A peek inside The Skeleton Cupboard

You’ll get more out of The Skeleton Cupboard, Tanyan Byron’s account of her training as a clinical psychologist, if you read the epilogue first.

It tells you that the patients described in the book are fictional, to preserve confidentiality, but indicates that the stories were representative of real situations.

This is a common device in clinical memoires, from Irvin Yalom’s existential tales of psychotherapy to Philippa Perry’s couch fiction, but I’m never quite sure what to make of these clinical quasi-biographies.

They are usually realistic, insightful and wonderful to read, Byron’s book is no exception, but the smudged line between truth and necessary fiction is sometimes hard to navigate.

In Byron’s case, her book is perhaps the most deliberately autobiographical in the genre, where she intends to reflect the role of the psychologist’s own psychology in working with distressed, impaired, and sometimes difficult individuals.

This is part of what clinical psychologists aim to do – understand how your own reactions are colouring your approach to the patient – but when the patients are literary collages of real people, it is perhaps the process rather than the content of those reflections that are the most informative.

From this perspective, The Skeleton Cupboard is best understood as an illustrated history of ‘how my thinking evolved as a clinician’ rather than a journal of patients past, although we assume the non-clinical parts are factual: the hard-boiled supervisor, the misjudged snogging of a psychiatrist, the friends through good times and bad.

Byron is Britain’s best ambassador for clinical psychology and a very good writer to boot and I’m sure The Skeleton Cupboard will prompt many to take up the profession or inspire them during their training. It’s also a good account of how thinking and practice evolves through first contact with patients.

It has some artistic license, maybe even melodrama in places, but it has some points of emotional truth that are hard to deny.
 

Link to more details of The Skeleton Cupboard.

Nostalgia: Why it is good for you

The past is not just a foreign country, but also one we are all exiled from. Like all exiles, we sometimes long to return. That longing is called nostalgia.

Whether it is triggered by a photograph, a first kiss or a treasured possession, nostalgia evokes a particular sense of time or place. We all know the feeling: a sweet sadness for what is gone, in colours that are invariably sepia-toned, rose-tinted, or stained with evening sunlight.

The term “nostalgia” was coined by Swiss physicians in the late 1600s to signify a certain kind of homesickness among soldiers. Nowadays we know it encompasses more than just homesickness (or indeed Swiss soldiers), and if we take nostalgia too far it becomes mawkish or indulgent.

But, perhaps, it has some function beyond mere sentimentality. A series of investigations by psychologist Constantine Sedikides suggest nostalgia may act as a resource that we can draw on to connect to other people and events, so that we can move forward with less fear and greater purpose.

Sedikides was inspired by something called Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is approximately 8,000 times sexier than most theories in psychology, and posits that a primary psychological need for humans is to deal with the inevitability of our own deaths. The roots of this theory are in the psychoanalytic tradition of Sigmund Freud, making the theory a bit different from many modern psychological theories, which draw on more mundane inspirations, such as considering the mind as a computer.

Experiments published in 2008 used a standard way to test Terror Management Theory: asking participants to think about their own deaths, answering questions such as: “Briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” (A control group was asked to think about dental pain, something unpleasant, but not existentially threatening.)

TMT suggests that one response to thinking about death is to cling more strongly to the view that life has some wider meaning, so after their intervention they asked participants to indicate their agreement with statements such as: “Life has no meaning or purpose”, or “All strivings in life are futile and absurd”. From the answers they positioned participants on a scale of how strongly they felt life had meaning.

The responses were influenced by how prone people were to nostalgia. The researchers found that reminding participants of their own deaths was likely to increase feelings of meaninglessness, but only in those who reported that they were less likely to indulge in nostalgia. Participants who rated themselves as more likely than average to have nostalgic thoughts weren’t affected by negative thoughts about their mortality (they rated life as highly meaningful, just like the control group).

Follow-up experiments suggest that people prone to nostalgia were less likely to have lingering thoughts about death, as well as less likely to be vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Nostalgia, according to this view, is very different from a weakness or indulgence. The researchers call it a “meaning providing resource”, a vital part of mental health. Nostalgia acts a store of positive emotions in memory, something we can access consciously, and perhaps also draw on continuously during our daily lives to bolster our feelings. It’s these strong feelings for our past that helps us cope better with our future.

