The negative impact of strong sympathetic arousal on dexterous performance during formal surgical training is well-known. This study investigates how this relationship might change if surgical training takes place as a hobby in an informal environment. Fifteen medical students volunteered in a 5-week training regimen and weekly performed two standardized microsurgical tasks: circular cutting and simple interrupted suturing. Time was taken and two independent reviewers evaluated the surgical proficiency. The State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and the NASA Task Load Index (NASA-TLX) questionnaires measured subjective anxiety and workload, respectively. A high-resolution thermal imaging camera recorded facial imagery, from which a computational algorithm extracted the perinasal perspiration signal as indicator of sympathetic arousal. Anxiety scores on STAI questionnaires were indifferent for all five sessions. The continuously measured arousal signal from the thermal facial imagery was moderate and did not correlate with surgical proficiency or speed. Progressive experience was the strongest contributor to improved skill and speed, which were attained in record time. It appears that dexterous skill acquisition is facilitated by the absence of strong arousals, which can be naturally eliminated in the context of informal education. Given the low cost and availability of surgical simulators, this result opens the way for re-thinking the current practices in surgical training and beyond.
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