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Super-quick reflexes? Just add electricity!

By David, 1 August 2019 News

Juggling requires quick reflexes. Scientists have discovered a new technique that might one day help you train.
Image: ©iStock.com/PacoRomero

Have you ever wished you had superhuman reflexes? In a simple but effective experiment, scientists from Sony Computer Science Laboratories and the University of Chicago used electrodes to improve people’s reaction times.

In the experiment, each volunteer used a finger to quickly tap targets appearing on a touchscreen. To help with the task, researchers attached electrodes to the volunteers’ arms. With electrodes giving off well-timed electrical pulses, reaction times were significantly faster.

As a result, the volunteers weren’t really in control of their own arms. The electrodes were connected to the touchscreen and were triggered whether or not the volunteer wanted to touch the screen. In a sense, the volunteers were just puppets to a self-tapping computer.

Curiously, that’s not how people felt. If the computer gave close to a normal human reaction, volunteers thought they were in control of the actions. People were generally happy with an improvement of about 80 milliseconds. Given most people’s natural reactions take about 280 milliseconds, that’s a big improvement.

Electrodes stimulate muscles directly, and faster than your brain can.
Image: University of Chicago and Sony CSL

Going too far

If scientists further sped up the electrode’s reaction, people felt less in control. In some tests, it even fired before the target appeared! In these experiments, people correctly felt like they were not in control of their own arm.

Although it might seem creepy, there would be plenty of uses for a device that improves your reaction times. The researchers imagine this technology being used to train people in activities that require quick reflexes, such as ball sports, juggling and music. After all, who doesn’t want to feel superhuman? But we do want to feel in control.

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