Thanks to Jules Hall for suggesting the topic of nostalgia. If you have an everyday psychological phenomenon you’d like to see written about in these columns please get in touch @tomstafford or ideas@idiolect.org.uk

This was my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

Spike activity 06-06-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Psychedelic chemist, godfather of Ecstasy, and lover of phenethylamines, Alexander Shulgin, has left the building. PhysOrg has an obituary.

New Republic looks back at 50 years of the landmark account of psychosis ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’.

The US Secret Service wants a sarcasm detection tool for Twitter reports The Telegraph. Their irony detection tool is apparently still switched off.

Aeon Magazine has a piece on how artificial intelligence is being used to develop the first generation of sex robots. Voight-Kampff plugin for Tinder coming soon.

British folk: Now that BBC Future is available to people in the country it is based in, do check out its large cache of excellent psychology and neuroscience articles.

Mosaic has an extensive article on the US Military’s interest in boosting the brain by passing small electrical currents through it.

Go check out this excellent piece on ‘mirror neurons’ and what they’re likely to be actually doing from Nautilus magazine.

Advances in the History of Psychology blog has an interesting piece on how Little Albert may not have been correctly identified after all.

How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher of Mind Daniel Dennett brings some wisdom and describes the four steps to arguing intelligently over at Brain Pickings.

The Economist has a great interview with risk psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer.

A festival of anxious art

If you’re in London during June, the Anxiety Arts Festival is surprisingly diverse and interesting series of events that looks at anxiety through film, theatre and visual arts.

The festival is being curated by the Mental Health Foundation who have put together a genuinely exciting programme that avoids the curse of constant niceness and goes into some quite challenging areas.

Highlights include the darkly comic play Non-stop Exotic Anxiety, Ian Curtis and Joy Division biopic Control, South London Gallery exhibition The Military Industrial Complex on consensual reality, the irrepressible CoolTan Arts event Mad Hatters Tea Party, and Hearing Things – a theatre production of improvised scenes with mental health service users, professionals, and professional actors.

There’s masses more events and its one not to miss.
 

Link to Anxiety Festival.

Happy Birthday Tetris!

Released on 6th of June 1984, Tetris is 30 years old today. Here’s a video where I try and explain something of the psychology of Tetris:

All credit for the graphics to Andrew Twist. What I say in the video is based on an article I wrote a while back for BBC Future.

As well as hijacking the minds and twitchy fingers of puzzle-gamers for 30 years, Tetris has also been involved in some important psychological research.

My favourite is Kirsh and Maglio’s work on “epistemic action“, which showed how Tetris players prefer to rotate the blocks in the game world rather than mentally. This using the world in synchrony with your mental representations is part of what makes it so immersive, I argue.

Other research has looked at whether Tetris’s hook on our visual imagery can be used to help people with PTSD flashbacks.

And don’t forget that Tetris was the control condition is Green and Bavelier’s now famous studies of how action video games can train visual attention

In my own research I’ve used simple games to explore skill learning. John Lindstedt and Wayne Gray at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have been pursuing a parallel line looking at expertise in Tetris players.

I’m sure there are more examples, if you know of any researching using Tetris let me know. Happy Birthday Tetris!

Spike activity 30-05-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

If you’ve not been keeping up with the internet, there’s been a replication crisis hoedown and everyone’s had a go on the violin.

Political Science Replication had a good summary. Schnall’s reply, the rise of ‘negative psychology’ and a pointed response.

Military Plans To Test Brain Implants To Fight Mental Disorders reports NPR. If only there was some way to avoid traumatising people…

The BPS Research Digest has been hosting some amazing guest mind and brain writers and here’s an index to all their articles.

The Myth of Einstein’s Brain. Neuroskeptic has an excellent piece about how studies of his kidnapped brain don’t actually tell us much.

The Best Illusion of the Year contest has just announced it’s 2014 winners.

