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Science

You Really Are What You Know 188

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-am-a-kung-fu dept.
jd writes "There has been research for some time showing that London cab driver brains differ from other people's, with considerable enlargement of those areas dealing with spacial relationships and navigation. Follow-up work showed it wasn't simply a product of driving a lot (PDF). However, up until now it has been disputed as to whether the brain structure led people to become London cabbies or whether the brain structure changed as a result of their intensive training (which requires rote memorization of essentially the entire street map of one of the largest and least-organized cities in the world). Well, this latest study answers that. MRI scans before and after the training show that the regions of the brain substantially grow as a result of the training, and they're quite normal beforehand. The practical upshot of this research is that — even for adult brains, which aren't supposed to change much — what you learn structurally changes your brain. Significantly."
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You Really Are What You Know

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:25PM (#38319998)

    To navigate a city looks like it was planned by throwing spaghetti at a wall and calling it a map.

    • by TWX (665546) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:29PM (#38320052)

      To navigate a city looks like it was planned by throwing spaghetti at a wall and calling it a map.

      And to think, that's after the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the subsequent planned rebuilding strategies to improve it! I'd had to think what it was like before that!

      • by Jesse_vd (821123)

        I watched an episode of The Beauty of Maps last night all about this. They really had a blank slate and still ended up with that!!

      • by AaronLS (1804210) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:56PM (#38320412)

        I think the focus of the rebuilding was on enforcing building codes that would prevent future catastrophic fires.

        They did try to improve the city layout, but the actual layout I don't believe was improved significantly because it would have meant buying out many property owners and the city couldn't afford that nor fight against the public outrage of displacing so many people. I seem to also remember from a documentary that so many took the initiative to begin rebuilding their homes and businesses so quickly that there wasn't any proper surveying done, plus the damage was so extensive it was difficult to tell where walls were previously. So property lines moved slightly and made things worse than before in some cases.

        • by Canazza (1428553)

          Then ofcourse you had the blitz that levelled alot of London again. That just made things worse.

      • by bratwiz (635601)

        To navigate a city looks like it was planned by throwing spaghetti at a wall and calling it a map.

        And to think, that's after the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the subsequent planned rebuilding strategies to improve it! I'd had to think what it was like before that!

        Actually it was about the same, except instead of spaghetti, they only had vermicelli.

    • by GrahamCox (741991) on Friday December 09, 2011 @06:00PM (#38320448) Homepage
      iTo navigate a city looks like it was planned by throwing spaghetti at a wall and calling it a map.

      Nevertheless, London is pretty understandable if you have to go there more than a few times. While I wouldn't claim to know all of it well, I know certain sections of it fairly well. It's fun to use your mental model of where things are to try and find a new route that brings you out close to your destination (probably best not tried if you are pressed for time). It doesn't always work but can lead to new discoveries.

      When I drive in cities that use the grid model, I find myself bored. They are far too predictable and lose the power to surprise and entertain. It also is mildly irritating that there are no true short cuts as there are so few diagonals. The distance between any two points is always an integral multiple of "a block". How is that any fun?
      • When I drive in cities that use the grid model, I find myself bored. They are far too predictable and lose the power to surprise and entertain. It also is mildly irritating that there are no true short cuts as there are so few diagonals. The distance between any two points is always an integral multiple of "a block". How is that any fun?

        I'd rather drive in a city that was meant to be efficient than one meant to be "fun."

        • by Trepidity (597)

          I like fun cities with random winding roads, but I agree, not for driving. If you're going to go for something other than the modernist gridded-boulevards model, might as well go all the way to the winding medieval alleyways model of central europe.

          • by jd (1658)

            The radial system is also efficient - and, if correctly designed, should actually be better than a grid in some cases.

            • The radial system is also efficient - and, if correctly designed, should actually be better than a grid in some cases.

              Explain to us, how you efficiently refer to road names
              at intersections on a radial system?

              -AI

      • It's fun to use your mental model of where things are to try and find a new route that brings you out close to your destination

        Ok, I'll start. Camden Town!

