300,000 Year-Old Homo Sapien fossils Discovered

In early June paleoanthropologists (yes - an even cooler title than plain old paleontologist!) re-dated and realized some of the oldest Homo sapien fossils ever found had been discovered in the 1960s in Jebel Irhoud.

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The fossils, as well as some artifacts, have been dated to around 300,000 years old and were discovered in Morocco. Why is this important? Well it could push the inception of our species back an extra 100,000 years earlier than originally thought. According to leading experts and discoveries made in the field, modern humans as we know them evolved around 200,000 years ago. But the new fossils shift that window in back to 300,000 years.

Let's go back to that cool word I mentioned in the first sentence...paleoanthropologists. What is a paleoanthropologist? And how are they different from a paleontologist? Well paleoanthropology is the study of the formation and the development of the specific characteristics of humans. It dates back to the 18th century, but has begun playing a more and more major role in our understanding of us in recent years, especially with the advent of more effective technology and dating techniques. 

Let's talk about where these beings were found. They were found in Jebel Irhoud. Jebel Irhoud was not a novel place to find remains, in fact some bodies were originally discovered by miners in the 1960s, but were (as we know now) incorrectly identified as 40,000 year-old Neanderthals.

But...Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute, wasn't quite satisfied with this conclusion. In fact, he believed the skull shapes were all wrong for Neanderthals and actually more closely resembled early humans from abut 150,000 years ago. 

This was the beginning of a long road for Hublin though. At the time conventional wisdom in the field held that early humans evolved in East Africa. With that fact understood, it would make no sense that an even earlier human could be found in North Africa.

This started in the 1980s...and he didn't let go of it for decades. Finally, in 2004, he was able to find 5 different Homo sapiens were found: 3 adults, 1 adolescent, and 1 child, preserved in clay. He got lucky again because the remains were burned. Now, you might think damaged remains would be a bad thing, right? Well, not when it comes to dating. The burn allowed for thermoluminescence dating. Long story short, this technique is able to test to see how much  radiation an object has absorbed since it was last heated, thus providing a strong baseline for dating.

The ability to use thermoluminescence dating, which were backed up further by electron spin resonance dating (from the remaining teeth enamel) confirmed Hublin's original theory: the specimens were early humans dating back to 300,000 years ago. 

Hublin and his team began calling these remains  "early Homo sapiens." In an e-mail to Ars Technia, Hublin clarified that they aren't modern humans, but instead "representative of populations directly ancestral to us."

According to Richard Potts, who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program, in an email to the Washington Post he described the new findings to have “small faces shaped distinctively like modern humans, although the brain pans fall outside the range of humans alive today." But, he added, this isn't a big deal “so do several other clearly fossil Homo sapiens from Africa and Europe,” he said.  Comparing these with facial position on known human skulls from Ethiopia, Potts said, “I think we have a good instance of early Homo sapiens from Irhoud.” Additionally, a similar jaw and "modern chin" that all modern humans share are found in this. They also found proof of use of tools and other artifacts. 

The above image is of Jean-Jacques Hublin at Jebel Irhoud and is liscensed under creative commons and wikimedia commons. The image was taken by Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig.

A Frightening Haul

A faceless fish, zombie worms, and flesh-eating crustaceans - oh my! All these and more were recently pulled up from the depths of the abyss...and by abyss, I mean some of the deepest parts of the oceans humans have explored so far.

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The mission itself was called 'Sampling the Abyss'. This mission was headed up by a joint effort between Australia's 'Museums of Victoria' and the 'Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation'. 

The goal of 'Sampling the Abyss' was to explore Australia's easern abyss which is roughly 2.5 miles below the surface of the ocean. Why? Well, this patch of ocean is one of the least explored parts of the entire planet and it is believed that discoveries and research there will further help scientists to understand biodiversity, and maybe even how to best protect it.

The team comprised of 40 international scientists that lasted roughly a month.  The entire month was spent on the  research vessel, aptly named 'Investigator.' The Chief Scientist on this pioneering voyage into the deep is Dr Tim O’Hara. Dr. O'Hara is the deputy head of the Museums of Victoria and hopes to find and collect new specimens with the help of specially created nets and other fishing gear.

One of my favorite finds was the Coffinfish. Although Coffinfish have been documented for quite some time, the ones they discovered were quite interesting looking (if you want to see pics head over here). One interesting things about coffinfish is, well, they aren't fish at all. In fact, their in the sea toad family. 

O'Hara has said about the mission, “We know that abyssal animals have been around for at least 40 million years, but until recently only a handful of samples had been collected from Australia’s abyss,”

The above image is from Flickr user Paramita and is liscensed under creative commons. 

Ouija: A History

Ouija boards have been around for decades and decades, even Hasbro has gotten in on the Ouija-Board, creating a speciality toy and boxset for the strange, alleged portal to the dead. But, Ouija's didn't just appear out of the ether one day...so how did they rise to such an intense popularity and cultural awareness?

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First, for the uninitiated, a ouija board is a flat board (not dissimilar to an actual board of a board game) made of wood or, in toy reproductions, some kind of cardboard-like material. At the top of the board are "Yes" and "No" in the corner, underneath in a curved half-circle are the numbers 0-9, underneath the full alphabet, and, finally, 'goodbye' printed at a bottom. The board also has a 'planchette' which is a teardrop-shaped item with a small window in the point to view the letters/numbers/words. This is what the spirt uses to communicate with the users. It is used by two or more people who place their fingertips lightly on the planchette, ask questions, and allow the planchette to move freely across the board.

There were some pre-cursors to the actual Oujia board - people had been wanting to communicate with the dead for a long time. The most common way was to call out of the alphabet over and over again and wait for a knock or bang on the letter. This was tedious, took a long time, and, well...it was boring.

Kennard Novelty Company wanted to changed that. Although the board may appear ancient in origin to some, it likely was invented during the 19th century craze surrounding spiritualism. In fact, the board DID appear to come straight out of the ether. Or, well, he Kennard Novelty Company. This company was the first to produce the Ouija board, at least that historians know of.

