Learning to Listen: Empathy in Literature and Medicine

Learning to Listen: Empathy in Literature and Medicine
2012 to 2013
Emerging Networks

Empathy, or the ability to understand and participate deeply in another person’s experience, is considered a critical skill for physicians, both for clinical competence and for patient (and physician) satisfaction.  Yet over the course of traditional medical education, medical students often show a decline in empathy. That same ability to understand and participate in the experience of others is seen as an essential skill for writers and readers of literary texts, a sign of authorial talent and reader satisfaction. 

A series of workshops will explore the way the footprint of the humanities might be expanded by taking account of the efficacy of literature outside of the literature classroom, particularly in the teaching and understanding of empathy in clinical contexts. The workshops will suggest new avenues of inquiry for both literary and medical studies, and forge closer links between humanities scholars and medical educators. Hearing physicians talk about how literature is important within medicine will help students understand another aspect of the value of books and decrease the potential isolation of discussing literature only in terms of its scholarly value.  Conversely, literary scholars will be able to introduce historical and aesthetic contexts that might prove valuable in clinical contexts.  

The workshops will both investigate the conditions that erode empathy in future health professionals, and provide a space in which those conditions might be offset for students themselves. Overall, the workshops will make a case for why the study of literature--and perhaps the humanities in general—is not simply a matter of scholarly interest, but something that can make a real impact on lived experience.

The workshops will bring medical students and undergraduates together as mentors and mentees.  

The faculty conveners will be learning from other "Humanities in Medicine" programs as they consider whether these workshops will evolve into the foundation of a regular course.


Doris Iarovici
Psychiatrist, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
Charlotte S. Sussman
Associate Professor of English
Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English