Cultural Background Impacts Thoughts About Death

A new study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science shows how culture can influence how people respond to mortality.

In particular, investigators found European-Americans confronted with thoughts of death are likely to try to protect their sense of self, while Asian-Americans are more likely to reach out to others. Psychologists label the topic of thinking about death as “mortality salience;” much of the research has been performed on people of European descent. In their studies, scientists have learned that “mortality salience” appears to cause people to think in dramatic ways. For example, “Men become more wary of sexy women and they like wholesome women more. People like to stereotype more. You see all these strange and bizarre occurrences when people think about the fact that they aren’t going to live forever,” said researcher Christine Ma-Kellams, a doctoral student at the University of California Santa Barbara. Researchers say another interesting observation is that people try to protect their sense of self, by putting down people who aren’t like them or distancing themselves from innocent victims. But, as a cultural psychologist, Ma wondered if this reaction might be different in other cultures. In particular, she wanted to look at people of Asian backgrounds, whose sense of self is generally more linked to people around them. Ma-Kellams recruited both European-Americans and Asian-Americans for the study. Each person was told to either write down thoughts that come to mind when thinking about their own death – or to write down their thoughts about dental pain. (Those people were the control group.) Then they were asked to decide what bail should be set for a prostitute and given a survey on their attitudes toward prostitution. As other research has found, European-American people who had thought about death were much harsher towards the prostitute than those in the control group. But Asian-Americans who thought about death were much kinder toward the prostitute – even though they started out more conservative. In a second experiment, participants were presented with a less extreme case, a story about a university employee who’d been injured in an accident through no fault of his own. The same result was found; European-Americans were more likely to blame him if they’d contemplated their own mortality, while Asian-Americans were less likely to blame him. This aligns with research that finds that European-Americans and Asian-Americans think about the self very differently. “For European-Americans, everyone wants to save themselves after thinking about death because loss of self is the worst possible consequence,” Ma-Kellams said. “Asians don’t necessarily see themselves in that individualistic kind of way. Self is very much tied up with the people around you.” In this case, that means that when they’re threatened with their own mortality, Asian-Americans apparently reach out to other people. Source: Association for Psychological Science

Social Cues Are Difficult for People with Schizophrenia

Social Cues Are Difficult for People with Schizophrenia New research finds that impairment in a brain area make it difficult for people with schizophrenia to understand the nonverbal actions of others. “Misunderstanding social situations and interactions are core deficits in schizophrenia,” said psychologist Dr. Sohee Park of Vanderbilt University. “Our findings may help explain the origins of some of the delusions involving perception and thoughts experienced by those with schizophrenia.” Researchers found that a particular brain area, the posterior superior temporal sulcus or STS, appears to be implicated in this deficit. “Using brain imaging together with perceptual testing, we found that a brain area in a neural network involved in perception of social stimuli responds abnormally in individuals with schizophrenia,” said co-author Randolph Blake, Ph.D. “We found this brain area fails to distinguish genuine biological motion from highly distorted versions of that motion.” “We have found… that people with schizophrenia tend to ‘see’ living things in randomness and this subjective experience is correlated with an increased activity in the (posterior) STS,” the authors wrote. “In the case of biological motion perception, these self-generated, false impressions of meaning can have negative social consequences, in that schizophrenia patients may misconstrue the actions or intentions of other people.” In their experiments, the researchers compared the performance of people with schizophrenia to that of healthy controls on two visual tasks. One task involved deciding whether or not an animated series of lights depicted the movements of an actor’s body. The second task entailed judging subtle differences in the actions depicted by two similar animations viewed side by side. On both tasks, people with schizophrenia performed less well than the healthy controls. Next, the researchers measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the subjects—healthy controls and schizophrenia patients—performed a version of the side-by-side task. Once again, the individuals with schizophrenia performed worse on the task. The researchers were then able to correlate those performance deficits with the brain activity in each person. Researchers do not yet understand this specific brain area in schizophrenia patients fails to differentiate normal human activity from non-human motion. They speculate that this abnormal brain activation contributes to the patients’ difficulties reading social cues in the actions of others. Their findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE. Source: Vanderbilt University

Postural Problems a Sign of Bipolar Illness?

