Neuroscience of Flowbars

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Ian Gibbins Neuroscientist and Emeritus Professor, Flinders University. Ian has been internationally recognised for his research on the microscopic structure and function of the nerves that monitor and control the activity of the internal organs. He has over 100 peer- reviewed publications and book chapter

Ian Gibbins on Flowbars


An enormous proportion of our brain is devoted to processing visual and tactile sensory input into our plans for movements, our knowledge of objects, and how we interact with them. Core to this processing is our own body sense: where each of our limbs is in space (proprioception), how we are oriented compared with other objects, how far away from our body an object is. As we experience and interact with the physical world, we develop a detailed functional knowledge of its components: the shapes and weights of objects, how we can handle and manipulate them, how they are likely to interact with each other.


This knowledge is distributed over multiple regions of the brain and is largely subconscious to the degree that it is difficult to describe verbally: it can only be shared by showing and watching. Exploring the Flowbars brings all these elements of sensory-motor processing into action. Approaching the Flowbars for the first time, the visual system estimates their height, the distance between each section of the structure, the diameter of each bar, and much more. This visual information is transformed via the premotor system into plans for action: how the body itself will move, and how the body will interact with the external elements of the Flowbars.


Once physically on the structure, every move needs to be calculated in advance by the motor system, from the cortex of the brain, via subcortical circuits and the brainstem and spinal cord to the muscles themselves. Both feed-forward and feed-back systems (especially the cerebellar-spinal circuits) correct for errors in real time, ensuring rapid learning and improved performance. They are also essential for keeping track of orientation and balance. Repeated activity will allow at least some of these actions to become more automatic and less error-prone over time. But the complex organic design of the Flowbars means that most traverses of the structure will require novel calculations of sensory-motor activity as each exploration takes a different path.


This interplay between familiarity and novelty greatly facilitates the long-lasting acquisition of neuromuscular coordination, balance and strength. In turn, this helps to underpin the development of a confident sense of body knowledge in individuals that can then be applied to other situations where challenging physical activity is required.