Context There is ongoing discussion within the medical education community about dissection as an educational strategy and as a professional training tool in technical and emotional skills training.
Objectives This study aimed to discover the emotional reactions, attitudes and beliefs of new students faced with human cadaver dissection; to evaluate the changes produced in these variables by the exhibition and practice of dissection; to analyse the level of anxiety students feel when faced with death, and to elucidate the possible relationships between these items.
Methods The study used a sample of 425 students who were first-time enrolees in a human anatomy course. Three new instruments were designed, with items covering emotional reactions (cognitive, physiological and motor reactions), beliefs and attitudes related to what the student expects to experience or has experienced in dissection. Death anxiety was measured using the Death Anxiety Inventory.
Results As students gained more experience of dissection, their emotional reactions were reduced and their attitudes and beliefs changed. Statistically significant differences in the level of death anxiety emerged, depending on the perceptions students had of their degree of preparation for dissection, and emotional control and deeper thoughts about life and death during dissection.
Discussion The practice of anatomy allows the student to learn how to face up to and adapt his or her emotional reactions and attitudes; this gives human cadaver dissection great importance as an educational strategy and as a professional training tool in technical and emotional skills training.