The best way to memorize anatomy quickly is to use flashcards or the memory palace technique, have a good reference resource and a systematic order to the process. But you’ll also want to prepare effectively too. Knowing exactly what to memorize and why.
Make no mistakes, anatomy is hard. There’s an insane amount to remember; over 200 bones, 8000 terms and a lot of practical lab (cadavers) that, well, just look like spaghetti.
My four-step process to memorizing it all is very similar to the one recommended by Kenhub. What’s different about it is that it’s more expansive: I’ve thrown in my personal opinions about learning the topic and lots of useful ideas from others.
Obviously there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution to approaching anatomy. But this does do it’s best to accommodate!
Skip around to the various sections below…
Step 1: Preparation
I get that there’s a temptation to read an article or watch a video and jump right into memorizing anatomy. But I feel that’s a little counterintuitive. Especially if you don’t consider some basic things; like why you’re learning in the first place.
Because anatomy is so vast there’s simply no way you can condense it all into a short window of study. First you need to work out two things:
- How “quick” is quickly? How much actual time do you have available?
- How much anatomy do you need to learn?
The only way to answer these is to be honest. Know your schedule (exam dates etc). Then ask someone who’s already achieved what you need to achieve (maybe an older student, teacher or whoever), how much work it costs to get there.
The requirements (and time) for passing anatomy differ across all educational levels. An MBBS student, for example, is going to need much more time than a pre-med.
That said, here are some tips to prepare to memorize the right way…
Work Out What’s High Yield
Before you memorize you need to know what your course aims are. So get hold out of that syllabus and figure it out.
This should help you uncover which areas to focus your memorization efforts on. As well as unpick areas you can skip over on to ultimately save you time.
Potential High Yield Areas:
- All clinical correlations: maybe prioritise the things involved in pathologies first as opposed to random tubercles, ridges, insertion lines etc
- All anatomical exceptions: things that break basic rules (i.e. all obturator muscles innervated by the obturator nerve except the pectineus and medial rotator – innervated by femoral).
- All main nerves, vessels and muscles: those that have multiple functions instead of the more obscure ones dedicated to a single or smaller purpose etc.
Starting out, you can get a sense of these from basic tutorials.
Figure Out A Schedule
Now you know more about what you have to learn and the amount of time you have to learn it, estimate how long the project is going to take.
Run through a chapter or section of your primary resource (more on this later) and time how long it takes. Work out how many of these you’ll need to do to complete a run through. Then allocate yourself some time either side.
The extra time will help you with the other parts of this strategy.
Understand What to Expect
Of course you won’t know completely what to expect when first embarking on a monster memorization rampage but you can have a rough idea. Based on my experience here are three rules to live by:
- Use the first pass to familiarize yourself with terminology
- Use the second pass to see how anatomical structures relate and fit together
- Use the third pass to memorize
When I say “passes”, I’m referring more to an initial glance at the materials here. Assuming it’s the first time you’ll see them.
The basic premise being; don’t expect to memorize everything perfectly from the get go.
Temper your expectations.
Decide On References
The key thing here is to pick only one or two references and to stick with them. Time is of the essence. Don’t waste it constantly picking up one resource and exchanging it for another.
Ideally you’re going to want a primary resource and a reference resource.
To memorize anatomy quickly I’d personally recommend using flashcards as a primary resource. Then backing those up with videos, websites, books or whatever.
Do you need an anatomy atlas? To learn anatomy well yes. To memorize anatomy quickly? Probably not.
Pick one primary and one reference.
You won’t have to pay a dime for these and they’ll serve you exceptionally well.
Also there are more recommended resources at the end.
Step 2: Visualization
To speed up the learning process you’re going to have to visualize what you learn. Doing so will help you better contextualize it and encode it in your long term memory. This will aid retrieval later.
The two best ways to do this:
Anatomy lab: get up close and personal with cadavers. Touch them, name the parts, know what they feel like. Rinse and repeat. For important pointers on how to prepare for cadaver lab check out this article.
Exercise: yes, it may sound weird but exercising, moving your body, lifting weights etc, all these things help to put what you memorize into practice. Watch and feel as your muscles contract, arms and legs act as levers and blood starts circulating. Visualize and name all the structures involved in each.
Read on until the last section for extra tips regarding visualization.
Step 3: Memorization
Memorization comes after having prepared and understood the benefits of visualization. This is where the real work gets done – it’s also the reason you’re reading this article!
Getting started, there are a few things to bear in mind…
First things first, I think it’s crucial to have a system when it comes to memorizing anatomy. Don’t just treat it like learning a phone book.
As reference I want to point to the excellent Mullen Memory website and their theories here. Especially those surrounding their approach to memorizing anatomy the second time around for their radiology specialist training.
Basically their approach (which borrows heavily on the memory palace method – more on this later) boils down to memorizing anatomical structures in the following ways:
- From superficial structures to deep
- From lateral structures to medial
- From large structures to small
Now this might sound like an obvious approach but most med schools (especially mine) don’t actually teach anatomy this way (you can see how the curriculums work more broadly here).
