A new study by the University of Florida’s Department of Biomedical Engineering has shown that the brain reacts differently when playing table tennis against a human versus a machine opponent. The study was conducted by Amanda Studnicki, a graduate student with extensive experience playing tennis, and her advisor Daniel Ferris. The researchers were interested in how the brain responds to high-speed, complex sports like tennis and table tennis, and how that response might differ when playing against a machine.
For the study, the researchers outfitted players with caps that contained electrodes to monitor their brain activity. The caps contained more electrodes than a typical brain-scanning cap to account for the rapid head movements involved in playing table tennis. They then had players play against both a human opponent and a ball-serving machine while their brain activity was monitored.
The researchers found that when playing against a human opponent, players’ neurons worked in unison, indicating a high level of synchronization. In contrast, when playing against the machine, players’ neurons were not aligned, indicating a lack of synchronization or desynchronization. The researchers believe this is because the machine provides no cues about what it will do next, which causes the brain to work harder to anticipate the next move.
The study has implications for sports training, suggesting that playing against human opponents provides a realism that can’t be replaced by machines. As robots become more common and sophisticated, understanding how the brain responds to these differences could help make artificial companions more naturalistic.
“We could see more naturalistic behaviors for players to practice against,” said Studnicki. “But I think machines are going to evolve in the next 10 or 20 years.”
The researchers note that their findings have implications beyond just sports training. As robots become more ubiquitous and begin to interact with humans more frequently, understanding how our brains respond to these interactions will be important.
“Humans interacting with robots is going to be different than when they interact with other humans,” said Ferris. “Our long term goal is to try to understand how the brain reacts to these differences.”
Photo: Frazier Springfield