Psychiatry is a medical specialty. In the quiver of arrows we psychiatrists use to defeat depression and panic disorder and a host of afflictions, we have powerful and effective medications. We must screen for metabolic abnormalities that can affect mood. And we can sometimes find clues to our patients' suffering by looking through windows opened by technology-like MRIs and PET (positron emission tomography) scans.
In my nearly twenty years of practice, however, I have concluded that the most important therapeutic tool I wield is empathy. In order to unearth the core psychological troubles my patients' grapple with (sometimes unconsciously) I have to use my intuition to follow clues to their most closely held thoughts, memories and feelings. I have to feel some of what they feel.
I know words like "empathy" and "intuition" don't sound very technological. And that's because they're not. In fact, I don't believe that these very human and very powerful interpersonal forces will ever be explained neurologically or pharmacologically. I don't think we could take a brain apart, cell-by-cell, and find the location of empathy or intuition. Yet, I rely on both to heal my patients.
We don't talk that much about empathy (or intuition) in our society, but I believe it is the single most important quality that distinguishes us from other species. Empathy allows us to "put ourselves in the place" of others-even to the extent of crying over their plights. It is a main ingredient in love. And it is a major impediment to making others suffer. Why? Because we can feelfor them.
Since empathy can't be found under an electron microscope or on a PET scan, I consider it some of the best evidence available for the existence of the soul. Empathy is-the way I now think about it-nothing short of miraculous. And this means that my healing technique relies on tapping into spiritual forces as much as it relies on using medical discoveries. It means that the heart of psychiatry is rooted as much in the power of belief, as the power of knowledge. I see no conflict in the way those roots of psychiatry intertwine. And I would welcome more effort from institutions like the National Institute of Mental Health to learn how to empower psychiatrists and psychologists and other therapists to tap into and hone their inexplicable, empathetic and intuitive skills.
I'm comfortable that the prescriptions I write and the miraculous connections I am privileged to form with patients are both from one infinite source of knowledge and spirit that we human beings rely on when we seek hope, healing and understanding.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.