Monthly Archives: March 2012

Empathy, Psychotherapy, Medicine

What passes for psychoanalysis in America these days is a far cry from the psychoanalysis Freud devised in the early years of the last century.  A sea change began in the 1970s, when Heinz Kohut, a Vienna-born and Chicago-based psychoanalyst, developed what he termed “psychoanalytic self psychology.”  At the core of Kohut’s theorizing was the replacement of one kind of psychoanalytic method with another.   Freud’s method – which Freud himself employed imperfectly at best – revolved around the coolly self-possessed analyst, who, with surgeon-like detachment, processed the patient’s free associations with “evenly hovering attention” and offered back pearls of interpretive wisdom.  The analyst’s neutrality – his unwillingness to become a “real” person who related to the patient in conventionally sympathetic and supportive ways – rendered him a “blank screen” that elicited the same feelings of love and desire – and also of fear, envy, resentment, and hatred – as the mother and father of the patient’s early life.  These feelings clustered into what Freud termed the positive and negative transferences.

Kohut, however, found this traditional psychoanalytic method fraught with peril for patients burdened less with Freudian-type neurotic conflicts than with psychological deficits of a preoedipal nature.  These deficits gained expression in more primitive types of psychopathology, especially in what he famously termed  “narcissistic personality disorder.”  For these patients – and eventually, in Kohut’s mind, for all patients – the detached, emotionally unresponsive analyst simply compounded the feelings of rejection and lack of self-worth that brought the patient to treatment.  He proffered in its place a kinder, gentler psychoanalytic method in which the analyst was content to listen to the patient for extended periods of time, to affirm and mirror back what the patient was saying and feeling, and over time to forge an empathic bond from which interpretations would arise.

Following Kohut, empathy has been widely construed as an aspect, or at least  a precondition, of talking therapy.  For self psychologists and others who draw on Kohut’s insights, the ability to sympathize with the patient has given way to a higher-order ability to feel what the patient is feeling, to “feel with” the patient from the inside out.  And this process of empathic immersion, in turn, permits the therapist to “observe” the patient’s psychological interior and to comprehend the patient’s “complex mental states.”  For Kohut, the core of psychoanalysis, indeed of depth-psychology in general, was employment of this “empathic mode of observation,” an evocative but semantically questionable turn of phrase, given the visual referent of “observe,” which comes from the Latin observare (to watch over, to guard).   More counterintuitively still, he sought to cloak the empathic listening posture in scientific objectivism.  His writings refer over and over to the “data” that analysts acquire through their deployment of “scientific” empathy, i.e., through their empathic listening instrument.

I was Heinz Kohut’s personal editor from 1978 until his death in the fall of 1981.  Shortly after his death, I was given a dictated transcript from which I prepared his final book, How Does Analysis Cure?, for posthumous publication.  Throughout the 80s and into the 90s, I served as editor to many senior self psychologists, helping them frame their arguments about empathy and psychoanalytic method  and write their papers and books.  I grasped then, as I do now, the heuristic value of a stress on therapeutic empathy as a counterpoise to traditional notions of analytic neutrality, which gained expression, especially in the decades following World War II, in popular stereotypes of the tranquilly “analytic” analyst whose caring instincts were no match for his or her devotion to Freud’s rigid method.

The comparative perspective tempers bemusement at what would otherwise be a colossal conceit:  that psychoanalytic psychotherapists alone, by virtue of their training and work, acquire the ability to empathize with their patients.  I have yet to read an article or book that persuaded me that  empathy can be taught, or that the yield of therapeutic empathy is the apprehension of “complex psychological states” that are analogous to the “data” gathered and analyzed by bench scientists (Kohut’s own analogy).

I do believe that empathy can be cultivated, but only in those who are adequately empathic to begin with.  In medical, psychiatric, and psychotherapy training, one can present students with instances of patients clinically misunderstood and then suggest how one might have understood them better, i.e., more empathically.  Being exhorted by teachers to bracket one’s personal biases and predispositions in order to “hear” the patient with less adulterated ears is no doubt a good thing.  But it  assumes trainees can develop a psychological sensibility through force of injunction, which runs something like:  “Stop listening through the filter of your personal biases and theoretical preconceptions!  Listen to what the patient herself  is saying in her voice!  Utilize what you understand of yourself, viz., the hard-won fruits of your own psychotherapy (or training analysis), to put yourself in her place!  Make trial identifications so that her story and her predicament resonate with aspects of your story and your predicament; this will help you feel your way into her inner world.”

