Does dissection of the human cadaver cause anxiety?

by Courteney Collins

As an anatomy student, I am often asked “how do you handle dissections, isn’t it scary?”. Students are taught that dissections provide a good foundation for a doctor-patient relationship (Bastos and Proenca, 2000). However, people begin to view doctors as insensitive, lacking human emotion. Recently there has been much research done on the emotional state medical students face when experiencing dissections.

Figure 1: Dissection Hall, Institute of Anatomy, University of Greifswald 2002.  

Fox (1979) described that students are naturally distraught when dissecting a human cadaver and in order to cope with it they develop a “scientific attitude”. The most common reactions to the experience are physical and psychological and have shown to reduce after the first few weeks of dissections (Penney,1985). Despite all the different views, this study proved that anxiety was the most common emotional reaction.

The aim of this research was to study students’ anxiety response to dissection and determine the factors involved in this response.

Three studies were carried out in the dissection room at the department of Human Anatomy and Embryology II at the Complutense University, Madrid, during the 3 academic years 2000–2003.The participants of the study were first time matriculants in the anatomy department. In the three studies, the student’s anxiety level was measured at different times and the student’s anxiety trait.

The first study showed that students anxiety levels decreased the more they experienced dissections. It makes sense that most students experience anxiety because they don’t know what to expect.

The second study demonstrated that the once students became comfortable with dissections, their anxiety reaction was a result of personal traits. This means that those who found it “scarier” had higher anxiety levels.

The third study found that by showing students videos or pictures from the dissection room, it reduces their anxiety levels when completing their first dissection.

Although students experience different emotions when they begin human dissections, anxiety is the most important. Anxiety was even one of the reasons for removing cadaver dissections from teaching practices (Aziz et al.,2002). So, to answer the question, yes, it is scary, and it can be challenging at times. But without this experience, how will it help future doctors when anatomy is so important?

This study proved that most effective solution is gradual exposure before dissecting a cadaver for the first time. Students should also be taught to have an ethical and humanistic approach to the cadaver. We should remember that “The human body is the most complex system ever created. The more we learn about it, the more appreciation we have about what a rich system it is.”- Bill Gates.


Arráez‐Aybar, L.A., Casado‐Morales, M.I. and Castaño‐Collado, G., 2004. Anxiety and dissection of the human cadaver: an unsolvable relationship?. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist: An Official Publication of the American Association of Anatomists, 279(1), pp.16-23.

Aziz MA, McKenzie JC, Wilson, JS, Cowie RJ, Ayeni SA, Dunn BK. 2002. The human cadaver in the age of biomedical informatics. Anat Rec (New Anat) 269:20–32.

Bastos LAM, Proenc¸a MA. 2000. A pra´ tica anato´mica e a formac¸a˜o me´dica. Pan Am J Public Health 7:395–402.

Fox RC. 1979. Essays in medical sociology: journeys into the field. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Penney JC. 1985. Reactions of medical students to dissection. J Med Educ 60:58–60.

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