Within a week of starting medical school most students find themselves in a large, antiseptic laboratory, dissecting a preserved human body. The prevailing belief is that the laboratory experience is emotionally routine or, in the language of clinical medicine, "unremarkable." This may be seen most simply in the design of the typical anatomy course. But detailed observation of over 300 students in this four-year study shows that despite the professional detachment that the school expects of them, students' responses to the gross anatomy dissection lab are neither routine nor unremarkable.
Students' responses to this new experience, as shown publicly by their behavior in lab and privately by their dreams and subjective reports, were the subject of a four-year study of medical students that I conducted in the anatomy laboratory of a medical school at a private university in the western United States. Three hundred forty students took part, roughly 85 from each class. From them I gathered daily accounts of dreams and comments about their subjective experiences. Questionnaire data were obtained from a single random sample of 35 students, in order to answer specific questions and to involve students who did not volunteer information. Additional data were drawn from more than 200 hours of lab observation, and 60 hours of observation of faculty at their weekly planning meetings.
Results of the study show that in the anatomy lab many students do encounter a pointed challenge to their existing adaptive strategies. They both exhibit their response publicly in their talk and humor in the lab, and conceal aspects of their subjective responses from their teachers and collegues. These signs and symptoms have much to tell about the deeper experience of medical training, as the