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Episode 8: Unravelling the Bell-Shaped Velocity Curve of Human Reaching

Unravelling the Bell-Shaped Velocity Curve of Human Reaching:

Adaptation Across Tasks and Objects


BBTA Tutor: Clare Fraser


In the realm of human motor control, the bell-shaped velocity curve of reaching serves as a fundamental framework for understanding how our bodies efficiently navigate and interact with the environment. This velocity profile, often resembling a symmetrical bell curve, reflects the characteristic acceleration and deceleration patterns during reaching movements.

The bell-shaped velocity curve is a product of the systems model of interplay between the central nervous system and the biomechanical aspects of our musculoskeletal system. This curve typically features a smooth acceleration phase, a peak velocity, and a deceleration phase, mirroring the coordination of muscles and joints involved in reaching tasks. The underlying principle is efficiency - minimizing the energy expended while maximizing precision.

This velocity curve, however, is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. It adapts dynamically to different types of reaching tasks and the properties of the objects being manipulated. Let's delve into how this adaptation unfolds.

Consider the simple act of reaching for a light switch. The movement is quick and direct, with a rapid acceleration phase to swiftly cover the distance and an equally brisk deceleration to avoid overshooting. The bell-shaped velocity curve in this scenario prioritizes speed and accuracy, aligning with the immediate nature of the task.

Now contrast this with the deliberate movement required for pouring a glass of water. Here, the velocity curve takes on a more controlled shape, emphasizing a gradual acceleration and deceleration to ensure precise control over the pouring action. The central nervous system adjusts the velocity profile based on the task requirements, effectively optimizing the motor plan for the situation at hand.

Crucially, the adaptation extends to the characteristics of the objects involved. The size and shape of an object influences the velocity curve, particularly during the critical phase of hand aperture, which refers to the opening and closing of the hand during grasping.

For instance, consider reaching for a small, delicate object such as a pen. The velocity curve here features a nuanced hand aperture that delicately adjusts to the object's size. The central nervous system creates a fine-tuned motor program to ensure a controlled grasp, minimizing the risk of exerting excessive force that could damage the object.

On the other end of the spectrum, reaching for a larger and more robust object, like a water bottle, prompts a different adaptation. The velocity curve accommodates a wider hand aperture, allowing for a more encompassing grip to ensure stability during the grasp. The muscular coordination adjusts to the object's size, maintaining the efficiency and precision required for the task.

In essence, the bell-shaped velocity curve is a dynamic blueprint, tailored by our nervous system to suit the demands of diverse reaching tasks and the characteristics of the objects involved. Whether it's turning on a light switch, pouring a glass of water, or grasping a small pen or a sizable water bottle, the human motor control system effortlessly adapts, showcasing the remarkable efficiency and versatility of our reaching movements.

If you want to find out more about the neurophysiological basis of movement control, and how to apply that directly to the rehabilitation of your neurological patients, why not come on a Bobath Course? You will find a course suitable for your level of training that meets your learning objectives on the BBTA website – come and jump in! www.bbta.org.uk



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