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What is the Difference Between Anatomy and Physiology?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Anatomy and physiology are closely related concepts that are often studied together. In a few words, anatomy is a study of the physical structure of an organism, while physiology involves the study of the functions of individual structures and systems within an organism, as well as the function of an organism as a whole. An understanding of anatomy is critical to the study of physiology, and learning about physiology is important to people who want to understand how anatomical structures work.

Both anatomy and physiology have been studied for centuries. Humans have always maintained a curiosity about how they and other organisms are put together and how they work. Many people throughout history have also been interested in comparing and contrasting different living organisms to find similarities and identify differences. Cats and fish, for example, have very different bodies that are customized for the environments they live in.

The study of anatomy focuses on learning about the size, shape, and location of structures in the body. It usually centers around dissection, in which examples are carefully cut up to reveal the structures within. Physical structures can be identified with the naked eye, or observed under magnification with a microscope for more detail. During the dissection process, anatomists can carefully document everything they encounter, and see how systems in the body are connected. An imperfect understanding of anatomy can lead to considerable confusion for medical practitioners, as knowing about anatomy is a very important part of studying the progress of disease.

Anatomy could be considered a static study, while physiology is more dynamic, involving the chemical, physical, and electrical processes that make an organism function, from the processes that regulate heart rate to the complex systems involved in visual perception. In order to study physiology, it is often necessary to work with living organisms or tissue to fully understand physical processes, such as the release of neurotransmitters in the brain and the storage of energy in cells. Both anatomy and physiology can be studied with the use of dissection, medical imaging techniques, and laboratory analysis of samples from specimens.

Medical students study these fields extensively over the course of their educations, so that they understand how the body works as a whole, and how the different systems within the body relate to each other. This field is also a topic of interest for people in many allied health professions, ranging from X-ray technicians who need a thorough knowledge of anatomy to do their work to medical dosimetrists who need to understand physiology when calculating appropriate dosages and treatments for cancer.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon338151 — On Jun 11, 2013

What's another similarity between anatomy and physiology?

By Glasshouse — On Jan 24, 2011

@ GiraffeEars- The exhibit is not that bad. I have not been, but I plan on going in March when I visit the Phoenix area. The people who are used in this exhibit donated their bodies to this project, and it is all done in good taste. Learning about what is underneath our skin is a wonderful and fascinating thing, and the majority of people go to this exhibit out of sheer wonder and curiosity, not a morbid sense of excitement. The exhibit shows things like an entire human nervous system, brain and all, encased in a brick of plastic.

I have been told that the exhibit is very moving and gives you a sense of connectedness. When you strip away the skin, you realize that we are all the same inside, and you see the physical strengths and vulnerabilities that are present in every human. You also get a glimpse at what happens to the body when you smoke cigarettes, are physically active, have heart problems, or even become afflicted with Alzheimer. Exhibits like these also inspire people to find cures to the diseases that kill millions worldwide. To each their own, but I think that this exhibit is much more engaging than an anatomy and physiology lecture.

By GiraffeEars — On Jan 23, 2011

@ Submariner- I can't believe that you or anyone else would support such a horrible and morbid exhibit. I heard about the exhibit when it first opened in New York a few years back and I was horrified to know that plasticized dead bodies were sliced and diced and put on display for public pleasure. People claim it is a scientific view of the inner workings of a human body, but dissecting a body and putting it on display is horrible.

A dead body is a sacred thing. Displaying it like this is for public curiosity is reminiscent of gladiators, and the Coliseum in ancient Rome. What is so wrong with society that people would think this is okay? In my opinion, if you want to learn about anatomy and physiology, read a textbook. Leave the actual cadavers for the professionals.

By submariner — On Jan 22, 2011

Speaking of human anatomy and physiology, I am going to see the Body Worlds exhibit in Phoenix next weekend. I am going with one of my classmates, her fiancé, and my fiancée. I am a little squeamish about stuff like that, but my friend is a biology minor and she is really interested in anatomy. I have seen the pictures online, and even those gave me the chills a little.

The exhibit is up at the Science Center in Phoenix for about four months, and includes over four hundred exhibits of cadavers from both healthy and unhealthy individuals. I think the exhibit is going to be interesting, but it is also a little macabre to me. Has anyone seen the exhibit? What did you think? Is it any less shocking once you are actually there looking at the exhibits?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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