Empathy and the Mind-Body Problem (6)

At a high school track meet some years ago, one of my sons high-jumped over a bar set at 6’10” (2.08m).  If I had spent my entire youth with the best high jump coach in the world I could not have come close to that.  I remember telling my children that our abilities resemble Manhattan island, with some buildings reaching a great height and others much lower.  (My ability in carpentry resembles a hole in the ground in that analogy.)

Empathic skill is no different.  Some individuals have natural talent and may be drawn to a career in mental health as a result.  Others may begin a career in health care with less ability.  But there is  good evidence that empathy can be learned.  A pioneer in this area is Rita Charon, MD (1).

Dr Charon improves the empathic ability of medical students at Columbia University using what she calls narrative medicine.  “If narratives are stories that have a teller, a listener, a time course, a plot and a point, then narrative knowledge is what we naturally use to make sense of them.  Narrative knowledge provides one person with a rich, resonant grasp of another person’s situation as it unfolds in time…” (1, p 9)  She asks her students to write the stories of the patients they interview from the patient’s perspective and then they are shared and commented on in class.  Empathy skills improve as a result and many students find it a transformative experience.  (Columbia now offers a master’s degree program in narrative medicine.)

I am optimistic that in the next few decades, the selection and training of medical clinicians will change as recognition grows that empathic ability reduces clinical errors and increases diagnostic accuracy (especially in stress illness).  Empathy combined with good stress history skills, can  solve the Mind-Body Problem.

1. Charon, R.  Narrative Medicine (2006). Oxford University Press.

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