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Biology Info on Mental Illnesses can Reduce Doctors’ Empathy Levels

Update Date: Dec 01, 2014 03:09 PM EST

In order to more effectively treat mental illnesses, researchers have studied the biology behind these disorders. Even though understanding how mental illnesses and their symptoms manifest, a new study is reporting that knowing too much about the biology of a condition can make doctors less empathetic.

"Biological explanations are like a double-edged sword," said lead author of the study, Matthew Lebowitz, a Yale graduate student in psychology, reported in the press release. "They tend to make patients appear less blameworthy but the overemphasis on biology to explain psychopathology can be dehumanizing by reducing people to mere biological mechanisms."

For this study, the research team from Yale University set out to test whether or not biological explanations for mental health diseases can increase doctors' compassion toward their mentally ill patients. The researchers conducted a series of studies in which clinicians read about the biological causes of psychiatric symptoms seen in their mental health patients. The explanations informed the clinicians about how genes and brain cells can cause certain symptoms.

After reading the biological explanations, the researchers assessed the clinicians' empathy and compassion. They found that contrary to popular belief, clinicians became progressively less empathetic toward their patients the more they learned about the biological causes of the illnesses. Even though the team did not identify why this trend occurred, they reasoned that learning about the biological causes behind diseases can dehumanize patients, leading to lower levels of compassion and empathy.

"We're certainly not saying that people should ignore biological factors when studying mental disorders, but it's crucial to understand biology as something that's part of all human experience, rather than something that separates so-called mentally ill people from everyone else," said co-author of the study, Woo-kyoung Ahn, professor of psychology.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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