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Empathy is a core emotional competence according to Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and former psychology writer for the New York Times.  Empathy is essential for a doctor or nurse or social worker to deliver quality service to patients.

Here’s a CASE STUDY:

A 59 year old male patient had lung cancer. It was present in both of his lungs. He entered a clinical trial. The results were outstanding. The lung cancer seemed to disappear.

One day, he got very dizzy. He went to a large teaching hospital. He waited all day for a MRI of his head to rule out spread of the cancer to his brain. There was no spread to his brain but the MRI showed some atrophy ( shrinkage). This was upsetting to him.

He asked the resident doctor if this meant that he was going to get dementia. The resident responded that it didn’t matter anyways.

This isn’t a near miss. This is a mess. What’s wrong with this resident?


Our senior nurse case manager Linda Redhill heard about this and asked “what ever happened to bedside manner?”.

In selecting students for medical school, empathy should be a critical requirement. Doing calculous in your head will not likely help patients, but sharing an emotional understanding of the patient’s dilemma is essential.

So we are recommending to the medical school selection committees that they look and test for evidence of empathy in candidates rather than just the usual high marks that are relied on for selection.

In the context of studying the question of whether autism should be regarded as an “empathy disorder,” Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright therefore felt the need to develop a new questionnaire for measuring empathy. Their empathy questionnaire, called the empathy quotient (EQ), defines empathy as including a cognitive component—a “drive to attribute mental states to another person” and an affective component, entailing “an appropriate affective response in the observer to the other’s person’s mental state”. The EQ is not a perfect tool.

Help for devising new and more accurate empathy scales will also come from the neurosciences that have very recently begun to contribute to the study of empathy and have begun to investigate the underlying neuro-biological mechanisms of perspective taking (Decety and Jackson 2004).

Specifically, Gazzola, Aziz-Sadeh, and Keysers (2006) found that the auditory mirror circuits—that is, those circuits that are activated both in executing an action and while listening to sounds of similar actions—show stronger activation levels in individuals who have higher perspective taking scores in Davis’s IRI empathy testing questionnaire.

Lamm, Bateson, Decety (2007) found correlation between the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and activation in right putamen, the left posterior/middle insula, the anterior medial cingulate cortex and the left cerebellum.

Such correlations suggest that the empathy questionnaires do measure aspects that have been traditionally regarded to be central for empathy, like the ability of perspective taking.

Studying empathy from the perspective of the neurosciences might also help us to understand who should be granted the privilege of going to medical school.