A sheep’s brain is remarkably similar to a human’s, as far as its anatomy goes, and inherently more available for study, at least among undergraduates. Which is how Mark Stefani’s physiological psychology class came to be dissecting a sheep’s most complex organ on a winter afternoon.
“One of the best methods of studying the brain is looking at its structure,” Stefani, an assistant professor of psychology, says. “And one of the great truths of studying biology is the saying that ‘anatomy precedes physiology.’” In other words, in order to understand how an organ functions, first you have to understand its form.
Listen to Stefani discuss brain anatomy
For the students in Psychology 301, this means they have to learn the names and locations of more than 50 structures of the brain, from the corpus callosum in the forebrain to the pons and medulla in the hindbrain. They have to be able to find and identify the structures (whether viewed from the top, the bottom, or the side), and describe the function of each structure in both the sheep and human brain. (After thorough examination of the sheeps’ brains, students were able to view preserved human brains on loan from the University of Vermont Medical College.)
Paul Carroll, a junior, found the similarities to be numerous but the differences to be particularly interesting. “Seeing what is different about our brain and a sheep’s brain shows how we evolved to be the advanced beings we are today.”
After learning lab etiquette and donning lab coats, rubber gloves, and goggles, students in Stefani’s lab hold the brains – both sheep and human – in their hands. They work in pairs and turn the brain over, draw sketches, identify parts, trace the major nerves, examine how structures are connected, and discuss form and function.
JaeHee Yoon is a junior from Pasadena, Calif., who appreciated the hands-on nature of the lab: ”The experience that you get from observing with your eyes and touching with your hands merges together with the mere facts that you learn on paper” to produce a fuller understanding of the subject matter.
Listen to students as they dissect a sheep’s brain
And yet Stefani always brings the class back around to where the anatomy leads to physiology.
“My challenge to you in this lab and throughout the entire term,” he says, “is to examine a structure and think about what it means to the operation of the brain. If you think carefully, your ideas can be as valid as anyone else’s who has tackled this delightfully difficult task.”