At a less hortatory level, one can provide trainees with teachers and supervisors who are sensitive, receptive listeners themselves and thus “skilled” at what self psychologists like to refer to as “empathic attunement.”  When students listen to such instructors and perhaps observe them working with patients, they may learn to appreciate the importance of empathic listening and then, in their own work, reflect more ongoingly on what their patients are saying and on how they are hearing them say it.  They acquire the ability for “reflection-in-action,” which Donald Schön, in two underappreciated books of the 1980s, made central to the work of “reflective professionals” in a number of fields, psychotherapy among them.[1]  To a certain extent, systematic reflection in the service of empathy may help therapists be more empathic in general.

But then the same may be said of any person who undergoes a transformative life experience (even, say, a successful therapy) in which he learns to understand differently – and less tendentiously – parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, colleagues, and the like.  Life-changing events  — fighting in  wars, losing loved ones, being victimized by natural disasters, living in third-world countries, providing aid to trauma victims – cause some people to recalibrate values and priorities and adopt new goals.  Such decentering can mobilize an empathic sensibility, so that individuals return to their everyday worlds with less self-centered ways of perceiving and being with others.

There is nothing privileged about psychotherapy training in acquiring an empathic sensibility.  I once asked a senior self psychologist what exactly differentiated psychoanalytic empathy from empathy in its everyday sense.  He thought for a moment and replied that in psychoanalysis, one deploys “sustained” empathy.  What, pray tell, does this mean, beyond denoting the fact that psychoanalysts, whether or not empathic, listen to patients for a living, and the units of such listening are typically 45-minute sessions.  Maybe he simply meant that, in the nature of things, analysts must try to listen empathically for longer periods of time, and prolongation  conduces to empathic competence.

Well, anything’s possible, I suppose.  But the fact remains that some people are born empathizers and others not.  Over the course of a 27-year career in psychoanalytic and psychiatric publishing, I worked with a great many analysts and therapists who struck me as unempathic, sometimes stunningly unempathic.  And those who struck me as empathic were not aligned with any particular school of thought, certainly not one that, like self psychology, privileges empathy.

Nor is it self-evident  that the empathy-promoting circumstances of psychotherapy are greater than the circumstances faced day-in and day-out by any number of physicians. Consider adult and pediatric oncologists, transplant surgeons, and internists and gerontologists who specialize in palliative care.  These physicians deal with patients (and their parents and children) in extremis; surely their work should elicit “sustained empathy,” assuming they begin with an empathic endowment strong enough to cordon off the miasma of uncertainty, dread, and imminent loss that envelops them on daily rounds.  Consider at the other end of the medical spectrum those remaining family doctors  who, typically in rural settings, provide intergenerational, multispecialty care and continue to treat patients in their homes .  The nature of their work makes it difficult for them not to observe and comprehend their patients’ complex biopsychosocial states; there are extraordinary empathizers among them.

When it comes to techniques for heightening empathy, physicians have certain advantages over psychotherapists, since their patients present with bodily symptoms and receive bodily (often procedural) interventions, both of which have a mimetic potential beyond “listening” one’s way into another’s inner world.  There is more to say about the grounds of medical empathy, but let me close here with a concrete illustration of such empathy in the making.

William Stevenson Baer graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical College in 1898 and stayed on at Hopkins as an intern and then assistant resident in William Halsted’s dauntingly rigorous surgical training program.  In June, 1900, at the suggestion of Baer’s immediate supervisor, Harvey Cushing, Halsted asked Baer to establish an orthopedic outpatient clinic at Hopkins the following fall.  With no grounding in the specialty, Baer readied himself for his new task by spending the ensuing summer at the orthopedic services of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Children’s Hospital.  At both institutions, many children in the orthopedic ward had to wear plaster casts throughout the hot summer months.  On arrival, Baer’s first order of business was to alter his life circumstances in order to promote empathy with, and win the trust of, these young patients.  To wit, he had himself fitted for a body cast that he wore the entire summer.  His sole object, according to his Hopkins colleague Samuel Crowe, was “to gain the children’s confidence by showing them that he too was enduring the same discomfort.”[2]

Psychotherapists are generally satisfied that empathy can be acquired in the manner of a thought experiment.  “Bracket your biases and assumptions,” they admonish, “empty yourself of ‘content,’ and then, through a process of imaginative identification, you will be able to hear what your patient is saying and feel what she is feeling.”  Baer’s example reminds us that illness and treatment are first and foremost bodily experiences, and that “feeling into another” – the literal meaning of the German Einfühlung, which we translate as “empathy” – does not begin and end with concordant memories amplified by psychological imagination.[3]  In medicine, there is an irremediably visceral dimension to empathy, and we shall consider it further in the next posting.


