Big Ears in Music, Religion, and Psychiatry


Do you have big ears?


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For the last few days, my wife and I attended the 10th Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. The whole downtown was filled with overlapping concerts by indoor performances of whatever kind of music you could think of, many cutting-edge. Just one example is the innovative songstress from a Haitian and French background, Cecile McLorin Salvant.

The original and continuing goal is to embrace new discoveries and transcend boundaries of tribalism and convention, using music to bring us together. Sometimes, this sharing, lifting of the spirit, and soothing of the soul can overcome fear of the new and differences.

Big ears, as in open hearing to new sounds, is the necessary ingredient.

Having big ears has also been necessary for embracing new discoveries, including in religion. The watchwords of my faith, Judaism, is the Sh’ma: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” In other religions, deeply hearing the founding messages for their development is essential.

The same holds true for psychiatry, does it not? But psychiatric education does not pay much attention to our 5 main senses: smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing. In clinical care, smell is generally irrelevant, except perhaps to smell alcohol on a patient’s breath. Touch happens, but carefully in a greeting or less common hug. Taste is not common as we rarely break bread with patients. Seeing is very important for noticing some nonverbal communications, and of course in reading and learning psychiatric knowledge.

But big ears seem most important. I generally could tell how a patient was feeling as soon as they talked by the tone and intensity of their words, always listening with my third ear for underlying meanings. Conversely, our own words and tone are crucial for our patients.

I wonder if big ears should be an inquiry of those applying for psychiatric residency with this question: “Do you have big ears?”

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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