Postural Problems a Sign of Bipolar Illness?Although motor deficits often accompany a mood or psychiatric disorder, most researchers have not targeted motor areas as a method to improve mental health. In a new study, researchers at Indiana University suggests that postural control problems may be a core feature of bipolar disorder, not just a random symptom. The investigators believe attention to the postural problems can provide insights both into areas of the brain affected by the psychiatric disorder and new potential targets for treatment. Bipolar disorder is a severe psychiatric disorder characterized by extreme, debilitating mood swings and unusual shifts in a person’s energy and ability to function. Balance, postural control and other motor control issues are frequently experienced by people with mood and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and neurological disorders such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease. In this study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers surmised that problems with postural control — maintaining balance while holding oneself upright — are a core component of bipolar disorder. As such, the researchers believe it is possible that the motor abnormalities could appear before other symptoms, signaling an increased risk for the disorder. According, researchers wanted to know if therapies that improve motor symptoms may also help mood disorders. “For a number of psychological disorders, many different psychiatric treatments and therapies have been tried, with marginal effects over the long term. Researchers are really starting to look at new targets,” said Amanda Bolbecker, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “Our study suggests that brain areas traditionally believed to be responsible for motor behavior might represent therapeutic targets for bipolar disorder.” The link between motor and mental is not as distant as some would believe. For example, try as we might, humans cannot stand perfectly still. “Instead, we make small adjustments at our hips and ankles based on what our eyes, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and semi-circular canals tells us,” said S. Lee Hong, Ph.D., a study co-author. “The better these sensory sources are integrated, the less someone sways.” Areas of the brain that are critical for motor control, mainly the cerebellum, basal ganglia and brain stem, also aid in mood regulation and are areas where abnormalities often are found in people with bipolar disorder. Postural sway — a measure of the endless adjustments people make in an attempt to stand still — is considered a sensitive gauge of motor control that likely is affected by these abnormalities. In the study, participants who had bipolar disorder displayed more postural sway, particularly when their eyes were closed, than study participants who had no psychological disorders. The troubles, which involved the study participants’ proprioception, or ability to process non-visual sensory information related to balance, were not affected by their mood or the severity of their disorder. “It appears that people with bipolar disorder process sensory information differently and this is seen in their inability to adapt their movement patterns to different conditions, such as eyes open vs. eyes closed or feet together vs. feet apart,” said Hong, whose research focuses on how humans control motion. “The different conditions will cause people to use the information their senses provide differently, in order to allow them to maintain their balance.” Additional research is called for as investigations involving motor control, mood and psychiatric disorders are complicated by the fact that the primary treatment for these disorders is medication, which can have severe side effects including motor control problems. Source: Indiana University

Brooding, Proud Guys Score High on Sex Appeal

Brooding, Proudl Guys Score High on Sex Appeal We are all familiar with media advertisements in which sullen looking men, often accompanied by a beautiful women, project an aura of sexuality and decadence. The ‘picture’ sells the product, whatever the product may be. The perceptions created by the ads may be accurate as investigators discover women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men. University of British Columbia researchers say the findings may help explain the enduring allure of “bad boys” and other iconic gender types. The study — which may cause men to smile less on dates, and inspire online daters to update their profile photos — finds dramatic gender differences in how men and women rank the sexual attractiveness of non-verbal expressions of commonly displayed emotions, including happiness, pride, and shame. Authors point out that very few studies have explored the relationship between emotions and attraction, and this is the first to report a significant gender difference in the attractiveness of smiles. Another key contribution of this study is the unique inquiry into the attractiveness associated with displays of pride and shame. The study is published online in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion. “While showing a happy face is considered essential to friendly social interactions, including those involving sexual attraction – few studies have actually examined whether a smile is, in fact, attractive,” said psychologist Dr. Jessica Tracy. “This study finds that men and women respond very differently to displays of emotion, including smiles.” In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adult participants rated the sexual attractiveness of hundreds of images of the opposite sex engaged in universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes). The study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. In contrast, male participants were most sexually attracted to women who looked happy, and least attracted to women who appeared proud and confident. “It is important to remember that this study explored first impressions of sexual attraction to images of the opposite sex,” said Alec Beall, a UBC psychology graduate student and study co-author. “We were not asking participants if they thought these targets would make a good boyfriend or wife – we wanted their gut reactions on carnal, sexual attraction.” He said previous studies have found positive emotional traits and a nice personality to be highly desirable in a relationship partners. Tracy and Beall said that other studies suggest that what people find attractive has been shaped by centuries of evolutionary and cultural forces. For example, evolutionary theories suggest females are attracted to male displays of pride because they imply status, competence and an ability to provide for a partner and offspring. According to Beall, the pride expression accentuates typically masculine physical features, such as upper body size and muscularity. “Previous research has shown that these features are among the most attractive male physical characteristics, as judged by women,” he said. The researchers say more work is needed to understand the differing responses to happiness, but suggest the phenomenon can also be understood according to principles of evolutionary psychology, as well as socio-cultural gender norms. For example, past research has associated smiling with a lack of dominance, which is consistent with traditional gender norms of the “submissive and vulnerable” woman, but inconsistent with “strong, silent” man, the researchers said. “Previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression,” Beall added. “Generally, the results appear to reflect some very traditional gender norms and cultural values that have emerged, developed and been reinforced through history, at least in Western cultures,” Tracy said. “These include norms and values that many would consider old-fashioned and perhaps hoped that we’ve moved beyond.” Displays of shame, Tracy said, have been associated with an awareness of social norms and appeasement behaviors, which elicits trust in others. This may explain shame’s surprising attractiveness to both genders, she said, given that both men and women prefer a partner they can trust. While this study focused on sexual attraction between heterosexual men and women in North America, the researchers say future studies will be required to explore the relationship between emotions and sexual attractiveness among homosexuals and non-Western cultures. Overall, the researchers found that men ranked women more attractive than women ranked men. Source: University of British Columbia

Disaster Plans Should Include Those with Mental Illness

Disaster Plans Should Include Those with Mental IllnessWhen disaster strikes — whether a deadly supercell tornado, a flood, or man-made catastrophe — it is not just those with physical injuries and trauma-related disorders who suffer. Johns Hopkins University researchers say more attention should be devoted to triaging and managing those identified as having mental disorders. In a commentary appearing in the June issue of the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, Peter Rabins, M.D., M.P.H., said, “Disasters limit the availability of resources, and these groups are especially vulnerable because they cannot advocate for themselves. “But little attention has been given to the ethical challenges that arise when resources are limited, to the importance of identifying these ethical issues ahead of time, and for establishing mechanisms to address these moral dilemmas.” The researchers said disaster-response planning has generally overlooked the special needs of people who suffer from pre-existing and serious mental conditions. Disaster survivors can include those diagnosed with conditions such as schizophrenia, dementia, addictions and bipolar disorder. In the article, Rabins and Nancy Kass, Sc.D., said many of the mentally ill are dependent on caretakers and aren’t fully capable of making sound decisions on their own. Emergency planners are ethically obligated to ensure that immediate and adequate mental health services are provided alongside more traditional triage. “Disaster-response managers and those on the front line are well aware that survivors may succumb to PTSD and other mental disorders,” said Rabins. “But sudden devastation also puts people with both lifelong and acquired intellectual disabilities in grave danger as well.” One study the authors cited found that 22 percent of Hurricane Katrina survivors who had pre-existing mental disorders faced limited or terminated treatment after the disaster. Beyond patients with dementia and others who are mentally impaired, the authors say that this vulnerable group includes those who suffer from chronic pain and may be dependent on opiates, as well as substance abusers who receive treatment in the form of powerful sedatives classified as benzodiazepines. Withdrawal from these medications can be life threatening, the authors noted. As a first step, the authors recommend that disaster-response planners proactively identify and anticipate what needs might arise by meeting with clinicians and public health officials. Those discussions would then guide comprehensive advance planning. As licensed professionals are often unavailable (because of demand) immediately after a disaster, planners should consider training emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and other first-responders to identify those with pre-existing mental conditions and recognize those in need of prompt attention. The training should include volunteers from the community, such as religious leaders and trained civilians, to distribute basic materials and temporary services to at-risk individuals. In an effort to reduce adverse outcomes, the researchers advise that secondary prevention measures may take priority. This action could be in the form of EMTs distributing sedatives to manage short-term anxiety-related symptoms. But the authors say that policies would need to be developed to expand the list of those authorized to prescribe such drugs, as they are at present strictly regulated by federal law. The authors note that sedatives were distributed in New York City immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They also recommend that planners focus on ethical challenges likely to arise when assisting the mentally disabled during and after a disaster. These challenges may be partially addressed by adopting a “crisis standard of care” consistent with guidelines from the Institute of Medicine. Special attention should be given to assisted-living and long-term care facilities that house many residents with significant cognitive impairment, such as dementia. If these people are forced to evacuate, they may not fully comprehend the crisis and may be at risk for extreme emotional distress. Hence, disaster-preparedness training for first-responders should also include information about how to interact with such individuals in a way that respects their dignity, the authors said. Source: Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

