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Aaah! Real Monsters: The Science Behind the Legends

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In my last post, I took a quick tour through a few hundred years worth of vampire, werewolf and zombie folklore to see how the icons of horror fiction in legend differ from their modern interpretations (at least in one aspect: how an average Joe becomes one of the things that go bump in the night).*

As a follow-up, we're going to look at some of the real-world events and phenomena that may have inspired the creation of these monsters.


Rabies: Spanish neurologist Juan Gómez-Alonso watched a vampire movie one night after reading a study of viruses that infect the brain and was shocked by the similarities between vampirism and rabies. After studying vampire folklore and medical accounts of rabies infections, he published his findings in Neurology in 1998, proposing that vampire legends were inspired by rabies.

Gómez-Alonso's reading revealed that vampire stories became more common in Europe in the 18th century as different areas experienced rabies outbreaks, particularly in Hungary, where a rabies epidemic in dogs, wolves, other animals and humans tore through the country between 1721 and 1728.

Going down a list of characteristics associated with vampires, Gomez-Alonso noted that almost all of them could be explained as symptoms of rabies.

When the rabies virus begins to attack the central nervous system, it can cause insomnia, as well as agitation and dementia, which might cause the victim to become violent and attack people. Additionally, bright light, water, strong smells (garlic, anyone?) and mirrors can all trigger muscle spasm attacks during which victims cannot swallow and sometimes vomit blood. Sounds like a vampire to me.

Gómez-Alonso also hypothesized that the observation of animals and humans exhibiting these same symptoms gave rise to the idea that vampires could shape-shift.

And, or course, both rabies and vampirism can be spread by bites.

Porphyria: In 1985, Canadian biochemist David Dolphin proposed a link between porphyria, a rare blood disorder characterized by irregular production of heme (an iron-rich pigment found in blood), and vampire stories.

Dolphin found that two different types of this porphyria can cause symptoms that echo vampiric characteristics. Acute intermittent porphyria can cause neurological attacks like seizures, trances and hallucinations, which might last for days or weeks. People with porphyria cutanea tardea experience an extreme sensitivity to sunlight and suffer blisters and burns on sun-exposed skin. Porphyria is also hereditary, which could lead to concentrations of people suffering from it in certain areas.

Catalepsy: A cataleptic episode really doesn't draw many comparisons to vampirism, but it can put the thought of the walking undead into your mind. Catalepsy, a symptom of Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and other conditions and disorders affecting the central nervous system, causes rigidity of the muscles and slowing of the heart and respiration. Without advanced medical knowledge or diagnostic tools, a doctor could have pronounced someone in the middle of a days-long cataleptic episode to be dead. Not long after, the dearly departed might return from the grave after coming to in their casket and struggling to the surface.


Hypertrichosis: Congenital generalized hypertrichosis, sometimes called werewolf syndrome, is a hereditary condition that results in excessive hair growth on the upper body and face, including the nose, forehead and eyelids. The condition appears too rare, though "“ all 19 currently documented cases are in one Mexican family "“ to be the explanation for historic werewolf myths.

Rabies: In The Werewolf Delusion, Ian Woodward points to rabies as a likely cause for the inspiration of werewolf myths. As with the comparison to vampirism above, late-stage rabies and the dementia and aggression that come with it could cause people to believe a person suffering from the virus was becoming "bestial." If the person had contracted rabies from a wolf bite, people around them may have assumed that the wolf had passed some of its animal qualities along to them.

Aggressive animals: Wherever humans and animals live in close contact, there's a chance of conflict. Werewolves may have simply been a way to explain clusters of wolf attacks in small geographic areas, or even isolated incidents. People in places where there are no wolves may have done the same thing, given the existence of folklore featuring werebears in some parts of Europe, werehyenas in Africa, and were cats in various places (werelions and wereleopards in Africa, weretigers in India and werejaguars in South America).


Mental Illness: In a 1997 study, Roland Littlewood, a British anthropology and Chavannes Douyon, a Haitian physician, concluded that many of the zombies in Haiti may just be people suffering from psychiatric disorders or brain damage. The study, discusses the cases of three people who were thought to have been turned into zombies. They diagnosed the first person with catatonic schizophrenia, found the second to be suffering from brain damage and epilepsy caused by oxygen starvation of the brain and discovered the third had a severe learning disability caused by fetal-alcohol syndrome. They suggest that zombies may have become part of Haitian culture as a way to explain the condition of the mentally ill.

Zombies are (sort of) real: From 1982 to 1984, anthropologist Wade Davis traveled through Haiti to find the origin of zombie folklore. I should point out that the legitimacy of Davis's research, as well as his ethics and the literary merit of his books, have been questioned. Likewise, the research Davis's critics used to debunk also has its detractors. The whole controversy makes for interesting reading, but for now I'm simply summarizing Davis's work without comment.

During his research, Davis discovered that bokors use powders made from the dried and ground up pieces of various plants and animals in their rituals that can cause "zombification." Davis collected several samples of the bokors' zombie powder and discovered that they had some ingredients in common: charred and ground bones and other human remains, plants with urticating (barbed) hairs and puffer fish.

Davis hypothesized that, if applied topically, would cause irritation and the victim's scratching would break the skin. The tetrodotoxin found in the puffer fish, which the fish use as a natural defense, would then pass into the bloodstream, paralyzing the victim, slowing their vital signs and making them appear dead. The victim would be buried, and the bokor would dig the body up and force their "zombie" into labor. Davis also said that the bokors he met told him that when the victim is retrieved, they're fed a paste of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and Datura "“ also called concombre zombie, the zombie cucumber "“ which contains the hallucinogens that cause delirium, confusion and amnesia.

Costas J. Efthimiou, a physicist at the University of Central Florida tackled various monster myths in his paper Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality. In it, he describes the case of Wilfred Doricent, a teenager who became ill, died and was buried, only to reappear in his village over a year later. Efthimiou concluded that zombification is a real phenomenon, but void of the magic and sorcery found in folk tales:

The secrets of zombiefication are closely guarded by voodoo sorcerers. However, Fr`ere Dodo, a once highly feared voodoo sorcerer who is now an Evangelical preacher and firm denouncer of the voodoo faith, has revealed the process. It turns out that zombiefication is accomplished by slipping the victim a potion whose main ingredient is powder derived from the liver of a species of puffer fish native to Haitian waters. Well, we now have an explanation for how Wilfred could have been made to seem dead, even under the examination of a doctor. However, we have already said that the TTX paralysis was unlikely to have affected his brain. How does one account for Wilfred's comatose mental state? The answer is oxygen deprivation. Wilfred was buried in a coffin in which relatively little air could have been trapped. Wilfred's story probably goes something like this: Slowly, the air in Wilfred's coffin began to run out so that by the time he snapped out his TTX-induced paralysis, he had already suffered some degree of brain damage. At this point his survival instincts kicked in and he managed to dig himself out of his grave — graves tend to be dug shallow in Haiti. He probably wondered around for some time before ending up back the village. Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Roger Mallory, of the Haitian Medical Society, conducted a scan of zombiefied Wilfred's brain. Although the results were not as definite as had been hoped for, he and his colleagues found brain damage consistent with oxygen starvation. It would seem that zombiefication is nothing more then a skillful act of poisoning.

*For some, the tour may have been a little too quick. And exploring all the ways monsters in legend differ from modern fiction could easily fill a book. If anyone is looking for more monster folklore, or more info on the evolution of monsters from folklore to modern fiction, email me at flossymatt[at], and I can suggest some further reading.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.