Between stimulus and response – part 4

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qandaIn conversation with DR JAMES R DOTY


In the earlier parts of this interview, DR DOTY explored the evolutionary advantage of compassion, aspects of human behavior that relate to compassion and collective social issues, and shared some cherished memories of the remarkable woman who gave him a helping hand up when he was a boy. In Part 4, Dr Doty talks about how he was able to develop compassion and its impact in his work as a neurosurgeon.


Q: I’d like to hear about being a surgeon. It seems so foreign to me, to regularly have such tremendous responsibility for someone’s life. How has Mindfulness affected you as a brain surgeon, in being able to be calm in stressful situations?

JD: I’m a neurosurgeon and the nature of my job requires a high level of training and technological sophistication. Interestingly, though, what I tell our students and residents is that while that may be true, the successes that I have with patients are equally touched by caring and compassion. And this has nothing to do with using a scalpel. This has to do with being present for someone and being there for them. In so many situations this is profoundly helpful for individuals because it changes the dynamic.

When people come to a doctor or neurosurgeon, many times this is the most important thing happening to them or their family and to us it’s routine. And to dismiss it as such is really horrible. To be present even though we’re doing something routine and standard to us is very, very important because it leads to this sense of calmness and the sense that they’re really being cared for. Again it shifts them from engaging their sympathetic nervous system associated with fear and anxiousness to one of calmness, and this actually promotes wound healing and also improves their physiologic state. We know that certain types of stress, such as profound acute stress, can lead to sudden cardiac death. So those types of compassionate interactions are important.


When you have a sense of calm about yourself
and what you’re doing, and you don’t panic under stress,
you are able to do much, much better …
it is the cultivation of positive emotional states
that we can do with certain types of mental practices.


Remember that a neurosurgeon’s training is seven years after medical school. In the context of what I do, and this has evolved over time, I try to function with a calmness and a lightness of spirit that allows me, when something bad happens, not to respond in a negative way. You hear of surgeons who throw instruments and blame others. First of all, my first response if anything happens is: until proven otherwise it’s my fault. This limits me screaming at people. And I don’t do that, of course. When you’re calm and you don’t engage your fear response when unexpected events occur, your executive control function in your frontal area works at its best and this is associated with clear decision making, creativity and being more productive.

When you have a sense of calm about yourself and what you’re doing, and you don’t panic under stress, you are able to do much, much better. This is true whether or not you are a neurosurgeon and in all parts of your life. Negative thoughts and negative emotional states don’t benefit anybody. And it is the cultivation of positive emotional states that we can do with certain types of mental practices.


Read the complete article in Volume 2, Issue 3

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Interviewed by JOHN MALKIN


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Dr James Doty

About Dr James Doty

Dr Doty is the author of Into The Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart (Avery, 2016) and is co-founder of the Center for Compassion & Altruism Research & Education (CCARE) at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, USA.

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