Spacetimemind is a new podcast with some good philosophy of mind material.

Neuroscientists win 2014 Kavli Prize in neuroscience: Brenda Milner, John O’Keefe, and Marcus Raichle

The Blind Woman Who Sees Rain, But Not Her Daughter’s Smile. Another fascinating piece from NPR.

Brain Watch asks ‘what happens if you apply electricity to the brain of a corpse?’ Don’t try this at home.

Philosopher fight in the New York Review of Books: Patricia Churchland and Colin McGinn on brains and minds and retorts like only philosophers can manage.

The best way to win an argument

How do you change someone’s mind if you think you are right and they are wrong? Psychology reveals the last thing to do is the tactic we usually resort to.

You are, I’m afraid to say, mistaken. The position you are taking makes no logical sense. Just listen up and I’ll be more than happy to elaborate on the many, many reasons why I’m right and you are wrong. Are you feeling ready to be convinced?

Whether the subject is climate change, the Middle East or forthcoming holiday plans, this is the approach many of us adopt when we try to convince others to change their minds. It’s also an approach that, more often than not, leads to the person on the receiving end hardening their existing position. Fortunately research suggests there is a better way – one that involves more listening, and less trying to bludgeon your opponent into submission.

A little over a decade ago Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil from Yale University suggested that in many instances people believe they understand how something works when in fact their understanding is superficial at best. They called this phenomenon “the illusion of explanatory depth“. They began by asking their study participants to rate how well they understood how things like flushing toilets, car speedometers and sewing machines worked, before asking them to explain what they understood and then answer questions on it. The effect they revealed was that, on average, people in the experiment rated their understanding as much worse after it had been put to the test.

What happens, argued the researchers, is that we mistake our familiarity with these things for the belief that we have a detailed understanding of how they work. Usually, nobody tests us and if we have any questions about them we can just take a look. Psychologists call this idea that humans have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the “cognitive miser” theory.

Why would we bother expending the effort to really understand things when we can get by without doing so? The interesting thing is that we manage to hide from ourselves exactly how shallow our understanding is.

It’s a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to teach something. Usually, it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you’ll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realise that you don’t truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other “I didn’t really understand this until I had to teach it”. Or as researcher and inventor Mark Changizi quipped: “I find that no matter how badly I teach I still learn something”.

Explain yourself

Research published last year on this illusion of understanding shows how the effect might be used to convince others they are wrong. The research team, led by Philip Fernbach, of the University of Colorado, reasoned that the phenomenon might hold as much for political understanding as for things like how toilets work. Perhaps, they figured, people who have strong political opinions would be more open to other viewpoints, if asked to explain exactly how they thought the policy they were advocating would bring about the effects they claimed it would.

Recruiting a sample of Americans via the internet, they polled participants on a set of contentious US policy issues, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, healthcare and approaches to carbon emissions. One group was asked to give their opinion and then provide reasons for why they held that view. This group got the opportunity to put their side of the issue, in the same way anyone in an argument or debate has a chance to argue their case.

Those in the second group did something subtly different. Rather that provide reasons, they were asked to explain how the policy they were advocating would work. They were asked to trace, step by step, from start to finish, the causal path from the policy to the effects it was supposed to have.

The results were clear. People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues. People who had previously been strongly for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to became more moderate – ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.

So this is something worth bearing in mind next time you’re trying to convince a friend that we should build more nuclear power stations, that the collapse of capitalism is inevitable, or that dinosaurs co-existed with humans 10,000 years ago. Just remember, however, there’s a chance you might need to be able to explain precisely why you think you are correct. Otherwise you might end up being the one who changes their mind.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

The day video games ate my school child

The BBC is reporting that a UK teachers union “is calling for urgent action over the impact of modern technology on children’s ability to learn” and that “some pupils were unable to concentrate or socialise properly” due to what they perceive as ‘over-use’ of digital technology.

Due to evidence reviewed by neuroscientist Kathryn Mills in a recent paper (pdf) we know that we’ve really got no reason to worry about technology having an adverse effects on kids’ brains.

