Goberdhan. "The doctor was able to do more than talk me through what they were going to do – Dr. Patel showed me. There is almost nothing more frightening and stressful than having your child go through surgery. There were several options Dr. Patel walked us through for the best way to preserve Isaiah's teeth and prevent additional cuts within his mouth. I wanted all of my questions answered so I could be less fearful and more prepared to talk my son through what he was about to face. I wanted Isaiah to feel prepared. With the 3D model, we both felt more at ease."

For years, 3D printing surgical models was prohibitively expensive. Now, more affordable systems such as Formlabs' Form Cell give more hospitals across the country access to the technology in order to produce realistic, patient-specific models, usually within one day.

3D-printed prosthetics

Credit: Northwell Health

While 3D-printed organs are a long way in the future, today's technology is well suited for manufacturing prosthetics. 3D-printed prosthetics are often remarkably more affordable and personalized than their traditional counterparts. That's a big deal for many families, especially those with children who outgrow prosthetics and are forced to buy new ones.

One recent breakthrough in 3D-printed prosthetics came when Dan Lasko, a former Marine who lost the lower part of his left leg in Afghanistan, wanted the ability to swim with his prosthetic leg. Wearing prosthetics in water has been possible for years, but they typically slow swimmers down. No device had been able to go seamlessly from land to water or to help propel its wearer through the water.

To fix that, Northwell Health recently funded a project that developed The Fin – the world's first truly amphibious prosthetic. With The Fin, Lasko and his family can go straight into the pool from the locker room – or the diving board.

"I got back in the pool with my two young sons and for the first time was able to dive into the pool with them," Lasko said.

3D-printed prosthetics will help improve the daily lives of the nearly 2 million Americans who've lost a limb. That's promising because the increasing prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is expected to greatly increase the number of amputees in the U.S., according to a study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

​3D bioprinting

For years, 3D printers have manufactured various products: phone cases, toys, and even operational guns. To produce these objects, the machines heat a raw material, typically plastic, and build the object layer-by-layer according to a particular design.

3D bioprinting, a young field developed by researchers with Northwell Health, may someday perform the same process but instead with living cells in a raw material called bioink.

Daniel A. Grande, director at the Orthopedic Research Laboratory in the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, an arm of Northwell Health, said he and his team first pursued 3D bioprinting by modifying 3D printers so they'd accept living cells.

"My initial concept of 3D printing was early studies that looked at modifying ink-jet printers, where we incorporate a bioink that includes cells within a delivery vehicle," Grande says. "That hydrogel can then be polymerized, or hardened, upon heat or UV-light stimulation, so that we can actually make a complex structure, three-dimensionally, that incorporates living cells. The hardened hydro-gel is then able to keep the cells alive and viable. It's also biocompatible, so it can be safely implanted in humans."

It's a promising enterprise, and it can radically change how we experience medical care.

"3D bioprinting's potential is almost limitless and has the potential to replace many different parts of the human body," says Michael J. Dowling, president, and chief executive officer at Northwell Health. "Researchers envision a future with 3D printers in every emergency room, where doctors are able to print emergency implants of organs and bones on demand and revolutionize the way medicine is practiced."

Dr. Todd Goldstein explains more about 3D bioprinting below:

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.


In his book Health Care Reboot, Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, argues that "[the United States] is constructing a solid foundation upon which the new American health care is being erected." To those steeped in news of health care's administrative bloat, under-performing primary care, and low levels of insurance coverage, such a thesis may seem bold, wishful, or downright delusional.

But Dowling does not ignore the health care system's need for improvement. Rather, he believes that contemporary trends can foster such improvement if we recognize their value. He cites advances and disruptions in areas such as consolidation, education, payment reform, and mental health to support his progressive view that "better, safer, and more accessible care" is coming.

Among those trends is big tech's move into health care, or as Dowling puts it, technology may soon move us into the age of smart medicine.

