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The Science Behind Near-Death Experiences

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By Keith Wagstaff

The internet is full of stories by people who claim they floated above their bodies or moved towards a bright light after nearly dying.

Some people claim it's a glimpse of the afterlife. Scientists have been unable, for the most part, to explain the phenomenon. Whatever it is, it's not uncommon — around 20 percent of cardiac arrest survivors report having some kind of near-death experience, according to The Washington Post.

A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan could shine some light on the topic. No, researchers didn't take a cue from Flatliners and purposefully give themselves near-death experiences.

Instead, they picked some very unlucky rats. Those rodents were outfitted with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to monitor their brain activity and then given lethal injections to induce cardiac arrest.

The result? A burst of brain activity after the animal's heart stopped.

"Measurable conscious activity is much, much higher after the heart stops — within the first 30 seconds," Jimo Borjigin, who led the research, told NPR. "That really just, just really blew our mind... That really is consistent with what patients report."

To make sure it wasn't just the lethal injection causing the surge in electrical activity, researchers also subjected the rats to other forms of death, including drowning. The result was the same.

That could mean that the brain is wired for one "last hurrah," as the University of Birmingham's Jason Braithwaite described it to the BBC, no matter what the cause of death.

The researchers also noticed an EEG pattern associated with visual stimulation during the rats' dying moments. "My hypothesis would be that during the near-death process, the visual process is highly activated,” Borjigin told The Washington Post, which could explain why so many people see bright lights.

Ultimately, Borjigin told NPR, "The near-death experience is perhaps really the byproduct of the brain's attempt to save itself."

Not that this definitively explains near-death experiences. Scientists still understand very little about the human brain, which is why the White House has committed millions to mapping it.

Still, Borjigin's research is a step towards understanding what happens to our brains as we die.

"This finding firmly reinforces basic tenets of the scientific method," wrote's Joseph Stromberg. "Although discussion of the afterlife and the supernatural have a place in philosophical and theological realms, it need not be used to explain near-death experiences — physical processes can do that just fine."

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]