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The Amazing Infant Brain

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We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty special. All this week, mentalfloss.com is celebrating this miracle organ with a heap of brain[y] stories, lists, and videos. It all leads up to Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss, a two-hour television event hosted by Bryant Gumbel. The special airs Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel.

While there’s little argument that babies are generally cute, it’s far more difficult to determine how intelligent they are, since we can’t measure their know-how by standards of adult brain development. Yet infants’ brains develop so rapidly they are pure, consolidated potential in their first three years. Consider that a 4-week-old fetus forms new neurons at a rate of 250,000 every minute, and by the time a child is three, their brain will reach 80 percent of adult volume and process close to 1000 trillion connections between neurons. Here are 10 mind-blowing facts about the amazing infant brain.

1. ALL BABIES ARE BORN "EARLY."

Thanks to the size of the average human birth canal, and the heavy metabolic burden a baby places on its mother in gestation, a baby’s head can only be so big and still emerge from its mother, which means babies are born with underdeveloped brains that are hypersensitive to stimulus. One popular theory explaining this is that their first three months of life outside the womb equal a “fourth trimester” which may be why newborns like to be wrapped tightly and respond well to loud white noise, details which mimic the conditions of life in utero. Further theory suggests that humans are designed to be social and cultural animals, and that being born earlier may allow an infant’s brain to soak up the many impressions and senses of being raised within a group of people. 

2. BABIES ARE BORN WITH ALL THE NEURONS THEY WILL EVER HAVE. 

Assuming normal development, a healthy baby will emerge from the womb with 100 billion neurons, nearly twice as many neurons as adults, in a brain that’s half the size. This massive number of neurons is necessary for the tremendous amount of learning a baby has to do in its first year of life. While brain volume will double by the age of 3, not all of those neurons will stick around; synaptic pruning takes place as a baby ages, in which the brain gets rid of weaker synaptic connections in favor of stronger ones.  

3. BIRTH TO AGE 3 SEES THE FASTEST RATE OF BRAIN DEVELOPMENT IN THE ENTIRE HUMAN LIFE SPAN.

Though you may think your darling is growing like a weed as chubby toddlerhood gives way to lanky kid, in the first three years of your child’s life, their brain is growing faster than any other body part. At birth, a baby's brain is about one-third the size of an adult's brain. In 90 days, it more than doubles its volume, to 55 percent of its final size. The cerebellum in particular, a brain structure at the back of the brain involved in controlling movement, grows the fastest of all brain structures; in just three months it will be 110 percent bigger than it was at birth.

4. MOST OF THE ENERGY A BABY EXPENDS IS CONCENTRATED IN THE BRAIN.

As a result of all that rapid brain development, 60 percent of a baby’s metabolic energy (primarily the consumption of glucose) is spent on growing those soon-to-be massive brains. In contrast, the brain of an adult uses only about 25 percent of the body’s metabolic energy. 

5. BABIES' BRAINS PREPARE FOR SPEECH LONG BEFORE THEY UTTER A WORD. 

A study of 7-month-old babies at the University of Washington showed activation of motor parts of babies’ brains associated with the physical aspects of speech—Broca’s area and the cerebellum—before they actually began to speak. This suggests that the brain sets up a transitional groundwork in a process known as “analysis by synthesis” in which the brain predicts the motor movements that will be required to make the sounds of speech and prepares to do so.

6. BILINGUAL BABIES' BRAINS HAVE STRONGER EXECUTIVE FUNCTION.

Not only are babies capable at birth of learning any language, those babies who are spoken to regularly in two or more languages have better executive function later in life, specifically the ability to control attention to conflicting perceptual or representational features of a problem. In other words, bilingual children have better attention or focus, which bodes well for school and work performance. 

7. PHYSICAL TOUCH STRENGTHENS BABIES' SYNAPSES.

Babies who receive regular touch have stronger neuronal connections, and greater overall well-being. It’s well known now that babies who are deprived of touch suffer a number of negative health effects, from low weight to emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. A study of 92 7- to 9 year-olds, who had previously been studied in preschool, showed that those who had received more nurture by their mothers (or caregivers) had a thicker hippocampus than those who were not as well nurtured. A stronger hippocampus is associated with improved memory, better focus, ability to retain learning, and more.

8. BABY BRAINS ARE HARDWIRED TO PREFER THEIR MOTHER'S SCENT.

Much of the infant-mother bond in the early days is determined by smell and touch, more specifically the bonding hormone oxytocin, which can induce a feeling of euphoria and love in humans. Studies have shown that babies are imprinted with, and attracted to, the scent of their own amniotic fluid, which helps them to find their mother’s nipple. Over several days, healthy babies grow to prefer the scent of their mother’s breast. One study even showed that formula-fed babies still prefer the odor of their mother’s breast to that of their formula up to two weeks after birth.

9. A BABY'S UNWILLINGNESS TO LEAVE A PARENT SIGNALS THE DEVELOPMENT OF LONG-TERM MEMORY.

Mothers who find they must pry a suddenly crying baby off of them when they prepare to leave might be relieved to know it may be the earliest signs of long-term memory development. Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University professor of psychology, suggests that around 9 months, an infant’s unwillingness to leave their parent is a sign that the child has a clear memory of his or her mother “being there” and can now form an emotional association to the event. 

10. HYPOTHERMIA CAN PROTECT NEWBORN BRAINS. 

A new study at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles of newborns treated for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE)—a condition that occurs when the brain is deprived of an adequate oxygen supply—found that inducing hypothermia through a targeted cooling of the brain had a neuroprotective effect.

Without treatment, these babies often develop cerebral palsy or other severe complications that affect as many as 1 million babies worldwide. The study found that hypothermia works by reducing energy metabolism, but also reduced the synthesis of glutamate and other excitatory neurotransmitters.   

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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