Medical tech marvels

Dowling sees big tech's stride into health care as coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology. On the medical technology front, the technology available to doctors has accelerated at an unprecedented pace, resulting in tools and techniques that are "the stuff of Star Wars."

"Some of the most advanced technology tools ever developed in any field are in use to care for patients. Look at any modern operating room or intensive care unit, and the technology to treat patients and keep them alive is remarkable," writes Dowling.

To pick one of many examples, Northwell Health's Cohen Children's Medical Center was the first pediatric program on Long Island to institute ROSA, a "robotic operating surgical assistant." Before ROSA, children suffering epilepsy would have to undergo a full craniotomy to target and monitor areas of seizure activity. With ROSA's assistance, surgeons can get the same results through a minimally invasive procedure, reducing the risk of infection and strain on the patient.

Even technology not designed for therapy has been co-opted to play small, yet supportive, roles in quotidian treatment. A study out of the Children's Hospital Los Angeles found that virtual reality can help reduce a child's anxiety and stress during basic procedures such as a blood draw.

Information tech plays catch up

Photo: Sisacorn / Shutterstock

Dowling characterizes the information technology front as "less impressive," pointing to the well-known difficulties of onboarding electronic health records. Beyond concerns of cybersecurity and interoperability, such systems have caused widespread burnout and dissatisfaction among practitioners thanks to their time consumption and complicated workflows.

But progress is being made. Apple recently added a Health Records app to its iPhone, giving patients from 39 health systems access to their medical records.

"This existing new reality is that a fat file, that until recently was stored away unavailable to the patient, now sits in its entirety on the patient's phone," writes Dowling. "For patients with chronic conditions who make frequent use of medical services, this leap forward enables them, whether a mile from their doctor's office or a thousand miles, to track and share with their doctor essential data on blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, and scores of other important clinical markers."

But to succeed, this information must be gatherable, accessible, and understandable to any patient. Big tech will need to streamline such systems for maximum user-friendliness, all while keeping operations on a device with which patients and practitioners are intimately familiar.

That device will be the smartphone and tablet. 77 percent of Americans own smartphones. Among Americans over 65 years of age — the demographic most in need of such advancements — 46 percent own a smartphone, a number that is likely to climb.

Big tech's vision of integrating information technology with health care is some ways off. Much experimenting must be done, and big tech needs to better collaborate with traditional health care stakeholders. Even so, these incipient steps may lead to a framework where practitioners can gather more data more quickly and with greater ease, while patients become partners, not passive recipients, of their health care team.

Accelerating value-based care

In the United States, value-based health care exists today as a should-we, could-we debate topic. Big tech's entry into the field could push value-based care closer to practice. As noted on the health care blog Tech Prescribed, integrating improved data acquisition with AI-powered platforms could turn value-based care into a manageable venture.

"As a result, we will see the move to VBC accelerate even further as more firms turn a profit through this business model. Good news for docs — this will make you the primary customer for provider technology and really improve your user experience as a side effect," writes Colton Ortolf of Tech Prescribed.

The Northwell Health entity Pharma Ventures was created both in response to collaborating with big pharma and as a means to promote value-based care. Pharma Ventures was designed "to link drug prices to drug performance" and "to serve as a super-site for clinical trials." The goal is to drive down costs while simultaneously improving patient experience. Such an initiative is only possible due to Northwell's integrated systems and system-wide electronic health records.

Entering the smart age of medicine

For Dowling, health care in the United States is laying an important foundation for the medicine of tomorrow. We're moving away from the view that health care is something the patient receives at a medical facility. Soon, health care will see the patient take an active role alongside a team of health care providers.

"The new American medicine is proactive and has physicians working in teams with nurses and other caregivers to reach out to patients and guide them along a pathway to health and wellbeing," writes Dowling.

By creating new machines, proliferating information, and making that information easier to obtain, big tech's dive into health care will be a fundamental element in this upcoming paradigm shift.