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Understanding Empathy: Perspectives from the Humanities and Health Care

A UNC-Chapel Hill Based Collaborative Inquiry

Professor Jane F. Thrailkill convened an interdisciplinary group of UNC faculty, staff, and students to investigate how different disciplines approach empathy. Professor Thrailkill began her study of empathy in medical education with her keynote address at the 2016 CHCI Medical and Health Humanities Network meeting at King’s College, London. The video below captures a version of the talk that she presented to the Duke Health Humanities Lab later that year. She has since been awarded a fellowship at the National Humanities Center (2021-2022) to continue her examination of the commodification of affect in twenty-first-century medical training and contributed a keyword essay on empathy to the forthcoming Keywords for Health Humanities, edited by Sari Altschuler, Jonathan Metzl, and Priscilla Wald.

Our Cross-Campus Group

A Care-Centered Concept

Covid times have re-centered questions of care. Dr. Anthony Fauci urged graduates in 2020, “Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another.” He modeled just such care when he said, “I am profoundly aware that graduating during this time and in this virtual way — unable to celebrate in person this important milestone in your lives with your friends, classmates and teachers — is extremely difficult. I deeply empathize with the situation in which you find yourselves” (MPR 5/24/20).

Human beings survive, and thrive, through our attachments to others. Empathy names the capacity to reach outward from the self and grasp the thoughts and feelings of another—a connection that lessens distance, difference, and detachment. Empathy in action can involve powerful feelings of identification, imagination, and care. Moreover, as the New York Times reports, it is a timely subject: “Empathy has had a hot ride in America lately. The word saw a nearly fivefold increase as a Google search between the first inauguration of Barack Obama — who defined empathy as being able to “stand in someone else’s shoes” and famously talked of and famously talked of America’s ‘empathy deficit’—and the summer of 2020, when interest spiked to an all-time high” (NYT 12/14/21).

Some Preliminary Questions

Despite its prominence in popular culture, and its celebrated status in healthcare and health provider education, empathy is rarely invoked without a sense of its scarcity, limitations, or elusiveness as a concept. What is empathy, after all? Is it thinking, feeling, doing—or a confluence thereof? Is it a neurobiological response, a moral sensibility, an inborn social sense? Can it be cultivated, developed through practice, perhaps even taught as a core competence? Is it something one “has,” and therefore could “lose”? A recent title encapsulates many of these tensions: Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered.

For those concerned with cultural diversity, social determinants of health, and health equity in the United States, the question arises: does talk about empathy risk being too individualistic, or alternately, too universalist? Might providers overgeneralize from a singular patient to a group? Given that emotional expressions of care differ cross-culturally, what challenges arise when health care providers strive to show care through particular ‘empathy’ practices?  Might talk about empathy in healthcare be too geo-politically bound to one country, culture, language, or healing system?

What about population-level and systemic issues, such as the need for health justice and for minoritized people to have access to equitable care and choice in decisions about their care? Could empathy be part of the conversation about reforms of a system that overtaxes providers, underserves some communities, and has a history of structural inequities?

A Multidisciplinary Approach

Empathy has been an enticing subject for scholars from a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and literary study to neuroscience and psychology. As the psychologist Mark H. Davis has noted, “one reason it is difficult to get a good handle on empathy is that it has so many handles.”

We see the many handles not as a problem but as an asset. Currently, no volume brings together perspectives from across the humanities and health sciences to understand this highly valued concept as it is brought to bear in practical terms on the pressing questions of human health, wellbeing, and flourishing.

We propose therefore to put to use the “many handles” provided by different disciplinary perspectives to understand empathy in the contexts of caring and health.

Our Concrete Goals

In the fall of 2022, we will hold a community symposium, potentially partnering with UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities and other centers. Our ultimate goal is to create an edited collection of essays that helps to define empathy for students, faculty, and practitioners while also addressing the tensions involved in translating this hopeful, multi-faceted concept into meaningful practice. This project aims to strengthen medical practitioners’ critical thinking and reflexive analyses through the tools of medical humanities and medical anthropology. We are in touch with UNC Press about possible publication.

A Four-Stage Process

Discussing: This collaboration brings together 12-14 UNC researchers from a range of fields of study to investigate and discuss empathy in the contexts of caring and health. This preliminary work will take place over the course of six monthly meetings from January to June, 2022.

Writing/Workshopping: Rather than commissioning a series of articles, we propose a collaborative, meeting-based approach that uses a) structured conversations to build bridges across disciplines and b) peer-editing to support the evolution of each participant’s written contribution. We imagine this process will kindle understanding of participants’ experiences, fields of study, and developing vision(s) of empathy.

Symposium: At a two-day symposium open to the community in the fall of 2022, we will present our works in progress and further discuss and sharpen our written reflections.

Publishing: We aspire to have a draft volume edited and presented to the press by January, 2023.

Jane Thrailkill’s “Empathetics, Inc.” Lecture