Viewing a cadaver and visualizing your own body though, this makes way more sense. It also contextualizes things better thus speeding up the whole memorization process.
Another thing to mention as far as the memorization system goes too is exploration. Exploration is something you’re going to want to do alongside your main efforts. Doing so will make learning more relevant and more fun.
Explorational can look like this:
– Depth: asking questions about new things you just learn. For example; why is it called the vena cava? Who discovered the vena cava? This piques your curiosity and makes what you’re learning more memorable.
– Lateral: wondering how things connect with each other. For example; what other vessels are similar to the vena cava? What’s next to it?
– Vertical: relating what you learn to topics outside of anatomy. For example; can a vena cava be like the sea tide drawing the ocean’s contents back to the beach?
Obviously with quickness in mind you don’t want to spend too much time here. But it can aid the learning process!
There are several different techniques you can use when it comes to memorizing anatomy.
My personal favorite – and one I recommend all the time – is to use flashcards. A good anatomy deck, when used systematically, is probably the fastest way to memorize the basics. Especially as they center on active recall and spaced repetition – two science-backed effective study techniques.
You can go analog here or go with a digital app. Anki has a lot of great public anatomy decks you can download for free – I talk about the best ones in my article 7 best anatomy anki decks: learn anatomy fast.
Quizlet has some good options too, as explained in this video…
The memory palace is a technique I’ve mentioned before when discussing how to memorize medical textbooks. It’s used as a common hack by memory champions and works by associating items with visual images as if you’re walking through a house.
Magnetic Memory has put together a good primer on how to use it for anatomy. It’s also the technique that Mullen Memory employs.
Mnemonics are incredibly useful for memorizing lists, orders and functions in anatomy. Throw these in with flashcards and they become even more powerful. Bonus points if they happen to be funny ones too.
If you’re hunting for inspiration and don’t have the time to make your own (although making your own ones does improve recall by “personalising” the process) check out medicalmnemonics.com. There’s a huge database there.
There are also some handy ones at MBLEx Guide. Especially for bones, muscles, structures and positions.
A lot of med students swear by drawing when it comes to anatomy. Just take some paper or a digital tablet and draw what you’ve been learning. The process definitely counts as active recall. As long as you attempt to do it from memory without copying.
Very similar to the Feynman technique – where you’d explain the concept in simple terms on paper as if you were teaching.
Step 4: Application & Testing
Alongside your rapid attempts to memorize you’ll want to be debugging your efforts as much as possible. Doing so will highlight areas you’re struggling with. Allowing you to put more emphasis on them later to help round-off your knowledge.
As your primary goal is to memorize fast it’s a good idea to dip into quizzes and tests as much as possible. Here is a good list of sites that can get you started.
The main things to keep in mind here are question types and question difficulty. The first you’ll want to have a broad mix of (preferably image-based, clinical scenarios, plenty of MCQ’s etc). The second you’ll want to ramp up from easy to hard as you progress.
Failing is essential here. You should expect to get lots of questions wrong. It’s the only way to effectively course correct and learn which areas of the content to come back to.
Is Anatomy Just Memorization?
Yes, but being successful in anatomy is more about effective memorization rather than normal memorization.
What does that mean?
- Learning things in context of the entire body
- Learning things functionally from the context of the relevant embryology (so you know why structures are located in the places you see them)
- Understanding the subject in terms of function, especially in the context of evolution
You shouldn’t just dive in without a plan. Although I appreciate you can be limited by time!
What Resources Can I Use to Memorize Anatomy Quickly?
The following resources are the ones more commonly recommended from my research into the topic.
Note: the only one of these I’ve personally used is Netter’s Anatomy Flashcards. They were so much help for me I listed them on my own recommendations page here.
- BRS Anatomy: Excellent review style points that distils the subject into its high-yield concepts. Lots of self quiz questions to work with too.
- UMich: Another key resource that’s well worth checking out. Perfect for histology, embryology and the clinical correlations of anatomy. Some great question banks too. Free.
- Essential Anatomy: A 3D-anatomy software program that many med students swear by. Manipulate, dissect, trace and track all the different structures. Can maybe save time you’d otherwise spend in the lab.
- Netter’s Anatomy Flashcards: Perfect resource for 80/20’ing anatomy, getting the basics down and building a roadmap of the human body in your mind. Includes some very helpful mnemonics.
- Kaplan’s Anatomy Flashcards: Very similar to Netter’s Anatomy but a little more detailed. Lots of clinical correlations that could help with later science based subjects.
Memorizing anatomy in normal time is challenging enough. Memorizing anatomy quickly? Very tricky indeed.
It took me a solid two years to get to the point where I felt comfortable!
Hopefully however, based on my experiences and those of the many discussed above, you can find success faster.
Image Credit – @jeswinthomas at Unsplash
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.