Sophomore Seminars

Literature, Medicine, and Empathy


In recent years, there has been a groundswell of interest in empathy as a key competency of the emotionally intelligent and a primary motivator of moral behavior. But what is empathy, exactly? This seminar will seek to find out, exploring the concept through the lens of literature and medicine.

Reading novels and exploring the philosophical beginnings of the term 'empathy,' we will learn about the range of ways in which human beings have attempted to know and understand the other. Guided by research studies and our own experience, we will explore the critical question of whether empathy really does lead to altruism. We will consider why it can be so hard for human beings to walk in another's shoes, and why we so often fail to do so. Through memoirs of suffering, we will learn about empathy in medicine and about what the latest studies in biology and neuroscience can teach us about how we relate to each other. Lastly, we will explore the dangers and limitations of empathy, reading scholarly articles and discussing the role of empathy in life and society.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Lloyd B. Minor, MD

Lloyd B. Minor became the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine on December 1, 2012. He is a professor of otolaryngological head and neck surgery and a professor of bioengineering and of neurobiology, by courtesy, at Stanford. Dr. Minor has led the development of an innovative model for cancer research and patient care delivery at Stanford Medicine and, with other faculty, launched the precision health initiative. His scientific and medical advances have focused on the physiology and disorders of the balance system. In the medical community, he is perhaps best known for his discovery of superior canal dehiscence syndrome, a debilitating disorder characterized by sound- or pressure-induced dizziness.

Jane Shaw

Professor Shaw works on the history of modern Christianity, with a particular focus on Britain and the U.S. She is especially interested in the impact of lived religion (or religious practice) on intellectual history, which she explored in her book Miracles in Enlightenment England (Yale 2006). Her more recent work is on the late 19th and early 20th century and explores the relationship between gender, modernity and religion. In 2001, she discovered the archives of a millenarian group that had flourished in 1920s and '30s Britain; that research led to her book Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers (Yale 2011), which won the San Francisco Book Festival History Prize. She is currently writing about the revival of interest in mysticism in the early 20th century, and its relationship to the flight from institutional religion in that period. She is also working on a project on empathy, the arts, and social change, with the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.