Make a Personal Anatomical Atlas in Your Mind with Mental Imagery and Improve Your Active Learning of Human Anatomy

Research Article

Austin J Anat. 2016; 3(2): 1050.

Make a Personal Anatomical Atlas in Your Mind with Mental Imagery and Improve Your Active Learning of Human Anatomy

Noorafshan A¹, Hoseini L²*, Karbalay-doust S¹, Mahmoodian H³, Bazrafkan L³ and Rafati A¹

¹Histomorphometry and Stereology Research Centre, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Iran

²Department of Traditional Medicine, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Iran

³Department of the Medical Ethics, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Iran

*Corresponding author: Hoseini L, Department of Traditional Medicine, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Zand Ave, Shiraz, Iran

Received: January 29, 2016; Accepted: March 23, 2016; Published: March 28, 2016


Objective: Human anatomy can be hard to learn and even harder to recall. The students often say that the subject is forgotten quickly. In this study, “mental imagery” or “mental modeling”, as an active learning technique, was applied to teach anatomy to medical students.

Methods: An amusing interactive model of teaching anatomy as mental imagery was introduced. The students of the anatomy class were asked to watch an anatomical figure and then start imagery of the figure in their minds with closed eyes. At the first step, imagery of each organ and its characteristics was modeled in mind. At the second step, imagery of some organs and their relations was reconstructed in mind. The model’s instruction effectiveness was assessed through a quasi-experimental study. Then, the students were asked to write their learning experiences in their portfolios, and their views were evaluated by a questionnaire.

Results: The results of portfolio evaluation revealed that the students believed that this method led to profound learning and better understanding of anatomical subjects. Also, evaluation of the questionnaire regarding the students’ views showed that more than 88% of the students found that anatomical concepts were easy to learn, easy to recall, less boring, attractive, less time-consuming, and useful with mental modeling.

Conclusion: Imagery of the anatomy figures in mind, as an interactive learning technique, is an effective method for learning and recalling anatomy.

Keywords: Anatomy; Education; Mental imagery


“There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Annabel in such general terms as: “honey-colored skin,” “thin arms,” “brown bobbed hair,” “long lashes,” “big bright mouth”); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark inner side of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).” Vladimir Nabokov.

Anatomy is a basic course in the curriculum of medical and paramedical students. Human anatomy can be hard to learn and even harder to recall. Students often say that the subject is forgotten quickly. The present study describes a method for helping students to learn and recall anatomy by carefully watching anatomy images in class or later. The method includes doing mental imagery and reconstructing a mental anatomical model. This technique can be considered as an active learning method in class to overcome the boring lecture-based classes. The lecture-based method is a passive experience in which, the class becomes boring after a while. Besides, the students are involved in hearing and taking notes [1-3]. Anatomy is a descriptive science understanding of which requires studying anatomical atlases, models, and dissections. In addition to lecture-based teaching, many learning and teaching approaches have been described to improve students’ understanding of anatomy. Using anatomical figures has been used as a method for medical education from the Medieval Age [4]. Many famous painters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt, studied anatomy, attended dissections, and published drawings [5]. The new methods include computer multimedia, mobile phone, videos, and using illustrations [6,7]. All the mediabased methods aim at improving the understanding of anatomy [6,7]. Although presently we are able to create a new “virtual reality” of anatomy via computerized simulations, they are still need to be understood, settled down, and stored in the brain. However, we are trying here to convert the understanding to a model in mind and deep the concepts learning. Deep learning of anatomy has been shown to be superior to the surface learning approach [8,9]. Interactive techniques in anatomy education in theory classes have received more attention, but a stronger disposition toward classic teaching techniques often exists among teachers [8,9]. Our methods rely on visual memory. Visual memory explains the association between perceptual processing and encoding, storage, and recalling of the resulting neural images. The experience of visual memory is also defined as the mind’s eye. This condition is a process through which we can recall from our memory a mental image of original things [10]. In the present explanation, visual mental image or mental modeling means reconstruction of anatomical subjects in a person’s mind. It is widely believed that imagery functions as mental representations, playing an important role in memory and thinking [11,12]. Mental images, including mental visualization, can occur while a student reads his/her book. Calling up an image in our minds can bedone easier. It has been stated that people often have learning processes that emphasize visual, auditory, and kinesthetic systems of experience [13]. The present study aims to describea method named mental anatomical imagery or mental anatomical modeling, an active teaching method to help students towards better learning and recalling. In this study, mental imagery is described and the results of an evaluation aimed at exploring the students’ views regarding this teaching approach are reported.

Materials and Methods

We reconstructed an interactive model of teaching anatomy as mental imagery. To evaluate the effectiveness of the model, we conducted a quasi experimental study. The study population consisted of all first-and second-year medical students at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in 2014 (n=76). Undergraduate medical education in Iranian medical education curriculum takes 7 years. During the first five semesters of education, students take their basic science courses which include gross anatomy. The study was conducted at the courses of trunk, head, and neck anatomy of the basic science medical curriculum organized by Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Shiraz, Iran to evaluate the efficacy of mental imagery in teaching and learning anatomy. In doing so, six anatomy instructors attended the class and the lectures were presented in 100 h. Mental imagery of anatomical subjects was presented in 20 h. In the remaining hours, the lectures were presented by other colleague in forms of lecturing and power point presentations. A total of 76 students attended the course. The subjects were presented through slide show. Then, the students were asked to observe the figure carefully. When the slide show was over, they were asked to reconstruct the details of the figure with closed eyes. Afterwards, some questions were asked regarding the image details to make the students more eager towards imagery. This method could help the student make a correct mental model of the subjects rather than a non-real imagination. Our method included two steps of imagery. At the first step, the students were asked to watch gross anatomy of an individual organ, such as liver, and begin the imagery. The second step of imagery was performed at the end of the class or course when teaching of anatomy of some abdominal organs was completed. For example, the students were asked to make their more complete mental models of the abdomen Figure 1. At the beginning of this step, the student observed some slides of the abdominal anatomy. Then, they were asked to assume that their abdominal cavity was devoid of any structure. Afterwards, they were asked to place the following structures in their mental model step by step: