Creativity and culture
Creativity at first sight appears to be distinctive to humans, although the more we discover about chimpanzees the more creative they seem. Both common chimpanzees and bonobos are able to innovate and transmit innovations to such an extent that each group they could be described as possessing a 'culture'. Wrangham and Peterson have listed the contents of such a culture, which include the use of tools (termite probes, sponges etc.) and protective 'clothing' (eg. 'slippers' and 'umbrellas' made of leaves).
If this is culture at its simplest, the following section focuses upon the opposite extreme - creativity at the highest levels, and the special human satisfactions from creative activity.
Some months ago I had a bizarre dream in which I was vouchsafed a secret which would ensure my wealth and success. I will share the secret. It was the title for a comic novel - a title so loaded with humorous potential, so funny even in its own right, that it would (I was assured) guarantee classic status for any book to which it was attached. The title was Oh Colonel Flastratus! The important factors about this title were twofold. Firstly that the word 'Colonel' should be spelled conventionally but pronounced in three syllables - Col-oh-nell. Somehow this had to be communicated to the potential audience through advertising. And secondly the exclamation mark at the end was vital in order to demonstrate the correct tone of exasperation.
The distinctive feature about my dream was not its silliness but that for several minutes, at least, the event possessed a quality of profound significance. On awakening I wrote down the title and puzzled over its meaning and consequences. Quite abruptly it dawned on me that, whatever its numinous quality, the objective content of my experience was nil. The only 'funny' thing about Oh Colonel Flastratus! was the surrealist absurdity of my having attached significance to it.
But if it hadn't been for this absurdity, my dream had all the subjective hallmarks of a transcendental or mystical episode. Perhaps if the title had possessed more conventionally spiritual connotations, or if my own sense of the ridiculous had been less acute, or if I had lived in a different society - I would indeed have placed a religious interpretation on the dream: the experience might have seemed like a message from the gods, or enlightenment. If it caught-on, we might have had a Colonel Flastratus cult on our hands.
Such experiences are not uncommon - the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote extensively on the subject in the middle of this century. He labeled the phenomena 'peak experiences' (PEs). Peak experiences are those moments, lasting from seconds to minutes, during which we feel the highest levels of happiness, harmony and possibility. They range in degree from intensifications of everyday pleasure, to apparently 'supernatural' episodes of enhanced consciousness which feel qualitatively distinct from, and superior to, normal experience.
Some people regard PEs as pointing the way to what ought to be the norm in a truly healthy, ideal human life. By this account, normal everyday life is a disease state during which we function at a lower level - firing on three cylinders, as it were. Everyday life is semi-human, and only during peak experiences are we fully awake, alert, aware, conscious, alive. According to this line, PEs are to be valued as providing a privileged insight into 'reality'. Because they represent a higher state of consciousness, knowledge obtained in this state has greater validity than the insights of the normal, sub-optimal level of consciousness associated with mundane life. Certainly peak experiences constitute some of the most memorable and subjectively significant events in life.
I do not go along with the idea that peak experiences are a window onto a transcendental reality (because I do not believe there is such a thing), neither do I consider them to constitute a pathway to a higher 'evolutionary' state (because I do not recognize any other significant creative evolutionary process than the very slow workings of natural selection). Nevertheless there seems to be something worth pursuing in the idea that PEs are of special significance. Certainly, they do not strike at random, they are associated with particular circumstances. Furthermore, their occurrence may be associated with a transformation in personal behaviour or goals. The potentially profound subjective significance of a peak experience is not open to serious doubt - but the objective validity of the content of that experience is another matter.
Peak experiences in science
The objective significance of a peak experience is a complex matter. The best test of is found in a consideration of PEs as they occur in science. Since scientific propositions generated as PEs are susceptible to external validation, they may tell us whether PEs are no more than the Colonel Flastratus phenomenon writ large, or whether they might perhaps be indicative of something rather more interesting.
A recent memorable example of a peak experience was reported in an interview on BBC televisions Horizon program in which the mathematician Andrew Wiles described the moment when he solved 'Fermat's Last Theorem'- a problem that has exercised the minds of the greatest mathematicians for three centuries. After working on the problem for seven years in solitude and secrecy, Wiles announced success - only to find a flaw in the reasoning. Another year of tense and desperate work ensued. Then: 'Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, I had this incredible revelation… It was so indescribably beautiful; it was so simple an so elegant. I just stared in disbelief for twenty minutes'. As Wiles recounted his peak experience, he became overwhelmed with emotion at the recollection.
This was only a recent instance of overpowering subjective sensations accompanying creative insight. Leo Szilard, the discoverer of the principle of the nuclear 'chain reaction' wrote: 'I remember that I stopped for a red light… As the light changed to green it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element… which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron [this] could sustain a nuclear chain reaction'. Thus was discovered the concept which led directly to the atom bomb.
