Can virtual reality solve all our problems?

One of the ways we might be able to fix the problem of body generalisation in medicine, as I discussed in my previous blog post, is with virtual anatomy programs. Today medical students are already beginning to use complex computer programs that can imitate real dissections in their anatomy lessons.

A virtual dissection table created by Anatomage, the medical supply company, in action. (Copyright Norbert von der Groeben, 2011, sourced from the Stanford Medicine News Centre website)
A virtual dissection table created by Anatomage, the medical supply company, in action. (Copyright Norbert von der Groeben, 2011, sourced from the Stanford Medicine News Centre website)

In some ways these programs are even better than the real thing. Students have the ability to remove muscles, bones and veins, as well as rotate the subject three dimensionally through 360°. These programs are also being fed information from real patient cases that have been logged in the Searchable Digital Anatomical Library; a project pioneered by Sakti Srivastava and her colleagues at the Stanford Medical School.

Indeed, replacing more traditional methods of learning with virtual technology does not seem to have an impact on how well students learn. In 2011, Anthony Codd and Bipasha Choudhury performed an experiment in which they compared the two methods of anatomical teaching, virtual and traditional, by testing students taught by the different systems (see end for link). There was almost no difference in test scores between the two methods, but those who used the virtual reality simulations came out slightly on top. It seems virtual reality could be a very effective replacement for traditional learning in medicine.


Still, the traditional use of cadavers in medical teaching has obvious benefits; this is the only way in which students are able to learn how the muscles feel and react in the flesh before they go into real surgical situations.

It has not always been possible to teach with real cadavers and this is where we start seeing the standard images and models that we discussed last time appearing in the classroom.

Many of you may have heard the infamous story of Burke and Hare, the men who murdered people to sell their bodies to science. The short supply of cadavers meant medical schools would pay handsomely for fresh corpses! Other less enterprising individuals turned to grave-robbing as the money to be gained far outweighed the danger of being caught.

A popular drawing of Burke and Hare suffocating one of their victims.
A popular drawing of Burke and Hare suffocating one of their victims.

There is still a shortage in the number of people who donate their bodies to science. However, virtual technology could take over from standardised images as the alternative.

The virtual isn’t the same as the real, what we want to do is leverage the best of both. It’s not really, ‘Is one better than the other?’ Rather it’s, ‘What can we do with the two combined?’

– David Gaba, associate dean for immersive and simulation-based learning at Stanford.

What indeed? This technology is currently using a variety of case files to teach students about specific clinical problems, but it could do so much more!

With the right programming we could replace our unchanging textbook images with software that gives the student a new body to look at each time (within a range of human shapes and sizes). This would mean that students could learn anatomy across the full spectrum of different body types.

Ultimately, this could be extended to practical surgery sessions with virtual reality headsets. This would let students practice locating organs within differently shaped and sized bodies during surgery.

How far away are we?

The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

All we need is information on the possible range of human body types and a good programmer.

(The full Codd and Choudhury article can be found at )

(Information on the use of virtual anatomy programs at the Stanford Medical School can be found at )

When did we all become identical?

If you’ve ever picked up more than one anatomical textbook you, like I, will have noticed that there are two very distinct images of the human body; one male and one female.

Sources: and


When I look at people I’m not ashamed to say I don’t see the same person over and over again; I see a wonderful variety of characters. We are all so wildly different in our own ways and that is a wonderful thing. So where did this idea that we are all exactly the same on the inside come from?


At one point anatomy was taught with a range of specimens to show variety and difference. Halfway through the 19th century this all changed. Anatomical models began to be mass produced for teaching on a larger scale and to combat the problem of a short supply of corpses for medical research (the reason for the Burke and Hare scandal!).

These models were made out of wax or papier-mâché and were built to exact specifications- made from moulds again and again, exactly the same each time. They all had several things in common- they were white, they were young and they were athletically healthy. But who’s body did they use as the inspiration?

19th Century 'anatomical venus', unknown modeller Source:
19th Century ‘Anatomical Venus’- unknown modeller Source:

The most reproduced anatomical images and models are not actually based on an original study of a body. They are imagined bodies, fabricated specifically for the purpose of teaching human anatomy.

But why did so many anatomists choose the same images of the body at this time? Were these bodies seen to be representative of the population or were they idealised? Did they convey a deeper belief in human equality or did they set a standard for the perfect body?

Campaign against Victoria Secret ‘perfect body’ advertisement. Source:

It is time to find out how the belief that we are all equal and the creation of a normalised body image fit together. Did we create one image of the body because we thought everyone was the same on the inside or did we create it to set a bodily standard to strive for and look up to?

I hope you will continue to read along as I find out more.

(Please search #notmybody for posts on other media)