Virtual Cadavers – The Newest Way to Explore Anatomy

“Cecily, that’s enough!” I was a junior in college, home for Thanksgiving, and was helping my mother prepare her famous giblet gravy for the meal. I was taking gross anatomy that semester and, picking up half of a turkey heart, proudly identified muscles connected to the heart valves, differentiating between those that produced the “lub” and the “dub” sounds.

Two men test out the Virtual Cadaver at the University of Michigan.

Two men test out the Virtual Cadaver at the University of Michigan.

I loved working in the cadaver lab. I gained a profound appreciation for the design of the human body that I’m certain I couldn’t have gotten any other way. The only thing I found hard to deal with was the pool of preservatives that each body laid in. My hands would turn numb after an hour and the smell was so intense that, when I went home, my boyfriend knew I was coming before I’d even gotten to the door.

Now, with the introduction of the Virtual Cadaver, a fully dissectible 3D projection developed at the University of Michigan, the way I learned anatomy is on its way to becoming a “back in my day” relic. With a joystick and 3-D technology (pictured above), students can literally dissect the cadaver, peel away layers and explore the body, just as we did back in my day.

Projects like Virtual Cadaver represent the promise of virtual reality applications in education, particularly in the physical sciences. The beauty of it is that it’s still a physical experience; in geology, I imagine, students could tunnel to the center of the earth and examine each stratum up-close. Physicalizing information in this way is extraordinarily valuable; whenever we can integrate the senses in the learning process, we not only retain the knowledge better, we understand it much, much better. Without the toxic effects of formaldehyde.

I can’t help but get a little nostalgic for the experience I had, however. Will students be able to trace the brachial plexus (a braid of nerves that innervates the arm), as I did, like a game of Cat’s Cradle? Will they miss out on feeling the precise locations of a muscle’s origin and insertion? These aren’t big losses, really, but for one exception: users of the Virtual Cadaver may miss out on the wonder and beauty of variation from body to body.

Unless the holograms are scans of real humans, which is very plausible.

Take a look at this video to get an idea of how incredible this is.