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Posted: September 08, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

Innovative Medical and Mental Advances to Think About


Monks and Mormons Lead Way to Happiness

By Jill Neimark

Scientists studying mental health have their eye on monks and Mormons, for the two groups may have revealed a common pathway to better health: the cultivation of compassion.

In a study in the December 2005 Annals of Behavioral Medicine, psychologist Patrick R. Steffen of Brigham Young University in Utah concludes that high levels of compassion may be the "secret" ingredient that accounts for self-reports of greater well-being among Mormon churchgoers.

Scientists had already made a similar discovery in the case of Buddhist monks: in a 2004 study, psychologist Richard Davidson used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of eight Tibetan Buddhist monks and 10 college students. The monks, whose meditation practices center on cultivating compassion for all living creatures, showed significantly heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the seat of positive emotions. They also had lowered activity in the right prefrontal cortex, which is often linked to anxiety and negative emotions.

For the 2005 study, Steffen recruited 441 Mormon churchgoers from the university and the community. There were three groups: those who went to church once a month, once a week, and twice a week or more. Using questionnaires and tools that are widely relied on to measure stress, spirituality, and depression, Steffen found that those who went to church most often also had the highest levels of compassion, and reported the highest levels of well-being.

Social support "seemed to be correlated with well-being until we controlled for compassion, and then the effect disappeared. So it's the compassion that buffers against depression. This is just a beginning step," notes Steffen. "We're going to work with universities to study a random sampling of folks, not just churchgoers. I don't think you have to be religious to be highly compassionate -- I know many atheists who are very giving. I do think compassion represents a potential pathway to better health, and perhaps eventually we will be able to show people how to cultivate it."

In their famous work on gratitude, psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of California and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami showed that by keeping gratitude journals, individuals could significantly increase their well-being. Patrick Steffen hopes that soon we will be able to offer folks similar "compassion interventions" -- a protocol for small acts of giving they can perform daily that will help improve mood and happiness.


New Docs Diagnosing from Fine Paintings

By Susan Maas

Eight medical students stand motionless in front of a nineteenth-century painting, silently absorbing its details. "The old man is sick," one student finally says.

"What do you see that makes you say that he's an old man, and that he's sick?" asks Diana Johnson, manager of teacher resources at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "His hair is sparse and gray," the student answers. "He's paler than the other man. His eyes are partially shut, and he looks like he's being supported."

Some other students conjecture that the younger man in the picture is a physician. He holds a glass and seems to be coaxing the older man to drink from it. The red color of the liquid in the glass suggests health, and echoes the hue of the elder's blanket to contrast with the dark, drab background. The painting is Goya's Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, but the students won't learn that until after they have discussed the work.

An article by Johnson about visual thinking strategies (VTS) insspired the University of Minnesota family physician and assistant professor Jon Hallberg, M.D., to bring medical students to the museum. Developed by a psychologist and an art educator at New York City's Museum of Modern Art in the 1980s and used in a program at Yale University, VTS sharpens visual observation, which is critical to communication with patients.

The technique, originally developed for grade school students, encourages viewers to look deeply at a work of art, then discuss what they think the work depicts.

Hallberg intended to invite a few first-year medical students to the voluntary, non-credit museum outing, but the response was so great that Johnson had to give six hour-long tours for a dozen students each.

Medical student Elizabeth Ross believes the experience will make her a more perceptive clinician. "Looking at ways people convey feeling and emotion without words can help us 'read' our patients better," she says. Cesar E. Ercole noted that Johnson's role mirrors that of a physician talking with a patient: "Open-ended questions and clarification questions, echoing, and summarizing . . . It was interesting to compare her interactions with us to what we learned to do with our patients."

Although no major studies have examined whether VTS makes medical students become better observers, the 30 students in the program at Yale were better at observing and describing the visual attributes of a portrait in a test afterward than were a control group.

Hallberg values the endeavor as an entertaining and thought-provoking break from the exhausting routine of medical school, but he learned from the experience, too. Now he eagerly awaits the arrival of the Journal of the American Medical Association each week to ponder the artwork on the cover: "In this one hour, Diana taught me to look at art differently."

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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