From the original 'eureka' moment of Archimedes in the bath, right through to the other intellectual giant's of the twentieth century, the phenomena of scientific creativity display striking similarities. And peak experiences occur at all levels of achievement, not only the most elevated. There is a special quality attached to the best scientific insights - a sense of crystallization.
A personal example
In my own experience I have experienced these moments. For example, one evening I had stayed behind to examine some new microscope slides of the human adrenal gland which had been stained to show both the cholinergic and adrenergic nerves. The cholinergic nerves were dark brown, while the adrenergic nerves glowed green under a fluorescent lamp. When I flipped the microscope back and forth between natural light and fluorescent light I suddenly realized that the slender, knobbly green nerves were winding over and around the thick trunks of brown nerves. The two systems were entwined, but the cholinergic nerves were passing through the gland while the adrenergic nerves were releasing their noradrenaline into the substance of the cortex. It suddenly dawned that nobody had ever seen this before. It was a moment of apparently mystical significance, in that twighlit room: I knew something for the first time in human history.
Scientific theories are even more mysterious than experimental discoveries, in that a breakthrough dawns without any insight into the steps by which it was reached. Only afterwards comes an attempt to assemble a rational pathway by which this insight can be justified and defended. In order for the idea potentially to become a part of the body of science - 'reliable' knowledge to be placed before the peer group for debate and critique - propositions must be expressed in a form that will be widely understandable, check-able and useable. This kind of expression may not be an easy task to achieve. It took me more than six months to write the malaise theory of depression as a paper, grappling with expression, constructing a plausible chain of inference to back up my intuition. It will take even longer to get the idea across to the scientific peer group, constructing convincing rationale, an enlightening example, a memorable name and an appealing analogy to assist understanding. And even longer to test its scope and validity.
Darwin spent twenty years musing and gathering evidence of evolution by natural selection before he was stampeded into publication by Alfred Wallace independently having the same idea (he was also deterred from publication by worry over the controversy which he, accurately, guessed would follow publication). And it took approximately another 100 years before the theory of Natural Selection was completed by its synthesis with genetics. Einstein had key insights into relativity as a very young man (eg. when he imagined what it would be like to ride a beam of light) but several years of work were necessary to turn that insight into published science. And Richard Feynman was using his diagrams to solve problems of quantum electrodynamic theory for several years without being able to explain what he was doing, or why it worked. It required an intervention from his friend Freeman Dyson to indicate to the broader community of physicists just what Feynman was up to. Clearly the insight and its 'translation' into a comprehensible form are two different phenomena - sometime requiring two different people. WD Hamilton and GC Williams published breakthroughs in evolutionary theory in the early 1960s, but these proved largely incomprehensible until Richard Dawkins re-expressed them and provided the necessary metaphor a decade later in his famous book The Selfish Gene.
This is the nature of peak experiences concerned with scientific theory. They are emphatically not self-validating. Even when the insights are of matchless brilliance their implications must be spelled out and checked. For instance, there was the moment when Francis Crick and his co-workers realized that they had been thinking along the wrong lines about how genes were made into proteins. On the one hand there was 'the sudden flash of inspiration.. that cleared away so many of our difficulties… When I went to bed… the shining answers stood clearly before us.' On the other hand Crick knew that 'it would take months and years of work to establish these new ideas'. However, 'We were no longer lost in the jungle. We could survey the open plain and clearly see the mountains in the distance'.
The nature of the scientific peak experience
The typical insight associated with a PE is integrative in nature, with the sense of meaningfulness that comes from assembling the right things in the right order to make some kind of sense from them. Jacob Bronowski emphasized that creation exists in finding unity - the likeness and pattern that underlies variety; and that this applies equally to the sciences and the arts: he quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge: 'beauty is unity in variety'. The moment during which superficial differences crystallize into comprehensible order is the peak experience - it is the 'moment of creation'.
The crystallization metaphor is, in some respects, misleading. A theory is much more than a summary and re-ordering of the facts; a theory postulates that which lies behind the facts and generates them. A good theory selects from the facts and points beyond them. Science is structured knowledge, not merely a loose-leaf folder of 'facts'. It is the structure that enables scientific knowledge to be testable.
The peak experience of scientific creativity does not merely constitute a simple elegant and compelling arrangement of data that is already in the mind; the PE involves an insight into which of facts are the important ones, and how they are related to one another by causal processes. A scientific theory involves carving nature into new shapes, and saying it is this that matters rather than that; and these processes rather than those.
So as well as integration of previous knowledge, the PE is typified by a sense of possibility. The PE can be conceptualized as a point of stillness, where an understanding of the past and the potential of the future intersect. So that the PE is a reaching of conclusions which have implications. The PE is therefore a kind of symbolic narrative - a story with roots and branches. It is not simply a pleasant event in a life; it is an experience with the potential to lead onto other things. And in this inheres its subjective significance to a life. But the fascinating and distinguishing aspect of scientific creativity is the further constraint that the content of scientific PEs should be 'objectively' valid and accepted by the community of co-scientists. Scientific knowledge must not merely be compelling to the scientist who thought of it, but should also fit with the best of current information and have the potential for future testability, peer group consensus and reliability in practice.