    • by dmomo (256005)

      To be fair, back then, maps were harder to create than cities were. You may as well start with the map. Spaghetti is as good a choice as any.

    • by fotoflojoe (982885) on Friday December 09, 2011 @06:45PM (#38320926)
      I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. The first time I visited London, I felt right at home.
    • by Sulphur (1548251)

      To navigate a city looks like it was planned by throwing spaghetti at a wall and calling it a map.

      It was all caused by goto.

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:25PM (#38320000)

    The practical upshot of this research is that — even for adult brains, which aren't supposed to change much — what you learn structurally changes your brain. Significantly.

    Okay. Now I *really* feel sorry for Windows programmers/admins :-)

    • by TWX (665546) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:27PM (#38320030)

      I used to blame Bill for all of the ills in the profession I work in, but I've recently had a change of heart...

      In the years I've worked I've made about $500,000 in salary. 90% of the time I've worked on Windows machines, and frequently the same Windows machines, year after year, as the problems can't truly be fixed.

      I've made half-a-million bucks because of Microsoft! Woohoo!

      • And that sir is why people who just sir in the basement complaining and only insist on using LINUX everywhere they go usually end up staying in the basement. Those who see Microsoft as a necessary evil, make the money.

      • by Twinbee (767046)
        No offense, but the broken window fallacy comes to mind here. I wonder why.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by TheLink (130905)

          You think there won't be similar problems if those users were using GNOME/KDE on Linux/BSD?

          It'll probably be worse - imagine business apps written by outsourced Indians that would only work on GNOME 2 maybe even only a specific version of the distro, so that you really could not update/upgrade stuff without breaking the apps.

          Meanwhile the OSS bunch will be merrily breaking backward compatibility (whether at program or UI level) and saying "with open source you can fix it yourself". The frigging thing they d

          • by Twinbee (767046)
            No, I'm a Windows user actually, and I agree with you that (for now) Linux would probably cause more problems that it solves for many businesses for the time being.

            My point is that any flaws in the design stage by Microsoft for the OS (or any company for any OS) are magnified many times over and waste the world's economy billions if not trillions of pounds. This is why we've got to be so careful about what the world chooses for an OS, and how we go about designing it.
    • That makes me wonder.. by learning oneself Basic or Visual Basic one could quickly shrink the size of one's brain mass. Then we could instead start learning something more useful and grow our brains back to original size, just better and stronger. Profit?

      Though I think we should take care not to do too much of (Visual) Basic or our brains might fall out of our ears when we sleep.

      • by narcc (412956)

        Why? If you were a kid in the 80's, chances are you cut your programming teeth on whatever BASIC came with your families home micro. As a bonus, making the jump from unstructured BASIC to assembly was practically painless -- you could use the exact same techniques you developed in BASIC to structure and organize your code.

        Visual Basic had it's warts, no doubt. But it was practically mindless to use. That is, it made doing common boring things quick and easy. It was perfect for many common business appli

        • TL;DR -- You took my comment a tad bit too seriously, it was a joke o_O

          In fact I can't hate VB because I've never used it myself and I did use BASIC quite a bit back when I was taking my first steps into computing on a Commodore 64. I've seen quite a share of horrible VB applications, sure, and I haven't seen a single good, well-made VB application.. but that's not likely the fault of the language.

  • by TWX (665546) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:25PM (#38320008)

    Great... I wasted my space in my head on Star Trek...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:28PM (#38320038)

    " Even for adult brains, which aren't supposed to change much"

    How is it that this is still passed around as fact. This idea is incredibly outdated.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by TWX (665546)

      How is it that this is still passed around as fact. This idea is incredibly outdated.