[1] Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (NY: Basic Books, 1983); Donald A. Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

[2] Samuel James Crowe, Halsted of Johns Hopkins: The Man and His Men (Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1957), pp. 130-31.

[3] The imaginative  component of empathy, which is more relevant to its function in psychotherapy than in medicine, is especially stressed by Alfred Margulies, “Toward Empathy: The Uses of Wonder,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 141:1025-1033, 1984.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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Medical Toys, Old and New

“The plethora of tests available to the young clinician has significantly eroded the skills necessary to obtain adequate histories and careful physical examinations.  Day in and day out, I encounter egregious examples of misdiagnosis engendered by inadequacies in these skills.”                                ~William Silen, M.D. “The Case for Paying Closer Attention to Our Patients” (1996)

Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan,” adjures Abraham Verghese in a New York Times op-ed piece of February 26, 2011.  Verghese targets American medicine’s overreliance on imaging tests, but, like others before him, he is really addressing the mindset that fosters such overreliance.  Preclinical medical students, he reminds us, all learn physical examination and diagnosis, but their introduction to the art dissipates under the weight of diagnostic tests and specialist procedures during their clinical years.  “Then,” he writes, “they discover that the currency on the ward seems to be ‘throughput’ – getting tests ordered and getting results, having procedures like colonoscopies done expeditiously, calling in specialists, arranging discharge.”  In the early 90s, William Silen, Harvard’s Johnson and Johnson Distinguished Professor of Surgery,[1] made the same point with greater verve.  In one of his wonderful unpublished pieces, “Lumps and Bumps,” he remarked that “the modern medical student, and most physicians, have been so far removed from physical diagnosis, that they simply do not accept that a mass is a mass is a mass unless the CT scan or ultrasound tells them it is there.”

Verghese and Silen get no argument from me on the clinical limitations and human failings associated with technology-driven medicine.  But these concerns are hardly unique to an era of CT scans and MRIs.  There is a long history of concern about overreliance on new technologies;  Silen has a delightfully pithy, unpublished piece on the topic that is simply titled, “New Toys.”

One limitation of such critiques is the failure to recognize that all “toys” are not created equal.  Some new toys become old toys, at which point they cease being toys altogether and simply become part of the armamentarium that the physician brings to the task of physical examination and diagnosis.  For example, we have long since stopped thinking of x-ray units, EKG machines, blood pressure meters (i.e., sphygmomanometers), and stethoscopes as “new toys” that militate against the acquisition of hands-on clinical skill.

But it was not always so.  When x-rays became available in 1896, clinical surgeons were aghast.  What kind of images were these?  Surely not photographic images in the reliably objectivistic late-nineteenth century sense of the term.  The images were wavy, blurry, and imprecise, vulnerable to changes in the relative location of the camera, the x-ray tube, and the object under investigation.  That such monstrously opaque images might count as illustrative evidence in courts of law, that they might actually be turned against the surgeon and his “expert opinion”  – what was the world coming to?  Military surgeons quickly saw the usefulness of x-rays for locating bullets and shrapnel, but their civilian colleagues remained suspicious of the new technology for a decade or more after its invention.  No fools, they resorted to x-rays only when they felt threatened by malpractice suits.

Well before the unsettling advent of x-ray photography, post-Civil War physician-educators were greatly concerned about the use of mechanical pulse-reading instruments.  These ingenious devices, so they held, would discourage young physicians from learning to appreciate the subtle diagnostic indicators embedded in the pulse.  And absent such appreciation, which came only from prolonged training of their fingertips, they could never acquire the diagnostic acumen of their seniors, much less the great pulse readers of the day.