Does Computer Use Undermine Reading Skills?

Does Computer Use Undermine Reading Skills?A provocative new study suggests increased leisure use of computers by children leads to poorer reading ability. Swedish researchers said this effect is being played out in both Sweden and the United States. Monica Rosén, Ph.D., of the University of Gothenburg, analyzed differences between different countries over time in order to explain change in reading achievement among 9- to 10-year olds. Rosén and her colleagues have studied how pupils’ reading skills have changed since 1970 in Hungary, Italy, the U.S. and Sweden. Reading ability has improved steadily in Italy and Hungary, while it has fallen rapidly since 1991 in both the U.S. and Sweden. During this period, many factors within the school system have changed, as as society in general and the after-school activities of children in particular. The Swedish and American pupils described a large increase in the use of computers in their free time during this period, while a similar increase was not reported in Hungary or Italy. “Our study shows that the entry of computers into the home has contributed to changing children’s habits in such a manner that their reading does not develop to the same extent as previously,” Rosén said. “By comparing countries over time we can see a negative correlation between change in reading achievement and change in spare time computer habits which indicates that reading ability falls as leisure use of computers increases.” Researchers also found the frequency of leisure reading and the number of leisure books borrowed from the library have both fallen as computer use in the home has increased. Thus, it is not the computers in themselves or the activities they are used for that impair reading skills, but rather that computers have stolen time from leisure reading. According to the researchers, the new computer habits do not promote the development of reading ability in the same way as leisure reading of books does. Reading of printed media has fallen also among adults. In many homes, especially among younger adults, researchers say it is uncommon for an individual to sit down and read. “We have shown that the poorer results are principally caused by a fall in the skills of those from the center of the ability range and upwards. It is not that case that there are more less-gifted readers or that the skills of these readers have become poorer. What has happened is that there are fewer high-performing children,” Rosén said. Rosén pointed out that it is very difficult to measure and compare reading skills over time. “It is important that we do not jump to the conclusion that the complete explanation for poorer reading is deficiencies in education,” she said. “On the contrary, the way in which computers undermine reading shows very clearly that leisure time is at least as important when it comes to developing high-quality reading skills.” Source: University of Gothenburg

