“The Doctor’s Art” is a weekly podcast that explores what makes medicine meaningful, featuring profiles and stories from clinicians, patients, educators, leaders, and others working in healthcare. Listen and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Google, Stitcher, and Podchaser.
What if we could scientifically prove that compassion improves our well-being, our cognitive function, our longevity, and societal welfare? Here to explore these questions is James Doty, MD, a neurosurgeon, inventor, entrepreneur, and writer. As the founding director of Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, he focuses on the neurobiological effects of meditation, compassion, and altruistic behavior.
His bestselling 2017 memoir, Into the Magic Shop, details his path from a troubled childhood to becoming an internationally renowned surgeon and philanthropist. He serves on the board of a number of nonprofit organizations, including as chairman of the Dalai Lama Foundation, and is on the International Advisory Board of the Council of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
In this episode, Doty joins Henry Bair and Tyler Johnson, MD, to discuss his unlikely journey to medicine and the incredible insights on compassion he has collected over the years.
In this episode, you will hear about:
- 2:10 Doty’s difficult childhood experiences and how the kindness of strangers pulled him to medicine
- 11:00 How Doty dealt with the fish-out-of-water experiences in medical school
- 17:30 A discussion of negative self-talk and how to overcome it
- 20:19 How Doty went from developing a neuroscience center in impoverished Mississippi to establishing an altruism research lab at Stanford University
- 26:06 A discussion of the eponymous incident of Doty’s book, Into the Magic Shop, and how it profoundly shifted his view on compassion
- 32:36 A review of some of the exciting findings of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
- 38:29 Reflections on how Doty practices compassion in his daily life
- 44:00 A brief discussion of the power of belief and how it shapes our reality
- 49:55 A discussion of how the dehumanizing bureaucracy and profiteering of the medical field is failing physicians
Following is a partial transcript (note errors are possible):
Bair: Dr. Doty, welcome to the show and thanks for being here.
Doty: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. And certainly anything to do with the Doctor’s Art, I’m interested in.
Bair: So, I want to start with your challenging upbringing, which you describe in vivid and often heartbreaking detail in your book, Into the Magic Shop. To set the stage for our listeners, can you tell us more about your childhood experiences?
Doty: So, I had a challenging background. My father was an alcoholic. He was a binge drinker. My mother had had a stroke when I was younger and was partially paralyzed, had a seizure disorder, and unfortunately was chronically depressed — actually had attempted suicide multiple times. We were on public assistance, and I’m sure you can appreciate that when a child grows up in those types of environments, without role models, without opportunities, without mentors, it’s really challenging.
Probably many of your listeners are aware of what we call adverse childhood experiences. And certainly these types of situations where you have drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, poverty, the more of those you have, if you will, the less likely it is that you will succeed in life by traditional standards. And, in fact, many children from these backgrounds themselves become alcoholics or drug abusers or have mental illness. So that was sort of my background. And, of course, as a result, I had a lot of feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Bair: Thank you so much for sharing that. So, how did you go from that upbringing to a career in medicine? How did you go from that to medical school and medical training after that?
Doty: Well, like so many of us, one experience can change the course of our lives. And for me, the way I got interested in medicine was that in my fourth grade class, it was career day. And we had a pediatrician visit and he was very empathetic and kind. And, in fact, I’m sure you’ve experienced, being the junior person, you can have two experiences. You can have one person who treats you as an equal, is nice to you, is compassionate, is kind. Or you can have somebody who is arrogant and narcissistic. And, as a result, of course, generally, you shy away from people like that.
In my case, though, this individual was the epitome of a physician: kind, compassionate, listened to you, empathic. And he made me feel comfortable asking him questions. And he very kindly answered them. And, in fact, afterwards, he went out of his way to talk to me. And I was so impressed by that, that at that moment, I decided to become a doctor.
For the full transcript, visit The Doctor’s Art.
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