But how did the company choose such a strange name? Well, the creator's sister-in-law was a known, powerful medium and she said the name "came to her" thus, history was made. Although I have to admit that the popular explanation that it is a mash-up of the French (Oui) and German (Ja) words for "yes" is more interesting.

So, from the 1860s on it enjoyed an interesting importance in American spiritualism as a way to communicate with death. There were few negative associations of it and only a few horrifying accounts of use. That is, until, The Exorcist (1973) and following movies brought it to the culture icon of fear, wonderment, and a door to our world for the dead that we know it to be today.

The above image is from NY Public Library's public domain project

The (True-ish) Stories Behind Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary

When you were growing up, it is likely that you dared (or dared a friend) to go into a locked bathroom and whisper "Bloody Mary" in the dark to the mirror 3-times. The legend was, if done correctly, Bloody Mary herself would appear in the mirror. But where did this strange legend come from in the first place?

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The origin of this strange legend are many, and musings like: it  was inspired by the initiation of a girl's period, a ghost that can show you your future husband (or your dead body, should you be destined to die before you marry), Elizabeth Bathory, and even a witch from the Salem trials. But, let's start with my favorite 'true story' behind the legend is that of the English Bloody Mary...Mary Tudor. 

Mary, sadly, for most of her life was starved for love. She began as the only daughter of Henry VIII and Queen Catherine - unwanted due to her status as female and her mother's inability to produce a male heir. Mary was often separated from her mother and any connection that would provide her with a sense of love and belonging. That mixed with her father's insatiable need for a son put her in direct competition with her future siblings. However, one day, she took the throne. She was married to her suitor of choice, a man 10 years her junior, who was not interested in her.

Her time as Queen and as a newly married woman should have been some of the best of her life. However, her devout Catholic beliefs, numerous fertility issues, depression, and sometimes nasty habits and reactions made her an evil-hag in the eyes of her own people. Oh, and not to mention her intense persecution habits.

That matched with a year-long of pregnancy rumors and mild proof continued Mary's intense depression and, likely, the ultimate feeling of failure to produce an heir and serve England effectively.

This is why some traditions of Bloody Mary have the sayer taunt the mirror to bring her to light by saying "I stole your baby" or, even more gruesome, "I killed your baby".

As a Refinery29 article says, "While her sister became the gilded legend, she became the myth, the witch in the mirror, her arms forever outstretched and empty."

Buuut, we're not even close to done. The thing about Mary is...it's a super common name. And, because of this and the mirror's general sense of dread and tragedy, many 'real' marys can fit this horrifying tableau. 

Take Mary Worth, for example. Fast forward a few hundred years from Mary Tudor and switch to the USA and you'll find her story. She infamously lived on Old Wagon Road in Chicago during the Civil War, slightly outside of the main part of town. She kidnapped children, runaways, and escaped slaves and performed all sorts of rituals and harvested their bodies for her spells - you know, typical witch things. She was later burned at the stake by the townspeople and buried on unconsecrated ground.

As luck would have it her burial place became a farm many years later and no one thought to warn the buyers. A stone, meant to mark her burial, was dug up when creating an oat field. The farmer, thinking it would be a good front door step, unearthed the stone and put it on his front stoop. However, poltergeist-like activity began infiltrating the home and an apparition was seen by their young daughter in the mirror. It appeared as if Mary Worth, her resting place disturbed, had come back to seek revenge.

Although the new owner and his family tried to find the original place where the stone was unearthed, they never could put Mary back to rest and the house eventually burned down. So, Mary Worth is doomed to be called upon incessantly as she has no resting place.

Going back to the past, let's talk a little bit about Elizabeth Bathory, infamous Blood Countess, potential witch, and Hungarian noblewoman who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. It was said she killed over 600 people - mainly for blood - to stay young and and beautiful forever. People think she is behind Bloody Mary as a way to continue getting young girl's blood to maintain her beauty...even in the afterlife.

All the above are fun explanations for an enduring myth that no one is quite sure its true origin. However, the focus on a mirror is a bit easier to track. Catoptromancy is the practice of divination through mirrors or crystal gazing and it has its origins in ancient Greece. Additionally, it is noted that staring too long at a reflective surface, like a mirror or a crystal, in a dimly lit room could lead to hallucination, visual distortion, and, in laymens terms, your eyes playing tricks on you.

Have you heard any other Bloody Mary origin stories? Share them below! 

The above image is from Flickr user John Brucato and is liscensed under  CC 2.0. 

 

This Is Your Brain on Horror Movies

Sadly this weekend I was horribly ill. Not-so-sadly I spent the entire weekend on the couch, watching a slightly mind-numbing amount of horror movies. Now that the sniffles have subsided and I feel a bit more myself I have a question: why horror? At my sickest and most vulnerable...why did I reach for some of the most shocking and terrifying material I could get my hands on? Well, this post seeks to answer that question.

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Let's start with a professor's point of view, shall we? Professor Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA says, "We know that, in an hour or two, we’re going to walk out whole,” says Fischoff. “We’re not going to have any holes in our head, and our hearts will still be in our bodies.” If this is true, was I watching horror because my sickness reminded me of my mortality and I needed to see how others death with death? Perhaps the people on screen were somehow more "mortal" than i was because I wasn't dying. They lived and died, I lived and turned on the next movie.

Is there a power move at play when it comes to watching horror movies? Is it a way for us to confront mortality comfortably - approaching death and dying with a can-do attitude? I couldn't run away from a killer or monster, but at least my heart got pounding and I learned a little bit about how to potentially escape a killer. Or, at the very least, I yelled when characters, decidedly ignorant, chose exactly the wrong option...leading to their death.

Benjamin Bailey, a writer for Nerdist, seems to agree. He writes, "Our cultural love of horror is directly related to the reason people get Grim Reaper tattoos or wear t-shirts with skulls on them. We want to show everyone that death is in our control, not the other way around. It’s a way to give order to the universe, to reign in chaos." And, I quite liked this answer. Like I said above, horror movies in particular allow us to deal with death on-screen with a can-do attitude. We often put ourselves in those situations - what would we do? what could the characters have done better? and, even further, thinking about death as meaningful (or, not meaningful) or as an inevitable that isn't necessarily a bad thing...just a plot point.

