A neurosurgeon of world-class reputation calls me. He’s been suffering from intractable headaches. Despite exhaustive medical workups, no physiological cause for them can be found. In desperation, he’s called for a psychological consultation—a last resort, in his view.
During our first appointment, he begins to describe his work. He’s passionate about it. He is already supremely successful. When heads of state need brain surgery, he’s flown into operate. His reputation rests not just on the brilliance of his technique but even more on his astonishing track record. He undertakes one dangerously life-threatening surgery after another, yet he tells me, humbly and with quiet gratitude, “I never seem to lose a patient.” He has a loving marriage and wonderful children. He can’t think of anything troubling him, no obvious subconscious source for the crippling headaches that are destroying his life.
I probe a little, looking for some hint of possible conflict, anxiety, or pain. He, on the other hand, keeps going back to his work, lighting up as he talks about it.
And then it occurs to me that he hasn’t mentioned doing any teaching, even though he’s on the staff of a big university hospital. So I ask: Does he teach residents? He looks away, suddenly silent. Finally, he speaks:
“No, I don’t teach at all anymore.”
“But you did? What happened?”
“I had to stop.”
“You had to?”
“Yes…I couldn’t keep it up…. But I miss it. I loved teaching. As much as surgery itself, I loved it…. But I had to stop….”
He falls silent again. Gently I probe further. Why did he have to stop? And then slowly, reluctantly, the surgeon tells me what he’s never told anyone. He can’t teach anymore because he doesn’t believe he can teach what he’s really doing. He tells me why his patients don’t die on him. As soon as he learns that someone needs surgery, he gets himself to the patient’s bedside. He sits at the patient’s head, sometimes for thirty seconds, sometimes for hours at a stretch. He waits—for something he couldn’t possible admit to surgery residents, much less teach. He waits for a distinctive white light to appear around his patient’s head. Until it appears, he knows it’s not safe to operate. Once it appears, he knows he can go ahead and the patient will survive.
How, he asks me, could he possibly reveal that? What would the residents think? They’d think he was crazy; maybe he is crazy. But crazy or not, he knows that seeing the white light is what saves his surgeries from disaster. So how can he teach and not talk about it? It’s a horrible dilemma. He’s adopted the only possible solution: he’s quit teaching.
And when did your headaches begin? I ask him. Startled, he looks up at me. It hits him and hits him hard.
“That’s interesting, he says. The headaches started two years ago. And I remember when I noticed the first one. It was the day I resigned from teaching, right after I told the dean.”
The neurosurgeon and his white light exemplify a conflict What happens when you have an anomalous experience, but you’re afraid to acknowledge it? If you admit to the experience, you run the risk of being disbelieved or thought crazy. It’s a profoundly destructive conflict, one that stops us as a society from looking for ways to discover and develop new knowledge. And one that stops us as individuals from embracing our reality.
— Elizabeth Mayer was a psychotherapist and professor of psychology at UC Berkeley