Total internal reflection: an essay on paradigms

Med Educ. 2002 Jun;36(6):514-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2923.2002.01224.x.


Introduction: This paper presents a personal view of the relationship between science and the humanities within medical education, arguing for a more even balance between the two. This view stems from the author's recent experience of exploring the literature of learning theory and the social sciences.

Background: For historical reasons, medical education is dominated by a positivistic paradigm which assumes the existence of a single objective external reality. This can seduce us into believing that positivism is not a paradigm at all, but simply how the universe really is. Clinical practice, however, takes place in a much less certain world, where reconciling different interpretations of truth is an everyday necessity. This paper outlines the perils of uncritical adherence to a traditionally 'scientific' mode of thinking. TOTAL INTERNAL REFLECTION: In physics, total internal reflection is a phenomenon whereby light is reflected from the surface of a liquid without penetrating it, thereby making it impossible for anyone within a pool of water to see outside it. The author uses this concept as a metaphor to describe a limitation of perspective which characterises orthodox medical training, cutting students off from valuable sources of insight and understanding.

Conclusions: Medical education often fails to provide learners with the tools they need to interpret the literature of other disciplines. In particular, it ignores the importance of recognising different perspectives. The paper ends by pleading for a more inclusive approach to alternative paradigms within our educational system.

MeSH terms

  • Cultural Diversity
  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Humanities / education*
  • Humans
  • Professional Practice / standards