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First-year medical student Sarah-Grace Carbrey and live model

First-year medical student Sarah-Grace Carbrey says life drawing sessions are a unique opportunity that help reinforce lessons learned in gross anatomy class.

Medical Students Draw Live Model in Humanistic Learning Sessions

Published December 23, 2014

As part of new curricula, first-year University at Buffalo medical students may participate in life drawing sessions, sketching muscle groups and skeletal structures from a nude model.

“The session helped us apply all that we learned in the extremities and muscle block of our anatomy class by seeing it on a live, human model — not just an inanimate, preserved cadaver.”
Sarah-Grace Carbrey
First-year UB medical student

“Life drawing offers students an opportunity to carefully observe the living anatomy they are learning in gross anatomy,” says Linda Pessar, MD, director of the Jacobs Center for Medical Humanities and professor emerita of psychiatry, who helps implement the sessions.

Strengthening Analytical Skills, Critical Thinking

In the optional sessions, medical students observe and sketch the human figure in motion and during timed poses.

“The model we drew from had extremely observable muscle definition, which allowed us to identify many of the muscles we had learned in class,” says Sarah-Grace Carbrey, a first-year medical student.

“The session helped us apply all that we learned in the extremities and muscle block of our anatomy class by seeing it on a live, human model — not just an inanimate, preserved cadaver,” she says.

She explains that as the model changed position, students observed and discussed the muscles acting to form the movements.

“By studying, then drawing, the figure over a designated time frame — and as a focus intensifies — one’s creative sensibilities emerge,” notes Ginny O’Brien, curator of education for UB Art Galleries, who developed and has led the drawing sessions.

“Accessibility to one’s creative process lends itself to strengthening critical thinking and analytical skills,” she emphasizes.

Sessions Have Therapeutic Value for Med Students

“The act of making art, like drawing, is inherently therapeutic,” says O’Brien, a visual artist and arts educator as well as a former registered nurse.

Carbrey agrees: “Drawing the nude human figure functions as a therapeutic outlet from the methodical while still providing an interactive anatomical learning tool,” she says.

The drawing sessions provide “a good platform for medical students to use ‘the other side of the brain’ and to experiment integrating an objective scientific curriculum with a subjective aesthetic experience,” explains Carbrey.

“Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the session irrespective of prior experience in the arts.”

O’Brien notes that “studies show there are positive physiological responses to the act of ‘making,’ such as lowering an elevated blood pressure or slowing a rapid heart rate.”

She also teaches studio art-making workshops for health professionals that demonstrate how participating in visual arts activities can serve as a tool for self-renewal and achieving wellness.

A Unique, Humanistic Aspect of UB Training

Carbrey says the drawing sessions are a unique feature of her medical education at UB. “We looked at the body as a whole, as the sum of the action of all of its parts, as an entity, as the container of the soul,” she says.

The sessions are one of many opportunities UB medical students have to consider humanism in medicine, an approach to care that emphasizes compassionate, empathic doctor-patient relationships. 

The medical humanities center integrates humanism into coursework and offers optional enrichment activities.

For example, all first-year medical students participated in Humanities Day, learning about and discussing medicine as depicted in the arts.