Bailey continues, "Horror puts a face on something that is otherwise faceless." And, perhaps, when you're sick with some kind of bug or cold or flu...it's nice to put a face on things that are seemingly out of your control. So, I don't think watching horror movies means you want to see blood, guts, and destruction...but that you want to feel in control of the uncontrollable. Perhaps, in my weakened state, I wanted to feel like I could confront something - even if that something was Krampus (a surprisingly good flick - not a lot of CGI and great use of puppets!).

On top of the whole control thing...there's also something called the "catharsis theory" . The Catharsis Theory, when applied to our enjoyment of horror movies, posits we like watching horror movies because we feel better at the end of them. Now, the reasons for feeling 'better' at the end of the movies are all different. For example, sometimes we are happy the "hero" or "protagonist" of the story, someone we likely related to since they were given the most interiority, comes out on top. Other times we may feel vindicated because we "guessed" the ending or a twist, or even that the movie just stuck to the stereotypical plot we expected, thus confirming order in the world. But maybe we're just be happy that the horror is over and that we made it through.

I'd like to hear YOUR thoughts - why do we enjoy horror movies, especially if and when we're stuck on the couch?

The above image is unrelated to the story and is from Flickr user Josef.Stuefer and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Why Mummies Fascinate Us

"The Mummy" has survived several iterations - ranging from bad to good throughout cinematic history. But what is it that has kept mummies in the forefront of our minds for so many decades?

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First - what is a mummy? Well, mummies began in Egypt from natural causes, but these natural mummifications soon became purposeful and religious rites. Egyptians saw death, and the corpse, as important steps on the road to the afterlife. The first step is to halt, as much as possible, the typical process of decomposition. This was done by removing the organs and treating the now-emptier body with palm wine and spices. However, the heart was left - as it was necessary to the afterlife. Once all this had been done, the now-hollow body was left out in the sun to dry for about 40 days. The body was then wrapped in layer after layer of linen, interwoven with little amulets. Finally, the body was coated in resin and sealed in its tomb.

Okay, so now that we roughly know what an Egyptian mummy is and the process we can begin to figure out why they are exactly so important to horror-culture.

The infatuation first began when English archaeologists began uncovering them in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, the discovery of mummies and Egyptian culture during the time of mummies created a bit of a mania, specifically Egyptomania, in England and surrounding countries who were hungry for a piece of the lore.

One of the reasons could be very simple - mummies are real. While the curses and re-animation part may be an invention, mummies are very real artifacts. We cannot hide from them, claim to know their power, and we don't even totally know how they were created in the first place. They hold a certain horror that only physical objects can claim.

Not to mention, there appears to be a loose 'proof' of a curse related to disturbing the tombs of great mummies. Take, for example, the entering of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922. Those associated with the tomb would die in grisly ways. After the tomb was discovered, opened, and infiltrated Lord Carnarvon, who was Howard Carter's main backer died. George J Gould, who toured the tomb, got a fever whilst exploring it and died. Oh, but that's not it. The trail grows longer. In fact, it might have survived decades. The airplane crew that transported the treasures taken from the tomb to the British Museum in 1972 perished. However, Carter himself died of natural causes at a relatively decent age (64). But still, the rash of deaths associated with the tomb are tough to forget. Not to mention, it wasn't only Tut's tomb that carried curses.

The mummy also acts as a go-between for the living and the dead. And, as we know, re-animation of the dead is one of humans most feared components when it comes to creating a really scary monster.

 

The above image is a Mummy of an upper-class Egyptian male from the Saite period, taken by Keith Schengili-Roberts. It is liscensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike. 

The Hinsdale House

Have you ever heard of the Hinsdale house? I hadn't until very recently. Things began going wrong long before the Dandy family moved into a century-old townhouse in Hinsdale, NY during the 1970s...but why not start at the apex?

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Like many families who buy a house - Clara and Phil were excited and caught up with the flurry of excitement that comes with moving. However, the honeymoon glow of the new house only took a few days to begin wearing off. Soon, the family began experiencing some very unexplainable phenomena. 

It started off semi-innouncously - almost instances which could just be brushed off. Things like phone calls from unknown callers and various acts of minor vandalism (think cabinet doors from Paranormal Activity) that is typically linked to poltergeists. The only frightening unexplainable occurrence at the beginning? Sometimes, soft chanting could be heard at the edge of the woods surrounding their home.

One night, the family even reported that a crop of "strange faces" were watching them through their windows. Mr. Dandy, like any good guy, ran outside to confront the trespassers. But, by the time they got their the faces had somehow reversed and now appeared as if they were inside the house looking at him.

Then, soon things began to escalate. They started to see things. What kind of things? The most prevalent seemed to a full-bodied woman in white. However, other apparitions plagued the family like half-animal human hybrids and even slightly indescribable demonic-like beings.

The hauntings soon became more and more violent. In one incident, a lamp was thrown directly at one of the Dandy daughters. Objects often flew around the room, aiming for a human target. 

Driven to desperation in just a few short months, the Dandy's sought out the help of the church. Father Alphonsus was assigned to help the family. A team of paranormal investigators also trekked out to give their assistance to the family. There doesn't seem to be a lot of specific accounts of the exorcism, so it is safe to assume it went...as par for the course as an exorcism can go.

After a few days of cherished calm, the madness and evil began again. The exorcism failed. The activity returned to a heartbreaking fervor, finally forcing the Dandy's to flee the premise and leave the house. They lived in the house from July 1973 - October 1974.

The Hinsdale House is also slightly notorious for another reason: it is responsible for one of the scariest and most watched episodes of Paranormal Lockdown. Nick Groff and Katrina Weidman spent a grueling 72 hours inside the house. The experience included chanting, banging, and an overwhelming sense of confusion. You can watch some clips here.

What is the fate of the house now? Paranormal investigator Dan Klaes bought the property in 2015, and he hosts a variety of paranormal teams, researchers, and investigators at the property. 

The above image is not a picture of the house and is by flickr user Bodomi. It is liscensed under Creative Commons. 

