Table tennis puzzle: Playing against robots makes our brains work harder – Neuroscience News

Summary: When you play against another human opponent, the neurons in the brain work in unison. However, when playing against a robotic server, neural activity desynchronizes a new study report.

Source: University of Florida

The captain of her high school tennis team and a four-year college tennis veteran in college, Amanda Studnicki had been training for this moment for years.

All she had to do now was think small. Like small ping pong.

For weeks, Studnicki, a graduate student at the University of Florida, served and rallied dozens of players on a table tennis court. His opponents sported a sci-fi face, a cap of electrodes flowing from their heads into a backpack as they played against Studnicki or a ball machine.

This cyborg look was essential to Studnicki’s goal: to understand how our brain reacts to the intense demands of a high-speed sport like table tennis – and what difference a mechanical opponent makes.

Studnicki and his adviser, Daniel Ferris, discovered that the brains of table tennis players react very differently to human or machine opponents. Faced with the inscrutable nature of a pitching machine, players’ brains race in anticipation of the next serve. As with the obvious clues that a human opponent was about to serve, their neurons buzzed in unison, seemingly confident of their next move.

The findings have implications for sports training, suggesting that human opponents provide a realism that cannot be replaced by mechanical aids. And as robots become more common and sophisticated, understanding our brain’s response could help make our artificial companions more naturalistic.

“Robots are becoming more and more ubiquitous. You have companies like Boston Dynamics building robots that can interact with humans and other companies building social service robots that help the elderly,” said Ferris, professor of biomedical engineering at UF.

“Humans interacting with robots will be different from those interacting with other humans. Our long-term goal is to try to understand how the brain responds to these differences.

Ferris’s lab has long studied the brain’s response to visual cues and motor tasks, such as walking and running. He was looking to move into the study of complex, fast-paced action when Studnicki, with his tennis background, joined the research group. The laboratory therefore decided that tennis was the ideal sport to answer these questions. But oversized movements — especially high overhand serves — have proven to be a hindrance to the burgeoning technology.

“So we literally narrowed things down to table tennis and asked all the same questions we had for tennis before,” Ferris said. The researchers still had to compensate for the smaller movements of table tennis. Ferris and Studnicki therefore doubled the 120 electrodes of a typical brain scanner cap, with each bonus electrode to monitor rapid head movements during a table tennis match.

With all of these electrodes scanning players’ brain activity, Studnicki and Ferris were able to tune into the region of the brain that transforms sensory information into movement. This area is known as the parieto-occipital cortex.

“It engages all of your senses – visual, vestibular, auditory – and it gives insight into creating your motor blueprint. It’s been studied a lot for simple tasks, like reaching and grabbing, but all of them are stationary,” Studnicki said.

“We wanted to understand how it worked for complex moves like following a ball through space and intercepting it, and table tennis was perfect for that.”

The researchers analyzed dozens of hours of play against Studnicki and the pitcher. When playing against another human, the players’ neurons worked in unison, as if they were all speaking the same language.

A participant plays table tennis against graduate student Amanda Studnicki while having her brain imaged via an EEG cap. The experiment revealed big differences in how our brain reacts to human and machine opponents during sports. Credit: Frazier Springfield

In contrast, when the players faced a ball-serving machine, the neurons in their brains weren’t aligned with each other. In the world of neuroscience, this lack of alignment is known as desynchronization.

“If we have 100,000 people in a football stadium and they’re all cheering together, it’s like a synchronization in the brain, which is a sign that the brain is relaxed,” Ferris said.

“If we have those same 100,000 people but they’re all talking to their friends, they’re busy but they’re out of sync. In many cases, this out of sync is an indication that the brain is doing a lot of calculations instead of just sitting around and idling.

The team suspects that the players’ brains were so active while waiting for robotic services because the machine doesn’t provide any clues as to what they’re going to do next. What is clear is that our brains process these two experiences very differently, suggesting that training with a machine might not offer the same experience as playing against a real opponent.

“I still see a lot of value in practicing with a machine,” Studnicki said. “But I think the machines are going to evolve in the next 10 or 20 years, and we might see more naturalistic behaviors that players can train against.”

About this robotics and neuroscience research news

Author: Eric Hamilton
Source: University of Florida
Contact: Eric Hamilton – University of Florida
Picture: Image is credited to Frazier Springfield

Original research: Access closed.
“Parieto-occipital electrocortical dynamics during real-world table tennis” by Daniel Ferris et al. in Euro


Parieto-occipital electrocortical dynamics during real-world table tennis

Traditional human electroencephalography experiments that study visuomotor processing use controlled laboratory conditions with limited ecological validity. In the real world, the brain integrates complex, dynamic and multimodal visuomotor signals to guide the execution of movement. The parietal and occipital cortices are particularly important in the online control of targeted actions.

Table tennis is a responsive whole-body activity requiring rapid visuomotor integration that presents myriad unanswered neurocognitive questions about brain function during real-world movement. The aim of this study was to quantify the electrocortical dynamics of the parieto-occipital cortices during sports practice with high-density electroencephalography.

We included analysis of power spectral densities, event-related spectral perturbations, inter-trial phase coherences, event-related potentials, and event-related phase coherences of clusters located by the parieto-occipital source while participants played table tennis with a ball machine and a human. We found large spectral power fluctuations in parieto-occipital cortices related to knock events.

Ball machine trials showed more theta power fluctuations around struck events, increased inter-trial phase coherence and event-related potential deviation, and phase coherence related to the higher event between parieto-occipital groups compared to human trials.

Our results suggest that sports training with a machine elicits fundamentally different brain dynamics from training with a human.

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