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9 Clever Ways to Hack Your Brain Today

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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.

From relieving pain to winning games, these 11 tricks have got you covered.

1. COUGH WHEN YOU GET A SHOT.

The doctor’s office, the needle, the pain … nobody likes getting shots. We can’t do anything about the needle or the doctor, but there is a really easy way to reduce the pain: just cough. Scientists in Germany administered two rounds of shots to a group of 20 people. The first time, the test subjects just sat there. The second time, they were instructed to cough as they got the shot. Nineteen out of 20 test subjects reported feeling less pain during the second shot.

2. SMELL GOOD TO LOOK GOOD.

Wearing perfume or cologne makes you more attractive to the opposite sex—even when they can’t smell it. Researchers asked women to rate the attractiveness of men in photos and on video. The guys in one group had sprayed themselves with a super-manly scented deodorant, and the other guys were unscented. In still images, the results were as you might expect: those with more attractive features were rated as more attractive. But once the women saw the guys moving around on videotape, they consistently rated the men wearing body spray as hotter. What’s behind this? Attitude. The men who thought they smelled good behaved more confidently, which made them more attractive.

3. ON A BUDGET? STOP TOUCHING STUFF.

Our brains may be incredibly complex, but in many ways, we’re all just overgrown toddlers. When we see something we like, we want to touch it, but touching things just makes us want them more. Stores and salespeople know this; it’s why display models and test-drives exist. But the problem runs even deeper: once we’ve got something in our paws, we’re even willing to pay more for it. So if your wallet has seemed a little emptier these days, try practicing what we teach preschoolers: keep your hands to yourself.

4. BOOST YOUR NIGHT VISION WITH A ‘HAND’-MADE EYE PATCH.

Did you ever wonder why olde-tymey European pirates wore eye patches? It’s not just because they look cool (although they do). Sailors move between a ship’s decks many times a day. Each time they go below deck, their eyes have to adjust to the dark, and vice versa. This can take a while, and we all know pirates were on a tight schedule. Historians believe they made do with a brain hack that you can use today: keep one eye in the dark by covering it with an eye patch or your hand. By the time you move below deck (or into the dark bathroom at night), you’ll have one eye ready. 

5. KEEP A LID ON YOUR TEMPER BY USING YOUR WEAK HAND.

Everybody gets angry, and once in a while, everybody snaps. But some people snap a lot more than others. Scientists say the difference between frequent exploders and everyone else isn’t that the exploders have more anger; it’s that they have less self-control. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Researchers found that simply by using their nondominant hands for mundane tasks (eating cereal, opening doors, etc.) for two weeks, their self-control improved. The theory is that self-control is like a muscle. It can be strong or weak, energized or tired. And just like a muscle, it can be strengthened. Each time a person has to deal with the aggravation of pouring a drink with the wrong hand, it strengthens their self-control. Like any exercise, the process can be painful at first, but over time, the work pays off. 

6. WANT TO WIN? WEAR RED.

Whether it’s love or war (or sports, anyway), wearing red will increase your chances of victory. Both men and women are consistently rated as sexier when they’re wearing red. In close matches, athletes wearing red are far more likely to beat their opponents. The advantage is so marked that some researchers have suggested a ban on red uniforms, which may give one side an unfair advantage. The reason for these phenomena may be embarrassingly simple. In many primate species, certain relevant body parts flush red when an animal is ready to mate. In other species, redness is a sign of dominance or aggression. Humans are primates too, so it’s not too surprising the signals have translated. 

7. POWER UP YOUR POWER NAP WITH COFFEE.

There are two surefire ways to deal with drowsiness or flagging energy. The first is coffee, and the second is a power nap. But what if you combined them? It sounds like a really bad idea, but if you do it right, it can put your afternoon sleepies to bed. The trick is to have a cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage, then go straight to sleep for no more than 15 minutes. Scientists who tested the method say the one-two punch of caffeine and power nap completely eliminated test subjects’ sleepiness. Why? Well, caffeine takes a little while to start kicking in—about 15 minutes, in fact. You can squeeze in a little bit of shut-eye and wake up just in time to maximize your power-up. 

8. RELIEVE PAIN WITH (A LITTLE) SWEARING.

What’s the first thing you say when you stub your toe? If you’re like most people, it’s not something we can say here. From an early age, we’re taught that obscenities are inappropriate. But what if they serve a physiological purpose? Scientists instructed test subjects to plunge their hands into buckets of ice water. As the pain took hold, the participants were told to say one of two words: a neutral word, or the F-word. The results were pretty clear: “Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing.” There’s a catch, though: it didn’t work for potty mouths. Swearing every day lessened the effect of swearing in a painful situation. The researchers concluded that like any other treatment for pain, cussing is most effective when used in moderation. 

9. FEELING ANXIOUS? BLOW ON YOUR THUMB.

It’s super weird, but it works. Your thumb has its own heartbeat. When you’re anxious, stressed out, or hyped up, your heart rate will speed up, which makes you feel even more wired. Slowly blowing air over the pad of your thumb does two things. First, it helps cool your hot hands, which should encourage your heart to slow down. Second, it forces you to take slow, deep breaths, which tells your nervous system that the danger has passed.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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