      Really? I watched several Republican Primary Debates, and I have to disagree with you...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by cyachallenge (2521604)
      Well, neural plasticity does slow down considerably after early adulthood. I imagine you're responding to the theory that plasticity simply halted after childhood, which has been disproven many times. Neuroscience is a complex field that ties Philosophy of Mind, Psychology, Neurology etc together. It's hard to make any lasting broad statements about the brain and how it works.
      • by jd (1658)

        You are absolutely right, particularly as high-res MRI is extremely new and very limited. Almost all studies rely on either external observations or gross structural change that can be seen on the cheaper and commonplace MRIs, and of those it is exceedingly difficult to draw any sensible conclusion because of the sheer number of variables and the difficulty of knowing what is a cause and what is an effect - especially when you've a multitude of feedback loops that can turn one into the other.

        Tests are also

    • by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Friday December 09, 2011 @06:08PM (#38320550) Homepage Journal

      " Even for adult brains, which aren't supposed to change much"

      How is it that this is still passed around as fact. This idea is incredibly outdated.

      Absolutely. There's a recent study, done at Mass Gen, that shows adults who practice mindfulness medication, such as tai chi, benefit from measurable physical changes to their brain in as little as 8 weeks of 20min/day meditation. Even older adults. And these changes occur to the regions of the brain that are associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and dealing with stress.

      I teach Chinese martial arts, including tai chi chuan, and love to point this out to my students.

      By the way, tai chi is really good for tech types like programmers. It's fun and the martial arts aspects are extremely cool. You also get to use swords (long swords (jian) and broadswords (dao)) as well as staffs and spears. Tai chi also puts lead in your pencil, if you catch my drift.

        • The article is about f**ing meditation, not tai chi chuan.
          • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

            The article is about f**ing meditation, not tai chi chuan.

            Dummy, half of tai chi is meditation. Anybody who studies tai chi seriously spends as much time in various mindfulness meditations as he does in movement.

            The standing meditation, usually in the horse posture, is the quintessential mindfulness meditation, and mindfulness meditation is exactly the kind of meditation that this study showed to have physical effects on the brain.

            Yang Lu Chan said that when you look at the tai chi symbol, aka the "yin/yan

            • by jd (1658)

              The study is interesting - I'm a bit bothered by the fact that the only information I can find is just rewordings of the press release, which states that there was "thickening" of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration (it later says they found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus plus decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala). The amounts are never mentioned, beyond it being observable (so it's a gross structural change and not a minor one - the ho

              • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

                So, no, I would have to say that this study did not show mindful meditation had a physical effect on the brain, but it DID show that it is possible that it did.

                That's quite enough, if you also consider the (casual) human trials that have been going on for a millennium, involving billions of participants.

                I know I'm the one who took the bait, but it's interesting that the standard for us can only be a series of studies, published in English, for any evidence. One does not need studies to understand that if y

                • by sFurbo (1361249)

                  That's quite enough, if you also consider the (casual) human trials that have been going on for a millennium, involving billions of participants. [...] it's interesting that the standard for us can only be a series of studies, published in English, for any evidence.

                  The plural of anecdote is not evidence. The whole point of science is that we have learned the hard way that we are very adept at fooling ourselves, so we need to make absolutely sure that that is not what we are doing. In essence, that is all science is: A toolbox of techniques that let us examine something without falling into the traps our own minds set out for us. There is nothing wrong with meditating if that makes you feel better (at the very least, mediation is relaxing, and who couldn't use some mor

                  • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

                    but if you want to know whether it does more than make you feel good, you need to be very careful not to fool yourself

                    As an ex-academic, I'm very sympathetic to this idea. I've been involved for the past year in a project to get the hundreds of studies, including double-blind, that have been done in China, Taiwan, and Japan translated into English. At the same time, history is anecdotal. Decade-long studies are very hard to do and (naturally) take a long time. It would be foolish to ignore the evidence

        • by Ltap (1572175)
          So... a study with no control group and a population size of 16 co-authored by the head of the token alt-med herd of idiots exploiting a big-name hospital, which finds that a meditation course somewhat changes brain structure (with no real evidence that this produces meaningful changes affecting them, things like reaction time, blood pressure, performance on standardized tests, etc.) somehow proves that tai chi is a magic thing that makes you happy and virile (the oldest witch-doctor claim in the book). Nic
          • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

            alt-med herd of idiots exploiting a big-name hospital

            That "big-name hospital" is the teaching and research unit of Harvard Medical School. The research was published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, which is hardly "alt-med".

