James Madison University

Preparation by Dissection

By: Brett Seekford
Posted: October 21, 2014

Dissections have been the backbone of science classes across the globe for years, but Dr. Jeff Dyche, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at JMU, incorporated this learning technique into one of his graduate level classes in a fascinating way.

He adopted an old idea from his time working at the United States Air Force Academy and made it a part of his Behavioral Neuroscience course. Dyche thought his graduate students should dissect cow eyes and sheep brains. Although the procurement of such items was not cheap, he was able to get them through JMU’s abundant wet lab, which is a space free of biohazards to store sensitive materials.

PHOTO: JMU student dissecting

When Dyche told his students about his plans, they showed great enthusiasm. “They were pretty stoked. Some had done it before in an undergraduate biology course but it was a novel experience for most,” he explained.

The dissections required great precision and a high degree of safety. Dyche elaborated, “The brain dissections are the trickier of the two structures. You have to make cuts in just the right location to find subcortical structures such as the hippocampus. So everyone was having to aim carefully.” Nevertheless, the students successfully performed the dissections and learned about the anatomy of brains and eyes through their work.

“I think hands on science is always appropriate and memorable,” Dyche stated. “It isn’t very often that we have an opportunity to cut into a brain of an erstwhile sentient being.”

While the students, all enrolled in the MA program in Psychological Sciences, gained a great amount of knowledge, the dissections also served as great preparation for the students’ future careers. Most of the students do not go to medical school, but instead seek to earn their doctorates to teach psychology at the college level.

Dyche explained, “Most of them will finish their MA degree and then continue on for a Ph.D. in various areas of psychology at another university. Most pursue research and teaching careers. I did have one student from two years ago that went to medical school, though.”

Overall, he found the experiments to be a success. Moreover, the dissections helped him make a larger point about the brain. “This experience I think furthers the notion that the brain is immensely complex and there is still so much to learn about it,” he said.

PHOTO: Brain and eye

Dyche sought to use the dissections to show his students the inner workings of organs that fall under the category of neuroscience. “It is one thing to read about a brain structure that modulates a behavior, such as the hippocampus’ importance in the formation of long term memories,” he said, “but it is another thing to physically see the structure itself. It helps to actively process the information and better the understanding of a concept.”

He posed the question: “Why should a psychology course be any different [than other scientific disciplines] as our roots are in laboratory based experimental science, just like those other sciences?” For this reason, he hopes the dissections become a mainstay of the class.