Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Insights From “A Whole New Mind”


Daniel Pink's "A Whole New Mind" highlights the importance of cultivating empathy, humor, and the ability to create meaning.

An ardent fan of Daniel Pink, I dove into one of his first books, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,” (2006). Pink’s works reflect his unique world view, making unlikely associations in what seems to be a chaotic world.


In “A Whole New Mind,” Pink makes the case that right brain attributes (intuitive and holistic) are the inevitable need of the future, especially since most of modern history has been dominated by left brain traits (the logical and analytical). These latter traits have spawned abundance for humans (satisfying material needs and accentuating our search for meaning), have contributed to the rise of Asia (where many left brain jobs have moved to), and automation.


I could not help but think of parallels in medicine while I read. Perhaps we will be able to find some sort of balance between right and left brain attributes as we foray into the future. Ideas that Pink’s book highlighted and that apply to medicine include:


1.) Design: It is no longer sufficient to have mere functionality when it comes to a product, service, or experience. It also needs to evoke a feeling of engagement and wonder. Medicine is beginning to recognize that better design of hospital environment correlates with enhanced patient metrics. For example, in a study at Pittsburgh’s Montefiore hospital, surgery patients in rooms with ample natural light required less pain medication, and their drug costs were 21% lower than their counterparts in traditional rooms.


2.) Story: Our memories of complex events usually take the shape of a story. However, Jack Coulehan, MD, Stony Brook University Hospital, in a piece in Newsday, captures a sentiment that often prevails in medicine, “Unfortunately, medicine sees anecdote as the lowest form of science.” However, this trend is undergoing massive change – fifteen years ago, about one out of three American medical schools offered humanities courses and today, three out of four do.


3.) Symphony: The ability to have a view of the forest, rather than the trees. To be geared towards synthesis, rather than only analysis. With our complex patient population, being able to synthesize cannot be overemphasized. In “Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman wrote that there is one cognitive ability that discerns high performers from average –  pattern recognition.


4.) Empathy: This quality forges understanding and connects us together as a species. It is also one of the founding pillars of medicine. Jefferson Medical College has even developed a measure of this aptitude – the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE). High scores on this scale commensurate with better clinical care and have no relation to scores on the MCAT or licensing tests. Importantly, nurses had higher scores than physicians within hospital-based specialties.


5.) Play: In our go-getter environment, play is often the first casualty. Pink says that play has three components – games, humor, and joyfulness, and backs them up with ample evidence to support their enormous impact on improving our work lives. At the Virtual Reality Medical Center, San Diego, California, therapists are treating phobias and other anxiety disorders with video games that simulate driving, flying, heights, tight spaces, and other fear-inducing situations. With regards to humor, Fabio Sala in the Harvard Business Review, writes that if used skillfully, humor, “reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages.” Laughter can decrease stress hormones and boost the immune system, with burgeoning support for its analgesic properties.


6.) Meaning: We have an innate, often unconscious, sense to find purpose and meaning in our lives. Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl put this eloquently, “Man’s concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather see meaning in his life.” This pursuit tends not only to our spiritual wellbeing, but also our health. Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that attending religious services cut people’s risk of death from heart disease, suicide, and some cancers.


If we can weave all these together and integrate them as a whole, we will improve not only our lives, but also those of our patients.