 

Why Do Some People Get Attacked By Mosquitos More Than Others?

Living in D.C. means I'm highly subject to mosquitos because of the warm and humid climate. After living in a sometimes swamp-esque place, I've noticed some of my friends get bit more frequently than others. Even if we're in the same place, a few of us always come out with more bites than others. Why is that?

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Lab studies show that roughly 20% of people are yummier than others, at least for mosquitos. In particular, those with higher metabolic rates produce more carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide is what attracts mosquitos in the first place. Not to mention, Lactic acid (which is produced when you exercise), acetone (a chemical released in via breath), and estradiol (product of estrogen). People who produce a lot of these, for example pregnant women, are more likely to get bitten.

Additionally, it is important to note that mosquitos are surprisingly visual creatures. Mosquitos typically choose their victims based on sight first. If you're looking to escape the outdoors unscathed, try to avoid wearing dark colors like black, navy blue, red stand out. 

Blood type also plays a big part in what can attract mosquitos to you. Mosquitos do not eat blood for sustenance, but rather for a protein the females need to develop their eggs. In one study, mosquitoes landed on people with Type O blood nearly twice as often as those with Type A. 

Bacteria can also be tantalizing to certain mosquitos. Scientists have found that having large amounts of a few types of bacteria made skin more appealing to mosquitoes. This is why you so often get bites around your feet and ankles - they find your foot bacteria yummy.

I also have some bad news for those who like having a drink outside. Having a 12-ounce beer can make you more delectable. However, it's a bit of a mystery why it attracts mosquitos more , though. Researchers once thought it was because it raised body heat or made the body secrete ethanol. However, it was discovered that neither of these correlated.

Recent studies also seem to suggest that what compels mosquitos might not be as lucrative as finding out what repels them. For example, perhaps people who receive less bites produce chemicals on their skin that make them more repellant, or even cover up smells that mosquitoes might normally find attractive. Figuring out this could mean less bites for everyone.

The above image is from wikimedia commons and was created by 根川大橋 it is liscensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Paranormal Ectoplasm

If you're a lover of the paranormal, you've probably heard about ectoplasm. And, if you haven't, it was created long before Ghostbusters ever made it famous. There have been famous photos, especially at the turn of the last century, that depict a strange substance coming out of people in spirit photography. You can see some of those images here

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Although it wasn't quite understood what it was, many believe it is either materialization of  the spirit itself, or a substance inherent in the human body, but was excited or coaxed out by the experience of a séance.

This substance was also seriously investigated by several well-known, and respected, scientists at the time. The study of ectoplasm was spearheaded by a study, and paper, conducted in 1890 by Charles Robert Richet.

Richet was incredibly respected, and even won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1913 for his research on anaphylaxis. In addition to finding out some life-saving things about anaphylaxis, Richet also coined the term ectoplasm in the aforementioned study.

Ectoplasm is typically described gelatinous-appearing substance that seeps from mediums while they performed séances, and it was often believed to be the materialization of spirits. 

In his own words, Richet described ectoplasm occurring in a medium, “In the early stages there are always white veils and milky patches and the faces, fingers, and drawings are formed little by little in the midst of this kind of gelatinous paste that resembles moist and sticky muslin.”

Despite a hefty amount of research during this time period, anyone who studies contemporary paranormal news will notice that ectoplasm rarely makes headlines anymore. So, was it all a hoax? Were great minds fooled by clever party tricks? Or, was it something else?

Well, it was found that these were actually a parlor trick of the highest degree. One of the reasons so many prominent scientists dedicated their time and talents studying this faux-phenomena was because of a new scientific study which proved the existence of another kind of plasm. 

In the mid-1800s, scientists discovered a gelatinous substance, also known as “plasm”, inside both plant and animal cells. At the time, they believed to be the basis for all life on Earth. So, by the turn of the 19th century the idea of plasm, and of plasm existing in cells, was pretty common and well-studied. Thus, they thought they could link the extrusion of plasm, aka ectoplasm, from the body during extreme human experiences, like a seance. 

Later, with the emergence of molecular biology it was revealed that heredity is stored not in a cell’s jiggly plasm...but in the acids of its nucleus. And, with that discovery, the menion of ectoplasm slowly disappeared.

 

The above image depicts a séance with ectoplasm present. It is liscensed under Flickr's The Commons. The image can also be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Google's AI Remains Undefeated

AlphaGo is a "narrow AI" developed by Google's DeepMind to specifically play the ancient game "Go." In October 2015 it made history for the first time by being the first and only computer program to beat a human at the game Go. Go is an "abstract strategy board game" with two players and is roughly 2,500 years old. Why pick Go? Well, despite its seemingly simple appearance it is more complicated than chess and has more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the universe. So, you can see why it is the perfect test for an AI. 

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Well, AlphaGo recently made history again! Just last week, May 2017, AlphaGo won its second game against a human - Ke Jie, a 19 year-old Chinese man. He lost a three game match with AlphaGo. According to the developers at DeepMind, who watched the match with great scrutiny, Ke Jie came the closest anybody has to beating AlphaGo. In fact, his first 50 or so moves were almost perfect!

Demis Hassabis went as far as tweeting "What an amazing and complex game! Ke Jie pushed AlphaGo right to the limit."

Ke narrowly lost the first match and was even a little shaken up about the loss. However, by the second game onlookers noticed he had loosened up a bit, although he still seemed wary of the machine which he described as "godlike" in its game playing abilities.

AlphaGo, with this victory, continues its legacy as the best Go player in the world. No one to challenge it, even the champions of the game, have been able to beat it. 

This isn't the end of testing AlphaGo, though. Later on it will be tested as part of a human team against two other Go players, having to work in tandem with its human teammate. This will be done in an effort to teach AlphaGo how to better work with humans, as well as understand their decision making in the realm of Go.

What does this mean for the future of AI? Clearly, all this time, money, and news coverage aren't just for technology that is better than humans at board games. It is important to note how powerful AlphaGo is. In fact many in the AI industry believed that a "Go program as powerful as AlphaGo was at least five years away." This shows us that AI technology is progressing at a faster rate than previously thought possible. The development, programming, and team behind AlphaGo show just how intensive and powerful the field of AI is.

