In an oft-cited psychology experiment from the 1960s done at Stanford, toddlers were isolated in a room with a table on which sat a single marshmallow. If they could resist the temptation to eat it, as they were told by the experimenters, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows later on. If we replaced these toddlers with medical students as the subjects, the experimenters would have run out of either marshmallows ...

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In medical training, each morning begins with pre-rounds, a sort of prologue to the work day that gives us a preview of our patients’ conditions. Like a daily ritual, we arrive in the hospital as the sun begins to peek over the horizon and proceed to visit each of their rooms. Some of them are still sleeping, but we wake them up anyway to needle them with questions. Any pain? ...

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I recently saw a patient who, against all odds, survived an aortic dissection. Miraculously, he was alive after the wall of his aorta -- the largest and most important vessel in the body -- began to rip apart. Aortic dissections are so violent and agonizing that a large portion of these patients don’t survive. Yet somehow, my patient was still able to sit upright in his chair and recount his ...

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A few weekends ago, I saw a patient with bloated shins at our school’s free clinic, and I marked in my notes that she exhibited “peripheral edema,” an esoteric phrase that means little to those outside of the medical community. That experience only highlighted the tendency in medicine to inflate common bodily functions into opaque medical jargon. Its use can be frustrating for patients who are trying to understand their ...

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