Doctors' Never-Ending Battle: Emotion vs Reason

Greg A. Hood, MD


February 26, 2015

Emotion vs Reason (or, Terran vs Vulcan)

The inner conflict between rationality and emotionality is a constant source of stress for physicians. Physicians often have to help patients make what could be a life-altering decision. The balancing act between scholarly research and statistics vs experience and gut instinct is the essence of the art of the practice of medicine.

From the beginnings of their career paths, physicians are taught to think rationally. There may, particularly with US medical school selection criteria, be a predilection for candidates whose thought balance leans more naturally to the rational than the emotional.

However, it's of course true that none of us are machines. Nor are we from the fictional planet Vulcan, where guys like Mr Spock managed to raise the repression of emotion to a high art form. Could it be, similar to the "Mars vs Venus" argument that highlighted the differences in thought processing between men and women, that at times it seems as if physicians and patients come from different planets?

The more earthly predisposed, this paradigm would say, allow emotional impulses to rule one's conclusions and actions. Meanwhile, the more Vulcan among us would assert that reason and rationality command one's decisions and plans. Even they, however, would have to concede that no one is purely controlled by reason—the absence of pointy ears not withstanding.

Seeing as all decision-making, even medical decision-making, is a blend of the impulsive and the methodical, which one should predominate? And what's the best way to integrate them?

The Value of Reason

Reason—the ability to perceive, measure, and integrate the world's elements (physical or theoretical) by one's sense and senses—is a tool of the mind, of cognition. In short, reason allows us to make sense of the world around us.

Emotion, on the other hand, is a blend of psychological and physical responses by which one's general estimation of one's self is measured against the thing eliciting the emotional response. It's an immediate, subconscious judgment evoked from one's reactions and reflexes, as well as one's values, state of mind, and past experiences.

There can be "love at first sight" because there's an automatic, emotional, psychological reflex response. There can't, however, be "reason at first sight," because thoughts must be processed through reasoning. Whether you value reason more highly than emotion, or vice versa, is a matter of value judgment, upbringing, education, and personal choice.


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