Scientists from Imperial College London and two Japanese institutions explored whether physical interaction improved the way people performed in a computer-based task where they were using a joystick-like device. They were connected by a virtual elastic band to the same type of device operated by another person, who was hidden from view.

Most of the participants were unaware that they were working with a partner but in spite of this they subconsciously used information transmitted through their partner's touch to enhance their performance.  

“Participants achieved noticeably better results in the task when working with a partner than they did working on their own," said Etienne Burdet from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London.

The researchers are particularly interested in how their findings could help people perform exercises for rehabilitation, for example when recovering from stroke.

"Our study says touch plays a vital and very subtle role in helping people to transmit information to one another," added Burdet.

The researchers discovered that where one person was physically connected to a partner when learning a task, they consistently improved their performance regardless of how well their partner performed.

Improvements were most noticeable when the individual was practising with another human and not a robot.

“It's fascinating that this kind of communication can be so powerful even when people cannot see each other. Getting robotic devices to mimic this process could help people make bigger improvements when they are carrying out exercises in rehabilitation," stressed Atsushi Takagi, co-author of the study from Imperial College London.

Robots are increasingly used for rehabilitation and physiotherapy and the researchers believe that these robots would be more effective if they could react to patients through touch in the same way that people do.


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