It's also important to understand that while this is impressive, AlphaGo can only play Go and does not have general purpose intelligence. It doesn't have common sense or autonomy or, well, will. AlphaGo is completely under human control and has no capabilities of defecting to a different purpose. So, there is no need to be scared yet...just remember to stay informed.

 

The above image was taken by wikimedia user Donarreiskoffer and is liscensed Creative Commons 3.0

One of Sweden's Most Infamous Unsolved Murders was Probably Committed by a Vampire

Okay, okay..."probably" might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was one of the top theories. In Sweden, it is known as the "Atlas Vampire Murder", named for the neighborhood in Stockholm where it took place in 1932. Even today, over 50 years later, the case is still as cold, and enthralling, as it was in the 1930s.

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Lily Lindstöm was the victim of this killer. She was a thirty-two year old prostitute that often entertained guests in the comfort (and likely safety) of her own home. While, at first, it may seem strange that she invited men up to her apartment, it does make a little sense -- home field advantage. She might have even had friends or neighbors in the building that would have helped her, should one of her johns make a bad move.

In fact, one of her friends and downstairs neighbor, was the last to see her alive. Minnie Jansson was also a sex-worker and saw her just days before her body was found. According to Minnie, Lily had knocked on her dorm to get some condoms. When her friend didn't visit the next day, Minnie began to get nervous as the two talked quite often. She called the Stockholm police and they made a visit to Lily's apartment a few days later.

On May 4th they entered her apartment and the Stockholm police beheld a horrific scene. To avoid being too graphic, you can read all the grisly details here. But, in summary - Lily was face-down on her bed. She was not wearing any clothes, and, instead, they were neatly folded on a chair near her bed. According to the police, it appeared she had been dead for roughly 2-3 days. There was also proof she had sexual contact shortly before death. The cause of death were repeated blows from a blunt object to her head.

I'm sure you are wondering, a little, where exactly the "vampire" part of this unsolved crime comes into play. Well, in addition to the horrific way Lily met her end, it was determined that most (if not all) of Lily's blood had been completely drained. Furthermore, saliva was found on her neck. And, after further investigation of the crime scene, a blood-stained gravy ladle may have been used to consume her blood.

Thus this haunting murder was more than just a tragedy - it may have been committed by a true monster (or, at the very least, a seriously deranged person who believed they were a monster.)

No one was ever charged for death. It was believed her last customer was the perpetrator, but after interviewing many of her regulars the police came up empty. And they also had another lingering question - where did all her blood go? Because it wasn't in the apartment.

Over the years, many different theories have come forth. Some are more realistic than others. For example, some believed it was a police officer who was able to throw the others off his tracks by creating an elborately weird crime scene. However, the little evidence found does not seem to wholly support this theory.

This remains one of the creepiest, and truly most bizarre unsolved cases, that Stockholm has ever seen. It continues to grip many people to this day and you can even see some of the evidence, which remains on display. You can see the picture here.

The above picture is from the early Gothic vampire novel, "Carmilla". It is liscensed under public domain and is unrelated to the above story.

Have You Ever Heard Of Panpsychism?

What do you think of the idea that all matter AND all energy is sentient? Sentient meaning able to both perceive and/or feel things. Well, what you think of that might influence your idea of panpsychism. Panpsychism is a philosophical view with its roots deep in ancient thinkers, in fact, many believe that its earliest followers were actually pre-Socratic. This philosophy hold that consciousness (and even souls) are a universal and primordial feature of all things - from leaves to energy to people and air. 

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Let's break it down even more - the word "Pan" means everywhere, and the word "Psyche" is the soul/mind. Put these two together and you have Panpsychism: the belief that the soul is everywhere. 

Panpsychism also seeks to explain how life can result from decidedly nonliving mater, as well as how consciousness can result from non-conscious matter. In fact, it makes short work of this dilemma with its conclusion: all things have consciousness. 

Now, you might be thinking...Tess, what is this hippie nonsense? And, I agree - to an extent. But one interesting feature of this blog is the ability to dive deeper into new ideas, and I found this one particularly enamoring. But, to soothe the skeptics I will let you in on a little secret: Panpsychism has two major flaws.

1. "The Problem of Aggregates" - This is the idea that consciousness cannot spread over the universe, as John Searle, a UCB philosopher puts it "like a thin veneer of jam...there has to be a point where my consciousness ends and yours begins." 

2.  The second point following the problem of aggregates is: if consciousness is everywhere...why doesn't it animate every.single.leaf in visible ways? Or hey, why not the ladder in your garage? Or why does dead matter not have consciousness or if you take a brain and step on it, despite being the hub of consciousness, there is no longer consciousness?

But contemporary thinkers are trying to suss out these problems, particularly psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. He has created the idea of "Integrated Panpsychism" which posits that consciousness depends on a "physical substrate but is not reducible to it." While our expereince are linked to our brains...but is different from our brains. Thus any system that has a level of integrated information above zero...likely has "a very minute conscious expereince" 

There are two principled assumptions: 

1. Conscious states are highly differentiated and informationally, very rich. 

2. Each of these experiences are highly integrated. Chistof Knoch, the author of the Scientific American linked above, makes a great point, " You cannot force yourself to see the world in black and white; its color is an integrated part of your view. Whatever information you are conscious of is wholly and completely presented to your mind; it cannot be subdivided."

With these assumptions we can come to the conclusion that in order to be conscious requires a two things: 1) You need to be a single, integrated entity and two 2) You must have a  large repertoire of highly differentiated states. 

Thus, a bunch of disconnected items like the photos in your grandmother's photo album, beads on a necklace, or books on a shelf are not integrated They lack consciousness and do not have the appropriate mental properties to meet the above 2 requirements of consciousness. 

However, others say that all of the above positing and rules and stipulations are...to complicated.

For example, Seattle University professor Dnaiel Dombrowksi writes: "[Panpsychism] “suggests that every instance of reality is mind-like or at least exhibits some slight ability to feel the difference between itself and the rest of what is." If we can imagine that a human has consciousness why can't a dog or an insect or a tree branch. We're all made up of atoms and individuals cells and mater, right?

