Empathy and Compassion Training in Medical Education: Is It Neuro-Discriminatory Gatekeeping?

Last year, I co-taught the course “Medicine and Literature” with Tetyana Dzyadevych, my colleague in Russian Literature. (She deserves credit for the idea, assignment design, and most of the syllabus—I only added conceptual readings.)

Here is the course description:

This course examines the literary representation of the physician and narratives of illness in Russia from the 1860s to the present. We read fiction and memoirs from writers who were also practicing physicians (Chekhov, Bulgakov, and Veresaev), as well as semi-fictional and fictional case histories (Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Palei). We examine how narratives help make sense of the human experience in times of physical and emotional crisis. We trace medical ideas through history and literature, and explore how medicine employs literary concepts. We will interrogate literary works in order to see how they have influenced cultural assumptions about disease, disability, and medical authority. Addressing some of the pressing issues of the present, the reading will challenge us to question our understanding and reconceptualize notions of normality/disability, health/disease, and life/death. Located at the intersection of literature and medicine, this course aims to enhance your narrative competency and communication skills, essential to the practice of both disciplines.

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Dear Neuroscience: Stop Trying to “Fix” Diversity

I announced recently that I had been trying to publish an op-ed and that I would post it here if no newspaper would have it. No newspaper would have it, so here you go (and please imagine it were still the end of December, when this was all more recent and it still seemed a fitting time for new year’s resolutions):

As the year in which President Trump reinstated the ban on trans* persons from military service is coming to a close, many of us are hoping for a less transphobic new year. But the current year of sickening transphobia isn’t quite over yet. “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling just made headlines by expressing support for Maya Forstater, an openly transphobic researcher who claimed that sex was unchangeable and had nothing to do with identity. Anthony Ramos from the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization GLAAD referred to Forstater’s view as “an anti-science ideology.”

The disturbing truth is that some scientists hold similar views as Forstater. A recent publication in eNeuro, an open-access journal published by the Society for Neuroscience, proves this point. Author Stephen Gliske, a nuclear physicist by training, proposed a novel theory regarding the neurobiological underpinnings of gender dysphoria (the distress that some trans* individuals experience because of the incongruency between their bodies and gender identities). Much of the argument relies on data from previously published rodent studies.

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Can Brain Science Help Resolve Social Problems and Political Conflicts?

Here is a very insightful piece published a few days ago in the New York Times. It asks the question of whether brain science “Can … Be Dangerous” if it is the (only) basis on which authorities make decisions about social policies.

Using neuroscience to determine the prospective success of interventions aiming at resolving social problems is also closely linked to a Brown Bag Lunch at the CNS I attended last week: Emile Bruneau spoke about “Putting Neuroscience to Work for Peace” in political conflicts. His research on the neuroscientific correlates of biases, irrationality, and related psychological impediments to peaceful coexistence is inspired by his personal experiences with intergroup conflicts. You can download my summary of his talk here.