Cory, the lab technician has placed a box of bones on a table in the anatomy museum for me to scrutinize. Bones of the upper limb this time. One tattered and bulging carton full to overflowing with scapulae and hand bones strung on fishing line and bundles of the long bones of the arm- each set comprises a humerus, radius, ulna and collarbone held together with a rubber band.
I decide to lay out the wing-like scapulae in a large ordered group on the grey table near the window because I want to look at them together and from a distance. In doing so I know this attempt at pattern will reveal sweet differences.
There are subtle, poignant shifts from one to the other in size, weight, texture, form, density and colour. Some have patches of bone that are impossibly thin and others are surprisingly sturdy and thickened especially at their edges.
One in particular takes my eye. It is quite small and fragile and covered in a fine, spidery lead-pencil taxonomy of words- the names of muscles and various bony delineations.1.
The grain of the bone lends the handwriting a sense of fragility and uncertainty. The scribbles are on both sides and I flick from one side to the other, reading the bone in a search for meaning. Every bump, every recess has a reason for being. Every process has a purpose.
I gather up the strange bundles of long bones and line them up on the table to see them in the natural light of the window. Four sets in a row. Together they create an illusion…a chaotic jumble of meandering sticks with clumsy abrupt endings. They could have been hand-made in low-fired white clay or cast in creamy Plaster of Paris. There’s a whole arm in each bundle and the bones look almost like pale root vegetables wrenched from the earth or even well worn wooden puzzles jumbled and grubby from being handled by countless students. I’m surprised at their childlike chunkiness. The curious bundles seem more like playthings than serious anatomy. But these are extraordinary toys.
They are ambiguous. Just by looking I find it impossible to embody the notion of an arm. I peel off the rubber band and the bones fall, clunk, strewn on the table and I can now see them apart from each other for the first time. I feel compelled to hold each one, one at a time. I grasp, cup, caress, and scrutinise each and every texture, process and depression by touch, tracing each detail with my eyes up close, turning each over in complex directions from end to end, round and round and up and down. I can feel the twist of the ulna and the radius, the robustness of the humerus, the ball of the shoulder and the curious shape of the elbow.
In order to understand what a student may gain from touch I feel I need to do this kind of unbounded exploration for myself. I’ve observed so many practical anatomy classes now and watched countless students interact with these objects that I know in an analysis of my exploration I can’t claim the same imperative to pick these bones up so as to get the names right and embed knowledge. But this experience has been so rich- to sit alone and consider these objects in my own time, simply driven by curiosity and with little or no intention in my exploration but to be open to whatever feels familiar and unfamiliar. To consider, investigate and scrutinize- to bring my touch (noun) into touch (verb).
Obviously context is important in defining the role that touch plays in anatomical education. The learning environment is unique and the formal examination criteria provide the imperative to learn specifics.
We are only beginning to understand the significance of touch when it comes to leaning human anatomy. We have observed that the experience of touch can provide a student with subtle and complex readings of the subject matter. Various qualities of touch can be learnt, particularly in terms of intention and purpose. Ian’s approach and attitude to the subject is amplified in the way he ‘handles’ the various forms of representation in the practical anatomy classroom. He is assured, purposeful and respectful and the students take his lead. But our observations have also revealed that every individual brings unique qualities to touch and that this contributes to their unique approaches to learning. Why does this matter? What differentiates and defines the qualities of touch? This Synapse project is affording Ian and I some critical time to ask these more nuanced questions and explore them in quite personal and creative ways.
The musculoskeletal course began this week and I feel privileged to be able to observe a new group of second year medical students negotiate this immense subject. It is the third year in a row that I have been involved with students undertaking this particular course. Ian has again introduced me to the large group of about 140 students and in the first lecture he has stressed the critical importance of hands on experience in the anatomy lab. This year he emphasizes: In order to get to grips with this material, you have to get your hands on it.
I’m keen to now focus our research more intensely on the role that touch plays in learning the human musculoskeletal system with this fresh group of eager students. We are currently waiting for ethics clearance specifically so that I may document the students’ hands during the practical classes.
The Anatomy Museum July 4TH & 5TH 2011
 This scapula is part of a set donated to the university. The marks were made by someone else but they have been left as is. The senior lab technician says the marks and names on the bones are sometimes made by the students and in a way he doesn’t mind too much because it’s a part of their learning.