It may not be that the teachers’ union is completely mistaken, however. They may be on to something but maybe just not what they think they’re onto.

To make sense of the confusion, you need to check out an elegant study completed by psychologists Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky who decided to test the psychological effects of giving young boys video game consoles.

They asked for families to take part who did not have a video-game system already in their home, had a parent interested in purchasing a system for their use, and where the kid had no history of developmental, behavioural, medical, or learning problems.

They ran a randomised controlled trial or RCT where 6 to 9-year-old boys were first given neuropsychological tests to measure their cognitive abilities (memory, concentration and problem-solving) and then randomly assigned to get a video games console.

The families in the control group were promised a console at the end of the study, by the way, so they didn’t think ‘oh sod it’ and go and buy one anyway.

So, we have half the kids with spanking brand new console, and, as part of the trial, the amount of time kids spent gaming and doing their school work was measured throughout, as was reporting of any behavioural problems. At the end of the study their academic progress was measured and their cognitive abilities were tested again.

The results were clear: kids who got video game consoles were worse off academically compared to their non-console-owning peers – their progress in reading and writing had suffered.

But this wasn’t due to an impact on their concentration, memory, problem-solving or behaviour – their neuropsychological and social performance was completely unaffected.

By looking at how much time the kids spent on the consoles, they found that reduced academic performance was due to the fact that kids in the console-owning families started spending less time doing their homework.

In other words, if your kids play a lot of computer games instead of doing homework they may well appear worse off, and from the teachers’ point-of-view, might seem a little slowed-down compared to their peers, but this is not due to cognitive changes.

Interestingly, teachers may not be in the best position to see this distinction very well because they tend, like the rest of us, to measure ability by performance in the tasks they set and not in comparison to neuropsychological test performance.

The solution is not to panic about technology as this same conclusion probably applies to anything that displaces homework (too many piano lessons will have the same effect) but good parental management of out-of-school time is clearly important.
 

Link to locked study on the effects of video games.

Important peculiarities of memory

A slide from what looks like a fascinating talk by memory researcher Robert Bjork is doing the rounds on Twitter.

The talk has just happened at the Association for Psychological Science 2014 conference and it describes some ‘Important peculiarities of memory’.

You can click the link above if you want to see if the image, but as it’s a little fuzzy, I’ve reproduced Robert Bjork’s text below:
 

Important peculiarities of the human memory system

  • A remarkable capacity for storing information is coupled with a highly fallible retrieval process.
  • What is accessible in memory is highly dependent on the current environmental, interpersonal, emotional and body-state cues.
  • Retrieving information from memory is a dynamic process that alters the subsequent state of the system.
  • Access to competing memory representations regresses towards the earlier representation over time

 

A lovely summary of memory’s quirks.
 

Link to Robert Bjork’s staff page.
Link to APS 2014 page with videos of the keynote talks.

Spike activity 16-05-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Motherboard on a legal rights framework for biohacking the brain. Caveat hax0r no?

There Is a Doppelganger Inside All Our Heads. Interesting piece in Nautilus.

Discover Magazine covers the latest study on using electrical stimulation to increase the chance of lucid dreaming.

The seductive allure of a brain scanner made out of an old hair dryer. The mighty Neurocritic covers a curious study.

BPS Research Digest covers an interesting study on sex lives following lower limb amputation.

Turns out there are interesting financial interests behind the ‘neuroscience in the classroom’ movement. Coverage by the Headquarters blog.

Mosaic has an excellent piece on one person’s quest to understand an existence dominated by the bleakest, darkest moods.

Study linking brain cancer and mobiles inconclusive. NHS Choices covers study widely reported as “We’re doomed. Doomed, I tell you!”

Why We Took Cocaine Out of Soda. Mainly racism as it turns out. Article in The Atlantic.

Elder statesfolk of cognitive neuroscience Uta and Chris Frith have started an excellent blog called Social Minds.

Daily News on American politicians throwing neuropsychological insults around. I’ll vote for the first one who gets a basal ganglia dig in.

There’s an interesting piece on ‘supertaskers‘ – the 2% of people who can multitask without dropping their performance level over at The New Yorker.

