Learning Anatomy: How to Begin

The key to learning anatomy is to think in movement

Transparent man runningIllustration copyright: design36, Shutterstock.com
We think in pictures. We think in sound. And, we think in movement.

In anatomy class you will see a lot of pictures of bones and muscles with labels. You will handle a lot of body parts that mysteriously fit together like a puzzle. You will hear a lot of lectures about how the body works.

But, the real key to learning anatomy is to understand it in terms of movement. Think of the body moving in three dimensions. Anatomic charts are static. The body parts and models in anatomy laboratory are fixed. Yet, human anatomy is taught in terms of movement as well as appearance.

Where does this body part fit?

Anatomic directional terminology often gives students problems right from the beginning. Is the disassembled bone from the right side or left side of the skeleton? Am I viewing this arm from the front or the back?

Even whether an arm is a right or left one can be puzzling. Do not feel bad if you have trouble with the right and left designation. Even hospitals must go to great lengths to make sure a surgeon does not get mixed up between right and left appendages.

We all think of right and left in terms of our own right and left. Our brains have unconscious memory traces for automatic actions that are hard to overcome when we try to think of the movements of another person. It takes a conscious effort to reverse right and left for a person we are facing.

Mapping out locations of body parts

If you become frustrated with sorting out the terms medial, lateral, caudal and distal, think of them in terms of a map. If you want to plan a route from New York City to San Francisco, first you must know which city is your starting point. You also need to have the concept of north, south, east and west under control to get where you want to go.

Anatomy is much the same way in that you need a fixed starting point—not an easy thing with a body as lanky and flexible as that of a human. The starting point you must learn first is the human ‘anatomical position’. All body parts and connections are named relative to a standing person facing the observer with arms out from his/her side and palms of the hands facing the observer.

Remember always that the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of a person in the anatomical position are opposite your own right and left.

In order to map the movement of a body away from the anatomical position, you need directional terms. Because road maps are flat representations of Earth’s static surface four directions suffice. To map body movement away from the anatomical position in three dimensions, more than 4 directional words are needed.

It is critical to your success in anatomy to study human body directional terms until they are second nature to you. Many students pass over this early part of the course because it seems boring. Yet, directional terms will appear over and over again as you proceed with learning the names and locations of body parts. You need to work on the directional concepts used in anatomy until your brain becomes programed to think of anatomy in that language.

For further discussion of which terms will you need to know and why they will be useful as your course proceeds continue by reading the following articles. Just click on the titles to access them.

Orientation in Anatomy

Human Body Muscles

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