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Training Caring Professionals

The role of love in psychology and medicine.

Key points

  • Current medical training emphasizes pathology with a focus on "not-health" and "not-love."
  • The segregation between our heart’s wisdom and objective knowledge may be obscuring our understanding of true healing.
  • Integrating training in "love as a healing force" may be one of the most pivotal shifts in accelerating healing in medicine and psychology.

Almost everyone would agree that the presence of a trusted, loving person is crucial when we are ill or when we feel vulnerable. Whenever I ask children under my care what was most important to them during their stay at the hospital, and they reply with unspoiled honesty, I hardly ever hear: “The drug you gave me, Doc, was truly efficient in killing the germs.” It is usually something like: “Nurse Tina holding my hand at night when my whole body was shivering,” or “I’m alive because Mum trusted in me when I felt like giving up.”

Superstar/Shutterstock
Source: Superstar/Shutterstock

So, what do we know about this sublime force that is so vital to all of us? The word “love” is used to describe multiple experiences. You may feel love for your partner or your child based on a long, familiar, and loyal relationship. You may experience “falling in love,” which is often associated with the intense emotions of romantic and sexual attraction. You may turn the love you feel for others towards yourself as “self-love.” You may experience another person as “deeply loving” and so recognize the symptoms of feeling loved.

Sometimes, we also refer to love as an inner state rather than a relational emotion. For example, during a psychedelic journey with psilocybin or MDMA, some subjects report that “everything disappeared, and only love remained.” Similar inner states are reported in near-death experiences and deep meditative states. We have realized that there is no universally accepted understanding of the nature of love. It’s rather like the West Coast of America in the 1700s: off-the-map, unexplored territory, which later turned out to be where all the gold was... as well as the best sunsets!

The way we understand love is fundamental to how we train doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. As a student in my youth and now as a professor of pediatrics, I’ve noticed that the courses taught in both medicine and psychology are generally about all kinds of pathologies. Consequently, clinicians easily recognize “not-health” and “not-love,” because this is what was (and still is) emphasized in our training. Such a bias means that love is increasingly marginalized in daily life.

That same bias is reflected in clinical research. Last year alone, studies about anxiety and depression exponentially outweighed scientific research into love. This is not by chance. Our analytic minds are geared to solving problems and the methods, drugs, or devices that can be built to solve these problems. That is where money can be made, and research generally follows funding.

There is another reason why we don’t explore love in a scholarly way. Love cannot yet be measured directly; it can only be inferred indirectly by measuring the signs and symptoms of those affected, which makes research challenging. Early attempts have fallen prey to the criticism of those who believe in established research methods that cannot capture the phenomenon effectively.

As a result of love being marginalized within medicine, many of my colleagues end up living double lives. For example, I know a great physician. Outside the hospital, his life is all about love: love of God, love of his spouse, friends, and family. But within the hospital, he is obliged to stay within the limits of what we can measure with our expensive machines.

Another friend of mine, a researcher, is a devout Buddhist practitioner. She practices “Metta,” or loving-kindness meditation, every day. But once she returns her attention to medical or psychiatric research in an academic context, love is not part of the conversation because it is not seen as a measurable force.

Love and Healing

This segregation between what we know deep in our hearts and what can be measured objectively may be exacting a heavy price on our understanding of real healing.

There is increasing evidence now that the prevalence of cynicism, frustration, burnout, and suicide is much lower in those health care professionals who engage in practices based on an understanding of love as a state of being. This state is not so much the byproduct of human thought and action but is pointing to an underlying generative field, which benefits those who open to and give attention to it.

This view of love as an independent generative field is reminiscent of ongoing progress in modern physics, which aims to substantiate Einstein’s early unified field theory—and much has been learned in this domain. While the scientific pursuit of exploring this hypothesis is underway, there is sufficient reason to train health care professionals in what is already proven to work well in clinical studies.

I’m curious to explore what the landscape might look like if medical schools included love in their curriculum.

For example, by the end of their training, students might:

  • Have access to loving care and know how to invite their patients into this safe space to promote healing
  • Appreciate the difference between a somatic cure and a more profound healing process related to a disease
  • Have learned to integrate methods of self-care as part of a necessary daily professional routine
  • Have learned to validate whether patients truly feel seen and heard
  • Know how to use their “heart” as a reliable and efficient diagnostic tool

References

I am eager to engage with others who find this topic compelling. If you are also interested in the impact of love in psychology and medicine, please reach out to me or Heart Based Medicine on social media. I would love to know your thoughts.

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