The listening healer in the history of psychological healing

Am J Psychiatry. 1992 Dec;149(12):1623-32. doi: 10.1176/ajp.149.12.1623.


Objective: The purpose of this paper is the assessment of the healer's listening as an aspect of the history of caring and curing, with particular attention to its place in psychological healing.

Method: An extensive range of philosophical, religious, and medical sources from antiquity to the present were studied.

Results: Over the centuries, listening has been a crucial aspect of the various endeavors undertaken by healers in the interest of acquiring information from, achieving understanding of, and bringing about healing effects for sufferers. Yet it has been vision rather than hearing that has been emphasized in knowing and understanding, and looking rather than listening that has been emphasized in healing endeavors. Only around the turn of the twentieth century did there emerge the focused study of care in listening, of listening beyond the words themselves, and of the significance of the interested listener as a soothing, empathic force.

Conclusions: The place of listening in depth and with empathy is a crucial element in healing. While the emphasis on looking remains significant in the gathering and appraisal of data, at times it threatens to overwhelm the need for an attentive and concerned listener. There appears to be a natural tension between the two modes that has, in modern times, been translated into a tension between the two modes that has, in modern times, been translated into a tension between a scientific mode of gaining information and a humanistic mode of knowing sufferers. A healer neglects either one at his or her peril--and at the peril of his or her patients.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Auditory Perception*
  • Child
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Person-Centered Psychotherapy
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Psychiatry / history
  • Psychoanalysis / history
  • Psychoanalytic Therapy
  • Psychotherapy* / history