Unsure memories of murder

The BBC News site has a special multimedia feature on a case of false confession to murder that has been been troubling Iceland from the 1970s and has recently erupted again.

The Beeb have clearly gone a bit ‘Scandinavian detective drama’ on the whole thing but it is a gripping story, not least because it involves forensic psychology legend Gisli Gudjonsson who worked on the case when he was a young police officer and later when he became a leading expert in false confessions.

In many ways, it’s a classic case of memory distrust syndrome where accused people begin to distrust what they remember and begin to believe what’s been suggested to them. In this case, through pressure of interrogation, use of memory affecting drugs and already being motivated to comply.

It’s a fascinating case and not fully resolved – a final investigation into the miscarriage of justice is about to be published by the Icelandic government.
 

Link to ‘The Reykjavik Confessions’

The genetics of intelligent radio

BBC Radio 4 has just concluded an excellent three-part series on the controversies over the genetics of intelligence and it’s one of the best and most nuanced discussions you’ll hear about the topic for many years.

The series is called Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different and it’s carefully put together, wide in scope and doesn’t shy away from either tough science or difficult issues.

The only point I’d make about is one of context: most of the discussions apply to Western populations. This is not a point about race but one about environment.

Calculating heritability for a particular trait, in this case for cognitive function, involves working out how much of the difference between people is accounted for by genetics and the environment. But the result only holds for similar populations in similar environments.

For example, malnutrition, disease and high levels of environmental neurotoxins (e.g mercury from illegal gold mining) have a massive impact on cognitive function in kids and are clearly all environmental, rather than genetic, contributors to cognitive function.

But when most of these studies are done, these serious environmental effects have been screened out either explicitly (for example, by not including people who have pre-existing damage through neurotoxins in the study) or implicitly (because, for example, malnutrition barely exists where most heritability of intelligence studies are done).

The qualified conclusion is that general cognitive function is largely heritable when the most significant environmental effects on cognitive function have already been removed. This would be true for many European kids, for example, but much less so for kids from, let’s say, South Sudan.

The programme doesn’t claim otherwise, and lucidly describes how heritability is population specific, but it’s worth bearing in mind how much of the subsequent discussion addresses issues more relevant to the developed world than the one fifth of the world’s population who live in extreme poverty.

Either way, if you want to get up to speed on the debate about intelligence, cognitive function and genetics, the BBC Radio series is an excellent place to start and you’ll come away much smarter as a result.
 

Link to ‘Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different’
Link to podcast page for the series.

A forest of porous dreaming

A fascinating section of the book How Forests Think by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn where he describes how dreaming is much more porous among the Runa people of Ecuador.

This is both because of how they understand dreams, but also because of the way sleep happens in their culture – it being a more social and frequently interrupted activity, meaning that dreams and the outside world interact much more intensely.

From page 13:

Sleeping in Ávila is not the consolidated, solitary, sensorially deprived endeavour it has often become for us. Sleep – surrounded by lots of people in open thatch houses with no electricity and largely exposed to the outdoors – is continuously interspersed with wakefulness. One awakens in the middle of the night to sit by the fire and ward off the chill, or to receive a gourd full of steaming huayusa tea, or on hearing the common potoo call during a full moon, or sometimes the distant hum of a jaguar. And one awakens also to the extemporaneous comments people make throughout the night about those voices they hear.

Thanks to these continuous disruptions, dreams spill into wakefulness and wakefulness into dreams in a way that entangles both. Dreams – my own and those of my housemates, the strange ones we shared, and even those of their dogs – came to occupy a great deal of my ethnographic attention, especially because they so often involved the creatures and spirits that people the forest. Dreams too are part of the empirical, and they are kind of real. They grow out of and work on the world, and learning to be attuned to their special logics and their fragile forms of efficacy helps reveal something about the world beyond the human.

Interestingly, if your sleep is interrupted by people giving you huayasa tea you are also likely to sleep rather differently as it contains caffeine, meaning you may sleep more lightly and be more sensitive to your environment as a result.

