Psychiatry and neurology, more


Dr. Nasrallah’s “Psychiatry and neurology: Sister neuroscience specialties with different approaches to the brain” (From the Editor, Current Psychiatry, March 2019, p. 4-5, 8), which explored the distinctions and commonalities between neurology and psychiatry, was important and timely. It was particularly worthwhile to discuss with my medical students the accompanying Table, to better answer the question, “What is the difference between these fields?” However, I believe a critical component of this discussion wasn’t mentioned: the transcendent nature of psychiatry, addressing the full complexity of the human experience beyond the clinical milieu.

In mathematics, chaos theory deals with the impossible complexity of simplicity. From primitive initial states, self-interacting systems give rise to short-term predictability, but an unpredictable long-term. Classically, this is illustrated as a hurricane born from the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. Neurology has found great clinical utility in understanding butterfly wings. However, psychiatry forsakes simplicity for complexity: it dives into the emergent systems that arise from self-interacting neurons, asking us to stand within the eye of the hurricane and understand it in its entirety. Psychiatry asks us to transcend the traditional medical focus of discrete physiological mechanisms, and ask—from the standpoint of biologic, social, and spiritual well-being—how can we calm the hurricane?

Psychiatry once had a widely-encompassing understanding of its remit: to appreciate the multifaceted experience of the human life and grant succor to the fractured or anguished soul. In such times, psychiatry was a popular destination for seniors graduating in the United States. Annually, 7% to 10% of US graduates chose psychiatry as a career, and continued to do so until the late 1970s.1 In the 1970s, the reductive understanding of the mind increased in prominence, and the role of psychiatry transitioned to one similar to that of other medical specialties: putting patients in boxes, and chronically titrating their medications. The interest of graduating seniors waned alongside the scope of our interest: in 1977, only 4.4% of US graduates pursued psychiatry.2 In 2019, 4.06% of graduating senior applications were to the field of psychiatry.3 (This is not meant to undervalue the quality of international medical graduates, but to focus on local trends in cultural values.)

Psychiatry offers diagnostic and therapeutic avenues that are traditionally undervalued in other fields of medicine. Nephrosis may not care if a patient feels that his or her life is spiritually satisfying and their actions meaningful. However, a patient’s anguish at his reduced functional status does not care for whether his albumin level is normalized—he requires that his suffering be recognized, and that we make an earnest effort to cloak “the shameful nakedness of pain.”4

Psychiatry also makes unique demands of, and offers benefits to, the practitioner. Neurologists complete their residencies feeling that their clinical acumen has increased: “I can formulate a thorough differential now.” Psychiatry asks us not only to cultivate technical proficiency, but also wisdom. The prolonged reflection on the quality and nature of human experience, and the need to guide such patients in a manner far wider and more meaningful in scope than their serotonin pathways, offers the opportunity to emerge from residency a more mindful and grateful human being.

Ultimately, the loss of this sense of scope has not been a failure of medical education. It has been a surrender of the current generation of psychiatry attendings. We have ceded responsibility for the social and spiritual care of our patients to other fields, or to no one at all. If we give up on understanding the hurricane, how can we be surprised that students prefer to chase butterflies?

James Steinberg, MPH, OMS-IV
New York Institute of Technology
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Old Westbury, New York

Robert Barris, MD
Inpatient Psychiatric Services
Nassau University Medical Center
East Meadow, New York

1. Sierles FS, Taylor MA. Decline of U.S. medical student career choice of psychiatry and what to do about it. Am J Psychiatry. 1995;152(10):1416-1426.
2. Results and data: main residency match. NRMP data. The National Resident Matching Program. Published May 1984. Accessed May 8, 2019.
3. Advanced Data Tables. The Match 2019. The National Resident Matching Program. Published March 2019. Accessed May 8, 2019.
4. Kipling R. Doctors. In: Kipling: poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series). New York, NY: Random House. 2007:234.

Dr. Nasrallah responds

Thank you, Mr. Steinberg and Dr. Barris, for your comments about my editorial. I genuinely enjoyed the eloquence of your letter. In computers, which we all own and use, hardware is indispensable because it enables us to exploit the software, but the richness of the software is far more interesting than the hardware for the creative productivity of humans. So what you say is correct: The brain is the tangible hardware, and the transcendent mind is the splendid software that encompasses all that makes us human, such as thought, affect, cognition, and behavior. I certainly hope that the psychiatry training programs never reduce the practice of psychiatry to prescribing pills to suppress symptoms. Our patients with psychiatric illness deserve much more than that, and you obviously understand that. But just as neurology should not be mindless, psychiatry should not be brainless. Both specialties are 2 sides of the glorious discipline of neuroscience. By the way, I am pleased and proud to tell you that 13% of the graduating medical school seniors at our university have chosen psychiatry as a career.

Henry A. Nasrallah, MD
The Sydney W. Souers Endowed Chair
Professor and Chairman
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience
Saint Louis University School of Medicine
St. Louis, Missouri

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