            And the summary only described the study in general terms, but it does mention "groups". Perhaps a portion of the participants were a control group.

            You're making a lot of very stupid assumptions just because you don't like the conclusion. And nobody said anything a

      • by zephvark (1812804)
        Mindfulness medication, such as tai chi? Am I to guess this is only legal in California and when prescribed by a registered physician?
        • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

          Mindfulness medication, such as tai chi?

          Did I say "medication"? Aw geez, it's been a long day. It was our first snow here in Chicago, and my early flight this morning was really taxing.

          I'm ready for bed now. Sorry about the "medication". Apparently, the salutary effect of mindfulness meditation on the human brain has not done quite enough for me yet.

      • by sFurbo (1361249)
        Firstly, a study with 16 participants is interesting, and can generate hypotheses, but nothing more than that.
        Secondly, it seems the controls were simply non-intervention. How do we know whether it was meditation, relaxation or simply learning something new that had that effect if it is not controlled for? The senior author even says:"This study demonstrates that [...] people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing." It does no such thing, they haven't controlled for it!
        Thirdly,
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Not really. The idea has a bunch of minor exceptions but good evidence that the adult brain can routinely significantly remodel itself is pretty new.

      • by jd (1658)

        Exactly, especially on the scale we're talking here (14-20% growth of the hippocampus). That's major remodeling. Most tests prior to the popularization of MRI would have been subjective simply because patients don't generally like doctors to saw their brains open. Even with MRI becoming widely available, it's not cheap - particularly at adequate resolution - and it's time-intensive, which limits the projects that can use it. The methodology can also be a bit slipshod at times and the popular practice of not

  • If you have trained extensively in one area how long would it take to switch to something else?
     

    • by martin-boundary (547041) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:45PM (#38320242)
      Along the same lines, do some types of jobs lead to stable equilibrium configurations of some sort (which cannot be easily escaped)? For example, does learning to take orders and being a good employee reconfigure the brain in different ways than being an entrepreneur and making up your own decisions? Is it possible to become the latter if you've already spent 20 years being the former?
      • That's actually a very good question. I'm not sure anyone has done that study, but I'd love to know the results.

        If we go with current thinking (the Peter Principle, the idea that people generally will have their best ideas when young, the high failure rate of start-ups that appear to be by people moving out of regular industry, the apparent "strangeness" of inventors and innovators to those with a strong work ethic, etc) then the answer would be "almost certainly" for your first question, "quite likely" for your second and "yes but it's unimaginably rare" to your third.

        However, you must bear in mind that until there's hard evidence of cause-and-effect, this is all supposition based on anecdotal evidence (which, if you remember your Dilbert videos, is only good for selling books) and apparent correlation. It seems very plausible, but without something a bit more solid I'm not confident anyone can give a real answer.

        • by Khyber (864651)

          I spent from 15-25 being a retail slave. I design complex horticultural systems and LED lighting to match those systems, now. I'm about to be on the BBC.

          I'd say it's not so stuck.

          • by Optic7 (688717)

            That's very interesting. How did you make this change?

          • by jd (1658)

            Like I said, being stuck was supposition. Of course, you might be one of those rare mega-geniuses for whom no normal rules apply.

          • by narcc (412956)

            I spent from 15-25 being a retail slave. I design complex horticultural systems and LED lighting to match those systems, now.

            I had a neighbor who worked as a retail slave and designed and built such systems (designed to fit inside the average walk-in closet) on the side.

            I'm about to be on the BBC.

            Yeah, my neighbor was on TV as well for his "horticultural systems" as well. The show was called "Cops", if I remember correctly. I believe that the local news also did a feature.

  • Meditation (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Laxori666 (748529) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:41PM (#38320180) Homepage

    Anyone who meditates effectively for any length of time can attest to the fact that the brain can change quite dramatically as a result of what you do with it. Things that I did not even know were possible have happened to me as a result of it, and not in a subtle way, either.

