The notion that your patients have a "soul" and that your treatments can touch or transform something less (or more) substantial than a neurotransmitter may sound, in the context of modern biomedical science, quaint today.
But author and psychotherapist Thomas Moore, Ph.D., believes the souls of patients in the care of modern medicine are in need of urgent attention. And so too, he says, are the souls of their doctors.
Moore is the bestselling author of The Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, the 1992 book that asserted that the greatest poverty in today's technologically triumphant culture is a lack of attention to the soul.
In a new work, Care of the Soul in Medicine, published this year by Hay House Publishers, Moore asserts that this soul-poverty extends to modern medicine.
In an interview with Psychiatric News, Moore said modern medical care has come to be dominated by a highly mechanistic philosophy deriving from the relatively recent 18th century while jettisoning a far more ancient wisdom about care of the soul that dates to the time of classical philosophers.
Much of his new book is focused on care of the soul in general-medical settings, especially in hospitals and in the care of the dying. But Moore said the message of his book should resonate with psychiatrists.
"I understand the field has become more biological," he said. "My sense is that people entering medicine today get this very intelligent, up-to-date training in biomedical science. And when I talk to psychiatrists about a spiritual approach to healing, it doesn't seem to them to have that intelligence behind it.
"But I would want psychiatrists to know there is a whole world of knowledge and wisdom outside the biological tradition that goes back several thousand years," Moore said. "They should give a philosophical and spiritual approach to the patients in their care another look, and they may find that it can be very substantive and would complement their biological work."
But what is the "soul," and how does one care for it?
The question itself invites speculation that has kept philosophers busy for centuries. But for the purpose of his book and his message to physicians, Moore speaks of the soul as where one cradles the meaning of one's relationships and memories, the sense of mystery about one's own life, and one's understanding of the meaning of illness and death.
To care for the soul in medicine then would be to adopt practices that seek not just the "cure" of disorders, but care for and attention to patients' significant relationships, poignant memories, spiritual quests and interests, as well as their understanding of their illness. Such an approach, he believes, calls for changes in the way doctors are trained and in the way they approach their patients, but it also entails a transformation of the settings in which care is provided to include incorporation of nature, art, and music into the architecture of hospitals and doctors' offices.
His remedies for what ails modern medicine may seem to some either quixotic or "unscientific" (or even "antiscientific"), but his thoughts echo those of such respected thinkers as biomedical ethicist Daniel Callahan, Ph.D., who has written extensively of the need to return to "caring over curing."
"You don't have to talk too long to patients and their families, as well as doctors and nurses, before they express a common feeling that contemporary medicine, for all its technological virtuosity, lacks something," he said. "Patients and families will talk about how the medical establishment is just so huge and they feel like a piece of machinery. When I tell them about how images and architecture can transform a healing environment—about how the way a hospital room looks and feels can be a part of healing—they are a little surprised, but they know what I am saying. So I seem to be giving people a language for talking about things they know intuitively."
Moore is careful not to be critical of physicians—"they get enough criticism," he said—and noted that after the success of his 1992 book, it was the medical establishment that came to him. As part of his research for the book, he was invited to spend two days each month over a two-year period at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn.
"When I first wrote Care of the Soul, I didn't have medicine in mind at all," Moore said. "But I began getting invitations to talk at medical schools, and right up to the present time I have been visiting medical schools, hospitals, and cancer wards all over the country and in Ireland."
What does Moore, an admirer of Carl Jung (but he is not, he said, a Jungian), think of the widespread use of pharmacologic agents to treat psychiatric disorders?
"It's a complicated issue, and I have nothing against the use of pharmacologic treatments in conjunction with other approaches," he said. "But I think it goes hand in hand with the prevailing philosophy of our time that is based on treating people as mechanical systems. If you see the brain as a collection of neurochemicals, you are going to use chemicals to treat people.
"That's the underlying mythology of our time. It is useful as far as it goes, but I think it leaves much to be desired and ignores a vast trove of wisdom about the soul that predates the 20th century."
His recommendations for reform seem to require changes in a medical system that is itself vast and unwieldy. But Moore believes that even small changes—beginning with the attitude clinicians bring to a patient encounter—can be transformative, even of a 15-minute med check.
"I think psychiatrists would find their work so much more pleasurable and fulfilling if they could reach past the prevalent biological view of a human being and enjoy the complexity of human life," Moore said. "They could allow themselves to be instructed by the arts, by fiction and drama, painting and music and allow those to inform their practice. It would humanize their work so that they would have a warmer and more fulfilling experience in a context that would be incredibly rich, even if they only had 15 minutes."
It's not the amount of time spent with a patient that's key, he said. "I can spend 50 minutes with a patient and it seems like nothing. It's where you are coming from that makes the difference."