I’m still getting to grips with the book which sounds lovely but is actually about how the theory of anthropology as a study of humans is challenged by societies where whole ecosystems form part of cognitive systems.

As with any book about deep theory, it is both difficult and intriguing, and sometimes I feel like I am lost in a forest myself.
 

Link to more details of How Forests Think.

Spike activity 09-05-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Slate has an in-depth piece on the ‘real story’ of Phineas Gage. Perhaps not such a revelation to some but beautifully told nonetheless.

There’s an extensive piece on the latest developments with neuromorphic chips in MIT Tech Review.

Foreign Policy magazine has ‘The Case Against Killer Robots‘. Wasn’t this made way back in the early 80s?

Things You Cannot Unsee (and What That Says About Your Brain). Nice piece on visual perception and scence interpretation in the brain from The Atlantic.

Wired takes us Inside the Strange New World of DIY Brain Stimulation.

Fascinating piece on BPS Research Digest: The enigma of dyslexic musicians.

New Scientist has a piece on RDoC ‘psychiatry’s scientific reboot’ but don’t miss BishopBlog with a more critical take.

A short history of game panics. Reason magazine takes us on a trip through history.

Neuroskeptic discusses a new study on how fMRI studies could be confounded by the pattern of the participants’ breathing.

The poly themes of psychosis

The latest London Review of Books has an amazing first-person account of psychosis that illustrates the complex interlocking webs of ideas and perceptions that can occur in the more intense versions of the experience.

As a description of the lived-experience of psychosis, it is actually quite rare, because most are written about relatively (and I mean relatively) circumscribed or contained experiences which clearly do not reflect reality but have their own internal logic.

These are perhaps the most common forms that psychosis takes but some are bizarre, intense and complex, involving delusions that seem to encompass a huge number of themes (known as polythematic delusions).

I met a woman called Margaret in Fairmile hospital. I assumed she was my link to the politician with the same first name. She explained periods to me. I wondered if the PM was angry with me for writing a story saying she deserved to hang for sinking the Belgrano. I tried to manoeuvre Margaret around to the front of the hospital so that a Rolls could pull in off the main road and take me to Mrs Thatcher. She didn’t seem very willing to comply. The shrink had been watching me and asked why I looked up at the sky when helicopters flew over. They were sent by Francis Pym to rescue me. Despite the massive grounds around the Victorian building the choppers never seemed to land. I soon realised I would do six months unless I staged a recovery. I stopped looking at helicopters and after only three months I was free.

One of the difficulties with a lot of discussion about mental health and mental health treatment is that ‘psychosis’ is assumed to be a single thing or variations of a single thing, when in fact it can vary massively both in terms of how the person experiences it and how it impacts them.

I have met people who have delusions and hallucinations but continue high powered jobs (probably, so have you, without realising it) whereas other people are massively disabled and / or distressed by their experiences.

As with most difficulties in life, those who are most affected are the least able to advocate for themselves, so this article stands out as a sharply written piece that captures some of the ever-woven web of intense psychosis.
 

Link to first-person account of psychosis in The LRB.

Using rational argument to change minds

I have a longer piece in the latest issue of Contributoria: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds? Here’s a few snips from the opening:

Are we, the human species, unreasonable? Do rational arguments have any power to sway us, or is it all intuition, hidden motivations, and various other forms of prejudice?

…the picture of human rationality painted by our profession can seem pretty bleak. Every week I hear about a new piece of research which shows up some quirk of our minds, like the one about people given a heavy clip board judge public issues as more important than people given a light clip board. Or that more attractive people are judged as more trustworthy, or they arguments they give as more intelligent.

…I set out to get to the bottom of the evidence on how we respond to rational arguments. Does rationality lose out every time to irrational motivations? Or is there any hope to those of us who want to persuade because we have good arguments, not because we are handsome, or popular, or offer heavy clipboards.

You can read the full thing here, and while you’re over there check out the rest of the the Contributoria site – all of the articles on which are published under a CC license and commissioned by members. On which note, a massive thanks to everyone who backed my proposal and offered comments (see previous announcements). Special thanks to Josie and Dan for giving close readings to the piece before it was finished.

 

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