    • by no1nose (993082)

      I am interested in how you meditate and what results you have observed. I am 36 years old and want to make sure I don't turn old and grumpy before my time.

      • Re:Meditation (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Laxori666 (748529) on Friday December 09, 2011 @07:01PM (#38321076) Homepage
        I do different things now than when I started. First it was just following the breath 20min/day... then doing a technique called Mahasi-style Noting... at some point a shift occurred which made it far, far easier to concentrate on whatever I wanted and for however long (I basically am never bored anymore as there is always something interesting going on that I can observe). If you'd like to get into it more I invite you to introduce yourself on the Dharma Overground [dharmaoverground.org].
        • by Laxori666 (748529)
          Ah yea results-wise: fascinating altered states of consciousness (while sober). The aforementioned increase in concentration. Also learned a lot about how emotions work (and how suffering in general works) which makes it far easier to deal with stressful stuff. Also really increased sensual clarity (particularly vision).
    • The big factor here is stress. Meditation is a good method for reducing stress substantially as it's well know how it effects the brain physically.

  • I have memorised a significant collection of porn sites over the years for "research". What happened to my brain?
  • But? (Score:3, Funny)

    by M0j0_j0j0 (1250800) on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:55PM (#38320390)
    The question is: How is the Brain of the people that study the Brain?
  • Not what you know (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gmuslera (3436) * on Friday December 09, 2011 @05:59PM (#38320434) Homepage Journal
    but what you exercise. Probably there are (maybe in different areas) brain improvements too for piano players, people that speak in several languages or players of some games. The brain is a muscle that grows with training.

    Related with the title, not the content of the article, probably there is very little of what is "you" that wasnt what you know or what you lived. Someone else that looked essentially like me (to not have different experiences based on looks) living exactly what i lived would probably think like me.

  • Wonder what before/after images of view a substantial amount of pr0n would reveal, besides over-development of the preferred wrist?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by BMOC (2478408)
      "Sir your visual cortex is extremely complex. At these percentages of activity and size, you should be able to spot perfect-10 curves from 5000 feet in the air. Of course someday you'll just magically go blind, with no medical explanation, so there's that."
      • by wdef (1050680)
        I have read claims on the web that excessive masturbation can overstimulate the dopamine reward system in the brain making it more and more difficult to get off over time. This argument is sometimes used as a downside of (or perhaps mechanism of) so-called pron addiction. The alleged remedy is to avoid jerking off for long periods. I don't know if this has been proven.
  • by wisnoskij (1206448) on Friday December 09, 2011 @06:30PM (#38320790) Homepage

    I am pretty sure Humans do not have the equivalent of software that works on generic brain hardware. Skills come about by the brain being hard wired to do certain tasks and this has been known for a long time.

    The real question here is why do cabby's still have to go though such a intensive training regiment when you could just install a GPS.

    • by jo_ham (604554)

      Have you ever tried to use a GPS in London?

      It's like trying to navigate the Pacific Ocean when the most accurate details you can give to the computer are "I can see water" and "I'm in a boat".

      Even if the GPS has a decent fix, so many of the streets are at random angles, with really narrow winding side streets that it easily gets confused. There's no substitute for a driver who knows the layout.

      • "It's like trying to navigate the Pacific Ocean when the most accurate details you can give to the computer are "I can see water" and "I'm in a boat"."

        You must not know how GPSes work. It does not require the user to know where they are. It used satellites to do that for you.
        And it does not matter if current GPSes do not like London or if the streets are not all at 90 degree angels or not.
        With a relatively small amount of work (making sure the internal map is right, punching in the general traffic details)

        • by jo_ham (604554)

          I'm sorry to say this but.... whooooooooooooosh.

          I'm well aware of how GPS works, just that it doesn't work very well in London due to the close-together buildings, odd angles of reflection and very dense, non-patterned road network.

          I have done it many times - the GPS gets lost more often than you do just looking up a route in a map since it gets confused by the weak and reflecting signals, then it tells you to turn around and go the other way (sometimes on a road with no ability to turn), only to suddenly r

          • But that does not mean that a modified or high quality GPS unit would not work.
            All that means is that the generic stuff that civilians get is not good enough.