Thus they cautioned students and young colleagues to avoid the instruments.  It was only through “the habit of discriminating pulses instinctively” that the physician acquired  “valuable truths . . . which he can apply to practice.”  So inveighed the pioneering British physiologist John Burdon-Sanderson in 1867.  His judgment was shared by a generation of senior British and American clinicians for whom the trained finger remained a more reliable measure of radial pulse than the sphygmograph’s arcane tracings.  In The Pulse, his manual of 1890, William Broadbent cautioned his readers to avoid the sphygmograph, since interpretation of its tracings could “twist facts in the desired direction.”  Physicians should “eschew instrumental aids and educate the finger,” echoed Graham Steell in The Use of the Sphygmograph in Medicine at the century’s close.[2]

Lower still on the totem pole of medical technology, indeed about as low down as one can get – is the stethoscope, “invented” by René Laennec in 1816 and first employed by him in the wards of Paris’s Hôpital Necker (see sidebar).  In 1898, James Mackenzie, the founder of modern cardiology, relied on the stethoscope, used in conjunction with his own refinement of the Dudgeon sphygmograph of 1881 (i.e., the Mackenzie polygraph of 1892), to identify what we now term atrial fibrillation.  In the years to follow, Mackenzie, a master of instrumentation, became the principal exponent of what historians refer to as the “new cardiology.” His “New Methods of Studying Affections of the Heart,” a series of articles published in the British Medical Journal in 1905, signaled a revolution in understanding cardiac function.  “No man,” remarked his first biographer, R. McNair Wilson, in 1926, “ever used a stethoscope with a higher degree of expertness.”  And yet this same Mackenzie lambasted the stethoscope as the instrument that had “not only for one hundred years hampered the progress of knowledge of heart affections, but had done more harm than good, in that many people had had the tenor of their lives altered, had been forbidden to undertake duties for which they were perfectly competent, and had been subject to unnecessary treatment because of its findings’.”[3]

Why did Mackenzie come to feel this way?  The problem with the stethoscope was that the auscultatory sounds it “discovered,” while diagnostically illuminating, could cloud clinical judgment and lead to unnecessary treatments, including draconian restrictions of lifestyle.  For Mackenzie,  sphygmomanometers were essentially educational aids that would corroborate what medical students were learning to discern through their senses.  And, of course, he allowed for the importance of such gadgetry in research.  His final refinment of pulse-reading instrumentation, the ink jet polygraph of 1902 (see sidebar), was just such a tool.  But it was never intended for generalists, whose education of the senses was expected to be adequate to the meaning of heart sounds.  Nor was Mackenzie a fan of the EKG, when it found its way into hospitals after 1905.  He perceived it as yet another “new toy” that provided no more diagnostic information than the stethoscope and ink jet polygraph.  And for at least the first 15 years of the machine’s use, he was right.

Now, of course, the stethoscope, the sphygmomanometer, and, for adults of a certain age, the EKG machine are integral to the devalued art of physical examination.  Critics who bemoan the overuse of CT scans and MRIs, of echocardiography and angiography, would be happy indeed  if medical students and residents spent more time examining patients and learning all that can be learned from stethoscopes, blood pressure monitoring, and baseline EKGs.  But more than a century ago these instrumental prerequisites of physical examination and diagnosis were themselves new toys, and educators were wary of what medical students would lose by relying on them at the expense of educating their senses.  Now educators worry about what students lose by not relying on them.

Toys aside, I too hope  that those elements of physical diagnosis that fall back on one tool of exquisite sensitivity – the human hand – will not be lost among reams of lab results and diagnostic studies.  One shudders at the thought of a clinical medicine utterly bereft of the laying on of hands, which is not only an instrument of diagnosis but also an amplifier of therapy.  The great pulse readers of the late nineteenth century are long gone and of interest only to a handful of medical historians.  Will the same be true, a century hence, of the great palpators of the late twentieth?


[1] I worked as Dr. Silen’s editor in 2000-2001, during which time I was privileged to read his unpublished lectures, addresses, and general-interest medical essays as preparation for helping him organize his memoirs.  Sadly, the memoirs project never materialized.

[2] In this paragraph, I am guided especially by two exemplary studies, Christopher Lawrence, “Incommunicable Knowledge: Science, Technology and the Clinical Art in Britain, 1850-1914,” J. Contemp. Hist., 20:503-520, 1985 and Hughes Evans, “Losing Touch: The Controversy Over the Introduction of Blood Pressure Instruments in Medicine, “ Tech. Cult., 34:784-807, 1993.  Broadbent and Steell are quoted from Lawrence, p. 516.

[3] R. McNair Wilson, The Beloved Physician: Sir James Mackenzie (New York:  Macmillan, 1926), pp. 103-104. A more recent, detailed account of Mackenzie’s life and career is Alex Mair, Sir James Mackenzie, M.D., 1853-1925 – General Practitioner (London: Royal College of General Practitioners, 1986).

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.