Anatomy and Art

a blog by Sara Egner

Textbook Definitions

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I have always had a difficult time with vocabulary definitions that I suspect fall short of the word being defined itself.  Recently I started an online class in Pathophysiology which uses the book Pathophysiology for the Health Proffessions by Barbara E. Gould.

Now my first impressions of this book have been very positive.  I like the layout.  It seems easier to skim for what you are looking for in this book than it has in many I’ve owned before.  I like the clear and concise  level of explanation on a lot of things.  When we got to the section on healing, I was very impressed to see alternative and holistic medicines discussed beyond the standard blurb about what some quacks think.  I like the listing of literary and web resources at the end of every chapter as a starting place should you want to read more.

I am however finding myself at odds with the way this book defines certain key terms.  Some of these seem a bit misleading.  In the text, words are emphasized to their contextual meaning, making it easy to assume that the bold faced term, being defined in front of you means specifically what it says.  But many of these words are broader than the context given, and should be noted as such.  For instance, vasodilation reads in the text as a “relaxation of smooth muscle causing an increase in the diameter of arterioles.”  And that would be fine, except that vasodilation isn’t specific to arterioles, it applies to any dilating vessel.

Just now I was looking at the description for glucocorticoids which reads “Glucocorticoids, sometimes referred to as corticosteroids or steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are synthetic chemicals that are related to the naturally occurring glucocorticoids (hytrocortisone), hormones produced by the adrenal cortex gland in the body.”  So we’ve got a word, that we are defining as a lab made drug, only to use the very same word to express the natural hormone in the body which it mimics.

And I know that these are small points.  A second or third read, and I understand exactly what is meant in the glucocorticoid explanation.  Vasodilation, does also apply as used in the text, it just means something a little bit broader though.  I was totally prepared to rant about anorexia being defined as a “loss of appetite” but I finally found backup for that definition.  The book is right, on that one. I guess the point is though, that words matter.  And how these terms are expressed in textbooks, especially the ones that we don’t know yet, will affect the way we read and use them and understand new material.

One of the things I find most challenging in studying anatomy and medical sciences is this tendency for important words, and concepts to be expressed in a manner that will only be later contradicted when you learn more.  And right now I am suspicious of this book for doing that with words.  It’s a shame, because a suspicious student probably doesn’t take in as much as a trusting one.  But with so many changing theories and new discoveries happening throughout these fields, I’d personally like for us to work on getting the intended and accurate message out in the first place.  Then at least we’re all on a similar page in observing the actual discoveries and changes and not just playing catch up all the time on what our early lessons really meant.

I am a person who cares about words.  I may sling them casually at times, but in the end I care about them.  I’ve even gotten into more than one ridiculous heated argument about their exact meanings in the past.  And I don’t look to discourage anyone from picking up this book (unless of course you’re just looking for a strong glossary in which case you should really be buying a medical dictionary or something like that instead.)  I do however hope that any of you writing such a guide, or teaching new students will give careful consideration to the messages implied in what you put forth.  Get it right in the beginning.  And if you need to simplify, be clear that you are doing so.  You always want to leave room for further understanding of the next chapter, not set up conflicting pieces and confusion.

It’s important.

Written by Sara

March 11th, 2010 at 2:31 pm

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