What?! Bird by bird?
Yep—that's the best way to begin learning how to distinguish the various tissue types of the body.
The bird-by-bird approach to learning anatomy is based on two major concepts, described here.
Chunk the List
The first was described by author Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"Wow—doesn't that sound just like the feeling you have when you are given a list of human tissues to learn in your A&P course? With crazy names like nonkeratinized stratified squamous epithelium, specimens that look like the abstract art exhibit at the art museum, and an insanely short time frame to master them all, of course it feels overwhelming.
Really, that's the best way to tackle the tissues. Just get started! And take them one by one, rather than thinking about the whole long list of them facing you. You'll find that by chunking the list this way, it's not so paralyzing. It sounds overly simple—perhaps even a bit silly—but it really works!
Focus on Unique Characteristics
A while back, I wrote a post called Trouble with Tissues? in which I briefly described a method for learning tissues based on how birders learn how to tell one bird from another when out birdwatching:
The introduction to my Field Guide to the Body at the Lion Den website compares studying tissues to what birders do when they identify wildlife in the field. Take a look at that brief analogy, including examples of how to apply it to histology, for helpful tips on making this topic easier. If you're using any of my lab manuals in your A&P course, you can apply this technique directly by looking at the Landmark Characteristics boxes scattered throughout the tissue exercises.
To summarize this method, you simply look at what makes each tissue different from other tissues just as you would when learning the many different types of sparrows live in the state park:
- Field marks—physical characteristics that distinguish one type from another. All sparrows are LBJs (little brown jobs), but each species has a unique characteristic such as a beak color or streak on the cheek that sets it apart from the others. Likewise, each tissue type has one or more physical characteristics—such as cell shape or fiber type or cell arrangement—that make it stand out from all other similar tissues.
- Range—if I look out my window and see a penguin, I know I need my eyes examined. Because I live in Missouri, where penguins live in only in zoos. So I can identify birds in part by which birds live in or visit my region. Bird guides list ranges for this reason—to help you figure out which bird the one in your yard could be. If you learn the locations of tissues, that helps you figure out where to look for them. For example, look for most epithelial tissues on surfaces, look for cardiac muscle in the heart. If you are looking at a tissue sample from the arm, then don't expect that muscle tissue to be cardiac muscle—it's instead likely to be skeletal muscle tissue,
- Habitat—Besides knowing which region a bird is likely to be found, it also helps to know what kind of habitat it prefers. Look for forest birds in the forest and look for shore birds, well, along the shore. With tissues, if you know that if you are looking for irregular fibrous tissue, look under epithelium—there's always some there.
- Behavior—Behavior is function. When identifying birds, it helps to know how they fly (do they soar like vultures or hover like hummingbirds?). When identifying tissues, it helps to know their functions. If you know that fibrous connective tissues are often supportive in function, that will help you find them. If you know that smooth muscle tissue compresses the hollow part of hollow organs, you know where to find them—within the walls of hollow organs such as digestive organs.
Not Just for Tissues
Want to know more?
- Kevin Patton. The A&P Student. 28 September 2010.
- Outlines tips for studying tissues in the A&P course.
Field Guide to the Human Body
- Kevin Patton. Lion Den. Accessed 7 September 2014.
- From my study tips website, this page introduces the "birding" analogy to studying human structures.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
- Anne Lamott. Anchor. First published 1 January 1994.
- Great book. Great author. That is all.
Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology
- Kevin Patton. Elsevier. Oct 18, 2013.
- Tips and techniques for studying A&P, including tissues, mentions the birding analogy.