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Stanford University School of Medicine

Medicine and the senses: Conversations on space and hospital soundscapes


Medicine X is all about reimagining medicine, and this morning's speakers had fabulously sensory imaginations. One of them -- Monika Wittig, co-lead of MedXMakers -- thinks with her hands. And she helps others do so too at the conference's Makers Tent, where 3D print guns and origami encourage tactile exploration.

As an architect, Wittig is attuned to space. She asked the audience to consider the kinds of spaces that encourage creativity, that provide room to make something profound. For her, spaces that encourage tactile play also encourage creative thought. She sees making and designing as two sides of the same coin. When you put things in people's hands, they respond differently than they do to words; they engage in "rigorous play" and develop new kinds of dexterity, she said. Origami patterns show up in stent design, and a new splint is inspired by a modernist chair's curves.

Gesturing to a beautiful photo of an old tree's rhizomatic root system, Wittig said that interconnections are the essence of creativity. These connections can be between design and use, and between hands-on and abstract, as well as between disciplines. She works with a psychiatrist who understands her architectural ideas better than her architect collaborators, she said, because he is attuned to how people feel in spaces. She wondered: What if doctors and patients could "co-author" hospital buildings with architects and builders?

MedX artist in residence Yoko Sen, an ambient electronic musician and "sound alchemist," meanwhile, is struck by how distressing the hospital soundscape can be -- and she's imagining it otherwise. Sen is the founder of Sen Sound, which aims to "alleviate suffering through transforming sound design in hospitals." She played the audience a track of beeps, buzzes, alarms, and mumbled voices; other hospital sounds include patients screaming, and the empty silence after bad news is delivered. "Patients and their families suffer from noise pollution," Sen's website reads. "Clinicians suffer from alarm fatigue, a major safety hazard. Hospitals, as systems, suffer from disease-centered design." But what is human-centered sound design?

Sen considered the idea that hearing is our last sense to go when we die. She started asking people about the last sound they would want to  hear, and her inquiry became the Sound Will Project. In her talk, she said that environment, experience, and emotion are linked and asked the audience,"What sound makes you feel safe?" Quoting Florence Nightingale from 1859, she also pointed out that "unnecessary noise is the cruelest absence of care."

The speakers at Medicine X have been putting humanity at the center of medical care. And Sen's words are a good reminder for all: "Our senses are what makes us human."

Previously: Medicine X, the academic conference where "everyone is included," returns
Photo of Yoko Sen by Stanford Medicine X

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