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What Happens to Your Brain When You’re in Love?

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People say love is like an addiction. According to some neuroscientists, they’re right! Romantic love can release so many happy-go-lucky neurotransmitters into your bloodstream that the effects can outdo some drugs. Here’s what happens in your brain when you stick with that special someone.

In the beginning….

When you have butterflies in your stomach from meeting someone new, dopamine levels surge. All that dopamine gives you an extra thrill when you see your newly beloved, creating an intense craving to be around them. A neurotrophin called nerve growth factor accompanies all this euphoria and increases your emotional dependency. Lastly, serotonin levels drop, which cranks up the dial for desire. This chemical cocktail is why lovestruck couples can be so infatuated with each other. Studies show that the chemical concentrations brewing inside the brains of newly minted lovebirds are similar to those who suffer from OCD.

Is it love or is it lust?

Romantic love is driven largely by the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system. Meanwhile, lust is controlled by the endocrine system. Parts of the hypothalamus prime the body for sex while steroid hormones amp up sexual desire. But don’t dismiss lust as some primitive carnal instinct. When you’re lusting for someone, your brain does a heavy load of subconscious work. In one study, people were shown pictures of good-looking people and asked whether they found them attractive or not. It took them significantly longer to give a piece of eye candy the “okay.” To no one’s surprise, the extrastriate area of the brain—which we use to judge someone else’s body—was active. But the brain’s temporo-parietal junction also lit up, which is interesting, because that part of the brain is important for understanding your own body image. It seems that when you’re lusting, you’re not just judging someone else—you’re judging yourself.

As the relationship solidifies…

As the relationship wears on, lovebirds become less obsessive. The bonding phase begins. The raphe nuclei start producing more serotonin, while, within a year, nerve growth factor levels usually return to normal. Things may feel less exciting, but the rise in serotonin helps produce a trusting, less needy attachment that primes couples for a long-term relationship. Oxytocin—the hormone that floods your brain during an orgasm—helps curb obsession even more and helps make things more stable. (Oxytocin, by the way, is the same hormone that makes maternal bonds so strong.)

Years into love…

The longer a relationship lasts, the less dopamine is released. But that doesn’t mean the bond is dying. In fact, a molecule called CRF (corticotrophin-releasing factor) helps keep couples together. CRF is released whenever couples are separated; it creates an unpleasant feeling that makes them miss each other. In men, a molecule called vasopressin also increases. Vasopressin is linked to territorial behavior, and it may explain why, in healthy relationships, men feel loyal and protective of their partners (while in unhealthy relationships, they’re possessive). Vasopressin also promotes fidelity. When scientists inhibited vasopressin receptors in prairie voles, the usually faithful animals became rampant cheaters. 

What are some advantages of love?

For one, it makes you think smarter and faster. In one study, participants stared at a computer as names flashed across the screen (but flashed so quickly that they couldn’t consciously recognize them). When the name of their loved one appeared, their ability to perform demanding cognitive tasks improved significantly. Scientists believe that’s because love activates the brain’s dopamine system—a system that’s been shown to boost cognitive and motor skills.

See how your brain reacts to love and all the other astonishing things that go on in that noggin of yours. Tune in to Brain Games tonight at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.

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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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