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Do Blind People See Things in Their Dreams?

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A question from reader Josiah: "Do blind people see when they dream? I think there are two sides to the question, dealing with people who were born blind, and those who used to be able to see."


Whether visual imagery is present in the dreams of the blind has been pondered by scientists since the early 19th century. Josiah is right about that last part. People who are sighted, people who were born sighted but were blinded later in life, and people who were born blind all dream differently. As the Royal National Institute of the Blind in London puts it, "Dreams are experienced in the same way as life is lived." (Some people over 55 occasionally dream in black and white, while younger people who grew up with color television tend to dream only in color.1) How much visual imagery someone has experienced in their waking life—if they've experienced it at all—affects how much visual imagery is in their dreams.

A series of questionnaire and interview studies conducted in the 1970s2 led to four generalizations about the dreams of the blind:

1. People born blind, and who never experienced visual imagery in waking life, have no visual images in their dreams.

2. People who became blind before the age of five rarely experience visual imagery in their dreams.

3. People who became blind between the ages of five and seven sometimes retain some visual imagery and experience it in their dreams.

4. Most people who became blind after the age of seven continue to experience at least some visual imagery in their dreams, but the clarity and frequency of the imagery is often reduced with time.

Several studies in sleep laboratories, in which blind participants were woken up during REM sleep for the collection of dream reports, reported similar results.

A more recent study3 analyzed a sample of 372 dreams from 15 blind adults—some born blind, and others who went blind later in life. Again, the study found that people blind since birth or very early childhood experienced no visual imagery, and people blinded later in life did retain some visual imagery from their sighted waking lives and experienced it while dreaming.

One participant in the study, though, reported visual imagery inconsistent with the trends described in previous findings. Participant 13, a 24-year-old man blinded at age four, reported that he was able to see objects "clearly" or "plainly" during the dream, so it is possible that some people who became blind before the age of five can experience visual imagery in dreams.

The study also expanded upon the previous research and revealed two interesting things:

1. While less than one percent of sighted participants surveyed in two previous studies reported experiencing gustatory, olfactory, or tactual sensations in dreams, all but three of the blind participants in this study reported experiencing them. One participant, who has been blind since birth, reported that 48 percent of the sensations in his dreams were auditory and the other 52 percent were a mix of taste, smell and touch sensations.

2. Sixty percent of the blind men's dreams that involved locomotion or transportation, and 61% of the blind women's, had at least one incident of "dreamer-involved misfortune" (the norms for sighted men and women are 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively), which the researchers hypothesize is a continuation of the waking-life concerns that the blind have about getting from place to place.

1 Murzyn E. (2008). Do we only dream in colour? A comparison of reported dream colour in younger and older adults with different experiences of black and white media. Consciousness and cognition. Dec;17(4):1228-37.
2 Kirtley, D. (1975). The psychology of blindness. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
3 Hurovitz, C., Dunn, S., Domhoff, G. W., & Fiss, H. (1999). The dreams of blind men and women: A replication and extension of previous findings. Dreaming. 9:183-193.

[Image courtesy of Christophe Moustier.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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