So why study this at all? What caught my eye about this complicated, zany, out-there theory? I was reading an article on JStor Daily about it, while looking for ideas about how the universe is growing - as space is a popular topic on the blog. And, I found this quote in the article (linked above), "If panpsychism is true, and if, as postulated by some contemporary physicists, the cosmos is expanding, might we not think of the universe as literally a mind expanding, a world soul growing up?" Benjamin Winterhalter, the author of this Jstor Daily article, wrote these words and I just had to share the whole idea with you! Because, well, thinking of the universe as a mind expanding and a soul growing up is a whole lot more comforting than many of the other theories I've heard. 

The above image is from Flickr User Ivan and it is of a brain nebula. It is liscensed under creative commons 2.0 generic!

The Delicious Thrill Of Being Spooked

We have been dreaming up ways to get scared for thousands of years. From folklore monsters to playing bloody Mary in sleepovers to creepypasta. It appears humanity has a long history of scaring ourselves silly...and enjoying it. But why?

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Fear, and all the physical sensations that come with it, has long been linked to some ancient survival response to perceived threads. Now, not every person enjoys this feeling. If they did, wouldn't we have more year-round haunted houses? But for those of us who enjoy feeling fear, there may be a few legitimate reasons why we would totally pay for a year-long pass to a haunted house.

Dopamine is a big part of why people like to get spooked. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine. Dr. David Zald, who studies and teaches psychological sciences, with a focus on neuroscience, at Vanderbilt, recently came out with a study that suggests that people process Dopamine differently. 

According to Dr. Zald, there are "brakes" on individual's Dopamine release + re-uptake in the brain. Well, so? This means that some people will enjoy scary/spooky/risky situations because of their brakes, while others will not enjoy them at all.

Margee Kerr, Ph.D., sociologist, and author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,” also has something to add to how we process fear can make us feel good. According to her, “Our body is a refined, well-oiled machine getting ready to fight or flee. So if we're in a situation where we know we're safe like a haunted house, scary movie, or roller coaster, think of it as hijacking the flight response and enjoying it." She even goes as far as saying, “This is similar to a high arousal state, not sexual, but like when we're happy, laughing, excited, or surprised. Those chemical signatures look similar to when we're scared; it's just a different context.”

So, like many things in life - context is key!

Like Kerr sugests, for anyone to truly enjoy a good scare is to know that we're in a "safe" environment. Thus, if a serial killer you'd seen on the news before started chasing you, you'd probably not be enjoying that at ll. However, if a guy dressed in a Jason mask in a haunted-field attraction started chasing you, you'd probably feel "safe" being scared, and even enjoy it.

But, it isn't just endorphins like Dopamine that puts us in a better place to enjoy being scared. In fact, there are a lot more reasons according to professionals who study the brain, like Dr. Zald. Being scared can also have some pretty positive after-effects, like gaining confidence. 

The above picture is liscensed under creative commons 2.0 and is by Flickr user Dako Huang.

 

 

5 Decades of Fire: Life in Centralia, PA.

When we think of ghost towns in America, we typically think of stone foundations found in the middle of the forrest, like in the Pine Barrens of NJ. Or, we think of the dusty abandoned boom-towns of the west. But very rarely do we think of ghost towns as being on fire for 50+ years. That is, until, you consider Centralia, PA.

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 Centralia, PA was never a big town. Once it was a semi-successful coal mining town with about 1,000 residents. But now it is a cesspit of fire pits, smoldering grounds, and surprise sinkholes. But, how did it get like this?

Well, as I mentioned before Centralia was a coal-mining town. The main mining was done almost directly underneath the town, too. In 1962, the crew set a purposeful fire to burn a landfill but that fire soon grew out of control. Sadly, the men did not realize that the landfill which they had set fire to was an old strip-mine pit, connected to a maze of abandoned underground mining tunnels full of coal right below town.

Although they were able to extinguish most of the above-ground fires, the fire would continue to feed on the outskirts of town and slowly, but surely, make its way to town center - which made the town uninhabitable. In fact, there was so much coal underground that scientists estimate the fire could keep burning underground for the next 200+ years. 

As time has passed from 1962 more and more holes have opened, spewing sulfurous gas, parts of the street remain constantly hot to the touch, and the ground swells, bubbles, and breaks. But, the town wasn't completely left to fend for itself until 1980. In 1980, there was a $42 million relocation plan set in place which incentivized most of the townspeople to relocate, save for less than a dozen hold-outs. Many of the homes were demolished and signs of life remained small and bleak. According to experts who have studied the town, the fire grows at about 75-feet per year.

Kevin Krajick, in article written for Smithsonian Magazine, describes what Centralia looks like today: "Vegetation has been obliterated along a quarter-mile strip; sulfurous steam billows out of hundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. There are pits extending perhaps 20 feet down: in their depths, discarded plastic bottles and tires have melted. Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps, stumps venting smoke through hollow centers." He continues, describing the last inhabitants of this desolate place, "Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there ― plus [John] Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures."

One thing I find very poignant is that while these people still believe in their town...the government doesn't, not really any way. The United States Postal Office revoked the town’s zip code in 2002.

There are many reasons why I think people want to remain where they are. Past residents speak highly of how Centralia used to be this slice-of-pie American coal town. In fact, some who believed they were force and/or didn't have a chance to "fight back" and remain in their homes regret giving up the houses their parents left them or the houses they built or the houses their families had owned for generations. 

Some may argue that these people must be "stuck". They aren't stuck, in fact the remaining townspeople had to spend about 20k in lawyers fees in order to remain in their owns and in their town. The town that had been home for them for decades. All of these people had the chance to be paid to leave, but instead they paid for the pleasure of staying. They take pride in their lawns, some even mowing abandoned lots near their houses. They stay abreast of the temperatures of the fire and any potential threats that may arise. They even hold events every year when former residents come back and visit. These are not people that are stuck - these are people that made a choice.

Technically, those who remain in Centralia are squatters. The government demolished over 600 buildings and now owns the town completely. However, no one has been evicted or forced out yet. 

