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Human Brain Reacts Differently to Table Tennis Matches Against Human and Machine Opponents

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image: UF/Frazier Springfield

Researchers at the University of Florida have found that the brains of table tennis players react differently when playing against human opponents compared to machine opponents. The study, led by graduate student Amanda Studnicki and her advisor, Daniel Ferris, a professor of biomedical engineering, aimed to understand how our brains respond to the demands of high-speed sports like table tennis and how the choice of opponent affects this response.

Ferris explained the significance of the study: “Humans interacting with robots is going to be different than when they interact with other humans. Our long-term goal is to try to understand how the brain reacts to these differences.”

Examining the Neuroscience Behind Sports Performance

The brain's performance during sports activities has been a subject of interest for researchers for years. In complex, fast-paced sports like table tennis, understanding how the brain processes information and controls movements can provide valuable insights into sports training and the development of more effective training methods.

This research also has implications for the future of human-robot interactions, as robots become more common and sophisticated in various aspects of human life. Understanding the brain's response to robotic counterparts can help make artificial companions more naturalistic and improve their integration into our daily lives.

To investigate the brain's response during table tennis matches, Studnicki and Ferris used a brain-scanning cap equipped with 240 electrodes. This allowed them to focus on the parieto-occipital cortex, the region responsible for turning sensory information into movement. They recorded the brain activity of players while they played against both human opponents and a ball-serving machine.

Studnicki said, “We wanted to understand how it worked for complex movements like tracking a ball in space and intercepting it, and table tennis was perfect for this.”

Synchronization vs. Desynchronization: The Brain's Response to Different Opponents

The researchers observed that when playing against another human, players' neurons worked in unison, displaying synchronization. In contrast, when playing against a ball-serving machine, the neurons in their brains were not aligned with one another, leading to desynchronization.

Ferris explained the difference: “If we have 100,000 people in a football stadium and they’re all cheering together, that’s like synchronization in the brain, which is a sign the brain is relaxed. If we have those same 100,000 people but they’re all talking to their friends, they’re busy but they’re not in sync. In a lot of cases, that desynchronization is an indication that the brain is doing a lot of calculations as opposed to sitting and idling.”

The team suspects that players' brains were more active while waiting for robotic serves because machines provide no cues of what they are going to do next. This difference in brain processing suggests that training with a machine might not offer the same experience as playing against a real opponent.

The Future of Machine-assisted Sports Training

Although the study highlights the differences in brain activity when facing human and machine opponents, it does not dismiss the value of machine-assisted training. Studnicki believes that machines will continue to play a significant role in sports training: “I still see a lot of value in practicing with a machine. But I think machines are going to evolve in the next 10 or 20 years, and we could see more naturalistic behaviors for players to practice against.”

As technology advances, it is likely that machines will become more capable of mimicking human behavior and providing more realistic training experiences. By understanding the nuances of human brain activity in response to different opponents, researchers can contribute to the development of more effective training methods and enhance

Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.