More Americans Praying for Health Reasons

More Americans Praying for Health ReasonsResearchers have discovered a dramatic increase among American adults in the use of prayer for health issues. Investigators analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1999, 2002 and 2007 National Health Interview Surveys and determined praying about health issues increased over the past three decades, rising 36 percent between 1999 and 2007. “The United States did have an increase in worship attendance across multiple religious faiths immediately after the 9/11 attack, but that has not stayed elevated. However, people continued to use informal and private spiritual practices such as prayer,” said lead author Amy Wachholtz, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “There is also a greater public awareness of Buddhist-based mindfulness practices that can include prayerful meditation, which individuals may also be using to address a variety of health concerns.” A change in health status, either a decline or an improvement, was linked with more reported prayer. This suggests prayer is used to cope with changing health status. While prayer about health issues increased across all groups, from 43 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2007, the data indicated that people with the highest incomes were 15 percent less likely to pray than those with the lowest incomes, and people who exercised regularly were 25 percent less likely to pray those who didn’t exercise. Women, African-Americans and the well-educated were most likely to pray about their health. “We’re seeing a wide variety of prayer use among people with good income and access to medical care,” Wachholtz said. “People are not exchanging health insurance for prayer.” A significantly greater proportion of women prayed compared to men, with 51 percent of women reporting prayer in 2002 and 56 percent in 2007, in contrast with 34 percent and 40 percent, respectively, among men. African-Americans were more likely to pray for their health than Caucasians, with 61 percent of African-Americans reporting having done so in 2002 and 67 percent in 2007, compared to 40 percent and 45 percent for Caucasians during the same periods. People who were married, educated beyond high school or had experienced a change in health for better or worse within the last 12 months were also more likely to pray about health concerns, the study found. The study, found in the APA journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, did not reveal the type of prayer people used, or which occurred first – prayer or the health issue. Source: American Psychological Association

Obsessive Fears Arise in Response to Compulsions in OCD

Obsessive Fears Arise in Response to Compulsions in OCDThe chicken-and-egg question regarding obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for the most part, is usually answered by identifying obsessive fears as driving the behaviors such as repetitive hand-washing. A new study effectively reverses the order, finding that the repetitive behaviors themselves (the compulsions) might be the precursors to the disorder, and that obsessions may simply be the brain’s way of justifying these behaviors. New research suggests performance of repetitive behaviors may lead to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This interpretation goes against popular beliefs that behaviors  found that in the case of OCD the behaviors themselves (the compulsions) might be the precursors to the disorder, and that obsessions may simply be the brain’s way of justifying these behaviors. The study, conducted at the University of Cambridge and the University of Amsterdam, provides important insight into how the debilitating repetitive behavior of OCD develops and could lead to more effective treatments and preventative measures for the disorder. Funded by the Wellcome Trust and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the study tested 20 patients suffering from the disorder and 20 control subjects (without OCD) on a task which looked at the tendency to develop habit-like behavior. Subjects were required to learn simple associations between stimuli, behaviors and outcomes in order to win points on a task. The team, led by Claire Gillan and Trevor Robbins at the University of Cambridge MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute and Sanne de Wit at the University of Amsterdam, found that patients suffering from the disorder had a tendency to continue to respond regardless of whether or not their behavior produced a desirable outcome. In other words, this behavior was habitual. The discovery that compulsive behavior – the irresistible urge to perform a task – can be observed in the laboratory, in the absence of any related obsessions, suggests that compulsions may be the critical feature of OCD. This finding is consistent with the recognition that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatment for OCD. In this therapy, patients are challenged to stop compulsive responding, and learn that the feared consequence does not occur, whether or not the behavior is performed. The effectiveness of this treatment is compatible with the idea that compulsions, and not obsessions, are critical in OCD. Once the compulsion is stopped, the obsession tends to fade away. “It has long been established that humans have a tendency to ‘fill in the gaps’ when it comes to behavior that cannot otherwise be logically explained,” said Claire Gillan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge. “In the case of OCD, the overwhelming urge to senselessly repeat a behavior might be enough to instill a very real obsessive fear in order to explain it.” Source: University of Cambridge