The above image is from Wikimedia Commons user Macaddct1984

We Can Thank Mucus For Cleaning Our Oceans

If you've been following the AL blog long enough, you probably know that I'm in love with the ocean and one of my favorite things to explore on the blog are all the crazy things we're learning about the ocean every day. Earlier this month, the journal of Science Advances, published an article on "the role of giant larvaceans in oceanic carbon cycling." If it sounds dry, it really isn't. Mostly because, ya know, giant larvaceans are pretty snotty. 

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The ones we're talking about today are called "Bathochordaues". These alien-looking creatures have a little mouth, almost too little to function - so it "outsources" the actual filtration process required to feed. 

So, what is their filtration system since their mouth is so little? Well, it's a little graphic...and mucusy. Every day, the creatures blows a huge, sticky, mucus balloon. Throughout the day, the balloon snags all kinds of goodies, as animals drift through it. Each trapped morsel contains a little bit of carbon. Once the creature is full, it discards and unlatches the snot bubble and the bubble begins to sink. Thus, some of the carbon trapped within the bubble descends to the sea floor.

This sinking carbon appears to play a monumental role in supporting deep-sea life. How? Well, by transferring carbon it can be buried and stored long term. Given larvaceans abundance in other parts of the world, "these organisms likely play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle."

While these snot bubbles are just asking to be studied - but, because they're mucus...they're super hard to "catch" and study. In fact, they're so delicate that they tend to disintegrate, even at the slightest touch. This means that putting them in a jar, or catching them in a net, is damn near impossible. 

But, luckily, humans are almost as ingenious as the ocean and the Monterey Bay Area Research Institute (MBARI) decided to develop a technology to make this strange substance easier to analyze and study. 

It's called the "Particle Image Velocimetry" (PIV). Typically, it is used to study how water moves...but they adapted it to work more acutely to snot bubbles. They attached a PIV laser, with camera, to an ROV and sent it into the depths of the Californian coast.

When the camera of the ROV finally spotted a larvacean, the researchers activated the PIV laser. This laser spread a thin sheet of light over the animal, its dwelling, and every particle inside the snot bubble.

It was also proven that, through this process larvaceans can filter all of Monterey bay’s water from about '300 to 1,000 feet deep in less than two weeks, making them the fastest known zooplankton filter feeders'.

This is a huge leap forward in being able to analyze all kinds of deep-sea research, which I definitely expect to see some updates in the next few months.

 

The above image is from the NOAA Photo Library's Flickr Account. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Mushrooms Are Weird (And Glowing Mushrooms Are Weirder)

We've known how weird mushrooms are for a long time. How weird? Well, for starters we know they grow towards sunlight, but now what they use sunlight for...oh, and earth used to be covered in giant mushrooms. But, one thing is coming out of the shadows recently: why and how some mushrooms glow.

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The process of process of fungal bioluminescence seems a bit...off. But, a new article in the Science Advances Journal that is shedding new light on this phenomena. The team behind the Science Advances article on the subject was made up of an international team of researchers. These researchers analyzed extracts from two different glowing mushrooms, first, Brazil's Neonothopanus gardneri and then Vietnam's poisonous Neonothopanus nambi.

The authors note “Future work on the isolation, characterization, and heterologous expression of the luciferase will stimulate the development of fungal bioluminescence–inspired applications,” which could help with projects like draining streetlights, litmus tests for toxins, and even candy!

The first thing they discovered is that the bioluminescence of mushrooms is similar to the enzymes found in other bioluminescent animals. These two enzymes, luciferin and luciferase, combine with energy and oxygen. Once this happens, a chemical reaction happens and the compound oxyluciferin is created. This is an excited state and is not really sustainable for long, so it releases its energy in the form of light.

However, the mushrooms were doing one thing a little differently: although they were using the two enzymes, they ended up creating their own proprietary blend similar to excited oxyluciferin.

And here's where the fungi gets a little sexy, according to the scientists this proprietary blend is "promiscuous". What this means, in fungi terms, is that it can mix and mingle with multiple types of luciferin. And it is this specific approach that allows the bioluminescence to be more than green - in fact, the mushrooms can glow a whole variety of different colors.

This research, and what will be built upon it, will help further pave the way for bioluminesence inspired applications.

The above mushroom image is not related to the story and may or may not be bioluminescent. It is liscensed under creative commons and is from Flickr User Kalle Gustafsson.

 

Did We just Figure Out How To Build On Mars?

Scientists recently found that simulated Martian soil can be packed together into a sturdy, brick-like material...without ANY additional ingredients to hold it together. This is a pretty big deal considering when and if we get to Mars we want to maximize the amount of life-support and other necessities the astronauts can take with them.

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This means that real Martian soil could be utilized as a tool for building structures, habitats, and more on the surface of Mars - making human missions a little less complicated.

So, how did we get here? Well, a group of engineers were testing simulated Martian soil, specifically called "Mars soil simulant."This simulant is a collection of rocks which have the same chemical makeup as the dirt found on mars, they even tried to mimic the shape and size of Martian grains! After some testing, the engineers figured out that adding juuuust the right amount of pressure was enough to form the soil into trim, stiff blocks...that are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete!

This is a lot more simple than how we currently make our construction materials on earth. Usually there is an adhesive or binder introduced to the material in order to get the materials to keep a fixed shape. 

Yu Qiao, a structural engineer at UC San Diego, and the lead researcher, says “It gives the soil strength when it’s compacted." Of course, we're still not 100% sure of this, as the test subject was just a simulated soil. But, it is a great inspiration to think that there will be some usable materials on Mars. The less people have to rely on shipped materials, back-up cargo, and other missions...the better.

Not to mention, because of the gravity, things like building, swinging a hammer, and other construction-based tasks are easier on the body.

Before Qiao and his team began working on this, many other scientists have tried finding similar solutions to building on Mars. For example, bringing microbes o Mars that could feed on human waste, thus creating a binder materials. Others have proposed that perhaps bringing some kind of heating device to bake the soil into bricks would help. However, we might just need a few good hammers.

The above image is from Wikimedia Commons and is liscensed under Creative Commons - source is credited as 'ESA/DLR/FU Berlin.

