I wrote earlier about beating TMI with simple definitions in both anatomy and massage class.  Unfortunately, not everything is a simple term to be defined.  There are systems, processes, and techniques to be learned in massage therapy school that just can’t be compacted into a single sentence.  What’s more, there are tons of them.  What’s to do?

We’re still confronted with Too Much Information, but sometimes you can tackle it differently.

Try this: explain everything important about your childhood bedroom in 30 seconds.

Now try this: in 30 seconds, explain the ways in which your childhood bedroom was different from your current bedroom.

A lot easier, huh?  The focus on contrast brought out what was “important” much more immediately than having to ferret it out for yourself.

Imagine having to name everything important about connective tissue.  FRUSTRATING!  But in what ways is connective tissue different from epithelium?  In what ways is it the same? 

In addition to this being an easier way to learn, I’m told that “key difference” type questions also pop up a lot on licensing exams, which is a nice bonus for studying this way.

The best tool I have for compare/contrast studying is the Venn diagram.  At its simplest, a Venn diagram is a pair of overlapping circles.  Each circle has an shared part (for similarities) and a separate part (for differences).  You visual learners out there are going to have a blast with this, if you don’t use this method already. (You can click on the picture for a clearer view of the text.)

a diagram comparing and contrasting the autonomic and somatic nervous systemsI created this (with my mad-scientist MS Paint skills, no less!) to help me learn about the autonomic nervous system, by comparing it to and contrasting it with the somatic nervous system, which I already know about.  Normally I just doodle these in my notebook in ordinary pen, but I’ll even color code for you lovely folks!  Don’t you feel lucky?

In the center is the comparison, the similarities.  Both use acetylcholine (ACh) as a neurotransmitter, both can excite their effectors, and both receive input from sensory neurons.

On the left is the somatic nervous system.  It does not use norepinephrine (NE) as a neurotransmitter in addition to ACh.  But the autonomic system, on the right, does.  The somatic nervous system cannot inhibit.  The autonomic nervous system can.  (Do you get the feeling that if the two got into a fistfight, the autonomic system would kick the somatic system’s butt?  It has way cooler superpowers … provided you never want to do anything on purpose.)

Five category Venn diagram without content.

A 5-category Venn I made because I'm a dork.

Now, you can also make Venns with three, four, or even five categories.  While they look obscenely cool, they aren’t very useful for studying.  It’s TMI again.  You can try if you like, but I’ve never found it helpful enough to bother with even three categories except as an interesting art project.

One final note: your ability to compare and contrast depends on your knowledge (or access to a source of knowledge) about both of the categories you’re working with.  Comparing and contrasting stroking and friction techniques when there’s lots of information about both in your head/book/notes is fine.  Comparing and contrasting the strengths of Swedish massage with deep tissue massage when your school doesn’t cover deep tissue and you have no access to reliable references is harder.  And in your lack of knowledge, you might end up comparing two completely useless things.  An example from Douglas Adams, since I seem to be on a kick with him this week:

Any sophisticated knowledgable person, who had knocked about, seen a few things, would probably have remarked on how much the craft looked like a filing cabinet–a large and recently burgled filing cabinet lying on its back with its drawers in the air and flying.
The islanders, whose experience was of a different kind, were instead struck by how little it looked like a lobster.

So grab ahold of your common sense and think about what concepts you could pair up and learn together. Share your compare/contrast study ideas with us in comments, and get the conversation going!

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