            • by ceoyoyo (59147)

              GPS isn't overly accurate (or reliable) when it's view of the sky is significantly blocked, and it doesn't matter how good your receiver is. Add to that streets that are narrow and frequently close enough together to be confused due to an inaccurate fix and you're going to have problems.

              Besides which, you answered your own question. Why don't London cabbies just use GPS? Because "the generic stuff that civilians get is not good enough."

            • by jo_ham (604554)

              To further the response from the other commenter who already replied, there's a fundamental limit to the realtime resolution of the GPS system as it stands, especially in very narrow and twisty streets with no view of the sky in any direction except vertical.

              Add to that the cycle time on the satellites themselves (30 second windows - a function of the way the signals are set up), and even when the GPS unit can do additional "quick location fix" routines (where it can make a good initial guess about the curr

    • Because GPS systems are slow and inefficient for dedicated, rapidly changing navigational tasks. I used to work pizza delivery. Half the guys at the store had GPS systems when I left. They were also the slowest delivery drivers. The guys who memorized the area (not that hard to do really), were much faster. I lost track of the number of times I was out the door, in my car, and almost around the end of the block before one of the guys who was sitting in his car keying an address when I walked out the do

  • From the summary:

    "... or whether the brain structure changed as a result of their intensive training (which requires rote memorization of essentially the entire street map of one of the largest and least-organized cities in the world)."

    I don't know that rote memorization plays that big a part in it, rather I think it's more learning by doing thing. I would dare say that it's impossible to memorize a map of London without actually doing some driving and combining that map knowledge with other visuals suc

  • This is old news and has been known by Neuroscience for a long time now...neurons move closer to other neurons based on how often certain movements and memories / thoughts are used so of course the makeup of your brain is going to be dependent on what you know and do on a consistent basis. There is nothing new about this discovery.
  • by wdef (1050680) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @03:40AM (#38323878)

    Most of us knew one or two of those people in college/university. They look at a whiteboard full of difficult content, note it down once without ornamentation, never rewrite their notes, maybe read through the night before an exam and then regurgitate the lot perfectly. They get called brilliant. We tell ourselves that it's not the same skill necessarily as inspired creative problem solving though they usually seem to be good at that too, so maybe they are brilliant.

    I was friends with and studied alongside one of these creatures (he became a Rhodes scholar) so I observed his techniques. I became a straight A student myself that year partly from that. He had honed his learning skills, intentionally or not, all of his life. He had genuine interest in the material (except Comp Sci which he hated while getting A++ grades), and was ambitious, competitive and extremely motivated, even when appearing to be half asleep. He was a good classical pianist (correlates with high IQ) and basketball player (so was fit), and never wasted time. No mindless boozing or bonging, it was wholesome-vomitus Christian Youth Group for him once per week. He could solve problems or find where to go for a solution when no-one else could. When an exam required answering three out of five questions perfectly for a 100% score, he would answer all five in the time it took me to answer three. In short, he was a rare talent and knew everything. When a key reference work was unavailable in English, he read both volumes in French. I later met students who also had so-called "photographic memories" but none were as sharp as him. To add insult to injury, he was handsome.

    By observing him I learned some very important things. (1) He had no fear of apparent complexity. Most people's brains freak when presented with a dense page of abstruse symbols. Something inside says "It's too hard" and "I hate this" and "I can't understand" - and they can't and they don't. I tried to relax while looking at complex material so I could get to the meaning instead of the fear. If I didn't get it then I'd ask questions and work it through it later. Even when this only half works your grades go up hugely and you start to enjoy it. (2) He could do working in his head, jumping ahead two lines in a proof. This skill is hard to cultivate. (3) He worked damn hard, really hard, but highly efficiently, reading through things but never re-writing. I admit I had to re-write things, that was the only way I was sure I knew the work. I think with enough practice and cleaner living I might have got this skill eventually though.

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