 

The Stories Behind The Stories

If you enjoy astonishing legends, there's little doubt that you've at least looked into the grim (pun-intended) origins of many fairytales. Many believe that fairytales are meant to teach us lessons and do so in the form of exaggeration, magic, and even repurposing historical events into something other worldly. And, there seems to be something strange about utilizing such horrifying, vulgar stories to soothe children and make them subconsciously remember the lessons of Snow White and Jack and the Beanstalk. However, are fairytales simply warnings in sheeps' clothing or, are they are a more complicated part of human history?

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In recent times - despite all the technology and seeming lack of wonder left in the world - there seems to be a fairytale resurgence. Marina Warner, a fairytale historian, says that fairytales have so much allure because they are "stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things." And, if one drops the idea that fairytales are only for warnings (and children) i becomes clearer as to why there is a resurgence in the tech age. But how can a fairytale, quite literally something other worldly, hold so much truth about our own world?

Well, perhaps the need to move beyond reality is at the root of that tie to our world. Warner, in her new book, notes that fairytales, "untrue" stories, show a "need to move beyond the limits of reality" in the audience that is captivated by them. Ellen Handler Spitz, a writer for the New Republic, links this to a psychological belief of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel who writes, "Man has always endeavored to go beyond the narrow limits of his condition." So, is the creation and enjoyment of fairytales a way to push our own beings farther and farther away from what we think our limits are?

Perhaps.

Furthermore, the psychological element of the fairytale helps us to understand why we get so involved in the lives of actions of characters who are so under-described. Most fairytales aren't first person perspective, so we rarely get true interiority. In addition to that, many fairytales are lead by the action of the character, not necessarily their thoughts. Their motives appear clear. But what about ours?

Handler Spitz proposes something interesting, "when confronted with texts of this kind, whether scriptural, mythical, or faerie, we are hooked not only by what is given, the positive imagery, but by the very gaps—“the negative spaces”—as we might say in visual arts." So, it is precisely these scant descriptions and closed-interior characters that make fairytales so alluring. They allow the audience, us, to insert themselves momentarily into this fairytale. You might think, "What would I do?", "How would I feel", "Where is the nearest city to this village", "How do fairies fly?", "Where do centaurs come from?" ,"How wonderful!" or "How scary!" - all these thoughts and more dance across your mind when you read a fairytale. It is through this that we become the message-makers and answer-holders.

But we still watch the re-tellings, see the adaptations, read the modern takes on classic tales...because we want to think more about them. We want new and different ways to picture the unimaginable, and, more importantly, more opportunities to place ourselves into the unimaginable. 

The above image is liscensed under creative commons 2.0., thanks to the NYC Public Library!  It is an illustration of Cinderella at the Ball!

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, the Un-Hangable Man

The death penalty isn't really that prevalent in the 21st century. However, for centuries the death penalty, and even public executions, were completely the norm. And, for most of that time, they were believed to have as close as a 100%-death guarantee as possible. Unless, of course, you're Babbacombe Lee.

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Now, don't go feeling sorry for ol' Babbacombe Lee. He was first on the stand to hang for the absolutely brutal murder of Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse in November of 1884 in the small village of what became his nickname: Babbacombe.

Although he cried his innocence, the circumstantial evidence was enough to paint him guilty, as well as a large unexplained cut on his arm. He was sentences to hang at Exeter prison. Per usual, the executioner tested the mechanics of the trap door below the scaffold, the rope, etc. All in all, it was set to be a perfectly normal day at the job.

That was until they tried to hang Babbacombe three times, and each time the trap stuck.

In fact, this was so bizarre that Babbacombe had his death sentence commuted to a life sentence. British Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, said of this decision "It would shock the feelings of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.”

He went on to serve 22-years in prison and was, surprisingly, released in 1907. But, for a long time nothing was known about the rest of his life.

Until a 2009 study found this man's final chapter. According to this study, his grave was placed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was believed he died in 1945 and lived a completely different, almost normal life in America - even starting a new family. He deserted his wife and two daughters in Britain after his release from prison and they went on to workhouse, which was not an easy life in England during the early 20th century.

Whether he was a murderer or not, one thing is for certain: he was a very lucky man.

The above image is liscensed under Public Domain - it has nothing to do with the above story and is, in fact, the Execution Of Lord Ferrers At Tyburn.

 

Have You Ever Had Wordnesia?

Have you ever written or typed a word, one you've typed a million times before, and suddenly been struck by how odd it is spelled or how weird it looks? Don't worry - that's totally normal. And, there's even a word for it: Wordnesia!

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The problem is directly tied to the issue that arises when you can't spell a simple word, or when very familiar words suddenly seem like flummoxing entities you can't just get quite right. There is a down side: we don't know why it happens. Typically, though, it doesn't seem to be a major side effect of anything alarming and is, more or less, common and fleeting. 

Matthew J.X Malady, who has been researching the glitch ever since he couldn't remember how to spell "project", interviewed Charles A Weaver III, a a psychology and neuroscience professor at Baylor University to try and get to the bottom of this strange phenomena. 

The first thing one should realize, according to Dr. Weaver, is that while we read we have a very practiced part of our brain that responds more or less automatically. This explains why, most of the time, we can still get through reading something that has spelling mistakes. 

But where does Dr. Weaver think this strange issue stems from? "My guess, in the phenomenon you’re talking about, is that, very briefly, the automatic parts hit a speed bump and go, ‘that can’t be right." Think of kind of like breathing or blinking. You do it constantly without thinking twice about it. But, the moment that you think about blinking or breathing, it suddenly becomes the focus of what you're doing and causes some disruptions in the automatic part.

Basically, "anytime that you engage conscious monitoring of those parts that ought to be automatic, you get a hiccup," says Dr. Weaver. So, when you brain hiccups while reading or writing, you suddenly forget how to write words you've written a million times without thinking.

I should also mention that, while writing this blog post, I have stopped multiple times and misspelled many common words including, but not limited to: misspelled, blinking, and automatically. Weird how that goes, huh?


The above image is from Flickr user popofatticus and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.