The Empathy Ray

Some of my friends have had a very hard time with mental health issues. They struggle to find help and compassion, and often can’t get any from the very people who are supposed to be helping them, those in the mental health profession.

Now I know this is a terribly difficult problem, and I also know that mental health issues have a wider array of more effective treatments than they ever have had before, but rare indeed is a system that can bear no improvement.

Something must be done about the notion of “clinical distance”  at least as it is taken by many in the practice of mental health. While clinical distance is healthy for many reasons, I have heard, just in passing, at least twenty stories of therapists, psychiatrists, and other practitioners who use this concept to treat their patients as if they were radioactive, as if direct exposure to mentally ill patients would cause the practitioners damage. While I completely understand the need for this distance, these practitioners have often have lots of people to help and they also need to have a personal life outside of their work, It can often leave patients feeling like freaks, or objects: something less than a breathing, suffering human being.

What is missing in this equation? I believe it’s empathy, the ability of a practitioner to really understand what the patient is going through. Real empathy allows people to maintain a certain distance, but also share enough to allow for mutual understanding. Please imagine two people have been through a similar trauma. One, person A, is a mental health practitioner; the other, person B is not. Person B comes to person A for help:

“Help me doctor” says person B.

“What brings you to see me?” says person A.

“I got back from Iraq okay, so I can’t quite explain it. Every time I hear a loud bang I just can’t handle it.”

“Hmm, do you feel panicked, like your breath speeds up, and like you just want to lash out as something, but you can’t quite figure out what it is?”

“Yes! That’s it exactly!”

“I know how that feels, I had a trauma in my past too, and I am so sorry for what you are going through.”

Now I know this example is pat, but in so many cases I have heard of, even this level of understanding and sympathy is never expressed. I believe this is either due to the fact that practitioners either have no idea what their patients are going through, or, if they do, clinical distance keeps them from expressing sympathy. There would be no way for the doctor to open the door of understanding without a huge flood of personal date entering the session. In such sessions, the roles of patient and doctor could very quickly be reversed.

To amend this system, I have envisioned the Empathy Ray. What the ray would do is scan the patient’s brain and generate a profile of how they felt at a certain time. Let’s say, when they were depressed.  This profile could then be scanned into a computer that would generate the correct array of magnetic impulses to allow the doctor to feel what the patient was feeling. In this way, the patient could know that the doctor really understood their symptoms, and the doctor could empathize with the patient while maintaining a healthy clinical distance.

“Pure fantasy,” some might say, but this ray is based on two already existent technologies, so it is not as farfetched as many may think. The two technologies I am thinking of are the SPECT scan already successfully used by the Amen clinics to diagnose and treat mental illness by providing images of blood circulation in the brain, and Michael Persinger’s electromagnetic array, often referred to as the “God Helmet.” I first heard about Persinger’s array in the wonderful book Spook by Mary Roach. This helmet can induce states of altered consciousness akin to religious or near-death experiences.

More information may be found here:

The SPECT scan:

The “God Helmet”






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