Housework Increases Stress for Dual Wage Earners

Housework Increases Stress for Dual Wage EarnersA new study from the University of Southern California finds that among dual wage earners, the spouse who does the most housework has elevated levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. USC researchers looked at how male and female spouses recover from the burdens of work and how the couples balance their housework and leisure activity time. The report is found in the Journal of Family Psychology. In the study, researchers followed 30 double-income households. The couples were a median age of 41 and the families had at least one child between the ages of eight and ten. The results paint a pessimistic picture of marriage, said lead author Dr. Darby Saxbe, a postdoctoral fellow in the USC Dornsife College Psychology Department. “Your biological adaptation to stress looks healthier when your partner has to suffer the consequences – more housework for husbands, less leisure for wives,” Saxbe said. For both husbands and wives, doing more housework kept cortisol levels higher at the end of the day. In other words, doing chores seemed to limit a spouse’s ability to recover from a day of work. For wives, cortisol profiles were healthier if husbands spent more time doing housework. For husbands, in contrast, having more leisure time was linked with healthier cortisol level – but only if their wives also spent less time in leisure. “The result shows that the way couples spend time at home – not just the way you spend time, but the way your partner spends time as well – has real implications for long-term health,” Saxbe said. Cortisol levels can affect sleep, weight gain, burnout and weakened immune resistance. One of Saxbe’s earlier studies focused on marital relationships, stress and work. Her research found that more happily married women showed healthier cortisol patterns, while women who reported marital dissatisfaction had flatter cortisol profiles, which have been associated with chronic stress. Men’s marital satisfaction ratings, on the other hand, weren’t connected to their cortisol patterns. “The quality of relationships makes a big difference in a person’s health,” Saxbe said. “Dividing up your housework fairly with your partner may be as important as eating your vegetables.” Source: University of Southern California

A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and Kids

A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and KidsAn expert on the effects of video games on children has a clear opinion on the topic — the subject is too complicated to be categorized in black and white terms. Dr. Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, argues that there’s a vast grey area when considering the multiple dimensions of video game effects on children and adolescents. Gentile writes that there are at least five dimensions on which video games can affect players simultaneously:
  • Amount of play
  • Content of play
  • Game context
  • Structure of the game
  • Mechanics of game play
“Parents tend to care about either how much time their kids play or what types of games their kids play,” Gentile said. “But when I did a study where the effects couldn’t be explained by the amount someone played or the content of the game, it made me realize there’s a lot more going on here. And in puzzling through what that more was, I realized there are at least five dimensions on which games have effects.” In his article, Gentile references some of the most cited literature documenting video game effects in the five dimensions. Many studies have found associations between the amount of game play and several negative outcomes, Gentile said. But he contends it’s likely that some of those outcomes — such as findings that kids who spend more time playing video games typically experience poorer grades — may not be due exclusively to the amount of play. “It is possible to argue that this relation might be due to the children themselves, rather than to game time,” Gentile said. “It is likely that children who perform more poorly at school are likely to spend more time playing games, where they may feel a sense of mastery that eludes them at school. Nonetheless, every hour playing games is one not spent doing homework.” While Gentile writes that there is no standard definition of “content,” most definitions focus on the “script” elements or themes of the game. And previous research has found it is clear that children learn game content, and that learning can affect future behaviors. “This is how violent, prosocial, or educational games have most of their documented effects,” Gentile said. The least researched dimension of game effects, according to Gentile, is how the game context alters or creates effects. “It could be that as you play a violent game with a group of your friends, that context increases the aggression effect because you’re getting social support from people you care about for being aggressive in the game,” he said. “Or it might be that context might have a teamwork motivation and prosocial orientation that you’re trying to help your team — which negates the aggression effect.” The way a game is structured on the screen (to provide meaningful information to the player) also changes the psychological meaning of the content Gentile writes. This is the level at which games cause improvements to visual attention skills. The skill necessary to play the games should not be discounted. Many game controllers improve fine motor skills (such as with a thumb controller), gross motor skills (swinging the Wii remote like a baseball bat), or even balancing skills (with the Wii balance board), according to Gentile. By considering all these dimensions, he concludes that the same game can have both perceived positive and negative effects on players. “There are several benefits to this approach,” Gentile said. “One is that it gets us past the dichotomous thinking that games are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ “It also gives us testable hypotheses, and that’s good for science,” he continued. “And it also tells a game designer that if you’re looking to design a game for maximum impact, you need to focus on these five dimensions.” The research appears in the journal Child Development Perspectives. Source: Iowa State University
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