Limitations of the PE
It is perhaps tempting to assume that the PE is some kind of guarantee of the truth of a scientific insight. But this cannot be the case; science is not underwritten by a subjective sense of conviction, it should be useable by anyone competent. Delusions are all too common, and people can believe almost any proposition with absolute, unshakable confidence. Furthermore, almost all scientific insights - however valuable in the short term - will turn out to be mistaken or only approximate in the longer term. Yet the PE is not wholly irrelevant to the concept of truth at the individual level. Peak experiences may be associated with insights that are wrong but for the right reasons. In other words, the scientist has done the best possible job of making sense of things at that particular stage in history - but later developments will overthrow their insight. Indeed, this is the usual fate of scientific knowledge. Equally, PEs may also be associated with insights that are right, but for the wrong reasons: the scientist happens to have hit upon the right answer, but using a non-valid method of getting there. Some of the early astronomers such as Kepler were number mystics, leading to them seek new planets in order to make them up to reach a magical figure of seven. They found the extra planet they sought, but were wrong about why it was there - as became apparent even more planets turned up to spoil the mystic symmetry.
On the other hand, there are scientific PEs where - despite a strong and subjectively profound sense of personal conviction - the scientist is wrong and for the wrong reasons. Mathematicians, in particular, are prone to assume that their peak-experience-inducing insights, which may be valid in the axiomatic world of mathematics, will inevitably be reflected in the real world where their assumption s have not been confirmed. This kind of thinking is currently widespread in the speculations of 'chaos' and 'complexity' theorists in theoretical biology; as well as in the field of consciousness studies. You can't get peanuts out of oranges, as my old chemistry teacher used to say - likewise you cannot get biology out of mathematics: the relevant knowledge of causes and entities must be present before crystallization can occur.
The meaning of the PE
If peak experiences are not a guarantee of objective truth; what do they signify? My hunch is that a scientific PE is some kind of personal guarantee of the subjective truth of an insight. In other words, scientific PEs are a marker which the mind attaches to those of its insights the mind considers most profound - albeit having made that decision largely as a result of subconscious, inaccessible processing. The PE is therefore a signal that states: 'This is good stuff, by your standards - maybe the best you are capable of, under current circumstances. Don't ignore it, don't forget it, and try to understand it'. The PE seems to function as a means of focusing attention - the characteristic emotion asserts that the marked insight is something we should dwell upon, puzzle over, sort out - do something about. It seems to me that a vital component of the PE is exactly this sense of a call to action in the sense of making a decision, changing our lives. The PE is not - or should not be - simply a passive feeling of happiness and insight. Indeed, episodes of quiescent bliss and idiosyncratically personal insight are easily confused with PEs.
The crucial variables relate to knowledge base and brain state. A peak experience cannot generate valid new theories unless the person has sufficient knowledge of the field. There has to be something dissolved in the solution before crystallization can occur. There are an infinite number of wrong theories - and only a few right ones. There is a negligible probability that the right ones will crystallize out unless the right ingredients are somewhere in the solution.
Cerebral pathology, intoxication with pharmaceutical agents, the clouding of consciousness on the borders of sleep, or the reduced consciousness of sleep itself are all associated with the production of pseudo-peak experiences. Any PE that occurs when the brain is functionally impaired (ie. delirious) is automatically suspect.
Clouding may induce strange outcomes. William James described the effects of alcohol in promoting the 'mystical' faculty, and documented the 'transcendental' experiences of people under the influence of anesthetic agents such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and chloroform. Such agents were able to elicit the sense of direct access to God led to an embryonic anaesthetic-based 'psychedelic' religious cult during the nineteenth century. More recently, during the nineteen sixties, there were similar claims made for special insights to be obtained as a result of using 'mind-expanding' hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline or peyote. Contemporary New Age pharmacological mystics advocate the drug 'Ecstasy' (MDMA) combined with prolonged dancing to pulsating electronic music and flashing lights.
These pharmacological maneuvers are supposed to provide PEs 'on tap' - but all of them produce brain impairment. Critical faculties are lowered, euphoric states induced, so that mundane insights take on apparently profound importance. But only those who are equally 'stoned' find the results impressive.
Another argument heard in favour of the benefits of inducing PEs is that intoxication removes sensory barriers and experiential filters - allegedly put in place by a repressive social system - to enable a greater immediacy of perception. On this view, knowledge is 'out there' ready formed and awaiting the apprehending mind. Drugs, presumably, are believed to render the mind permeable so as to 'blot-up' the truth.
Such notions assume that people are naturally and spontaneously 'creative', but have creativity crushed out of them by societal controls, maladaptive learning, capitalism and other nasty things. This kind of analysis leads to advocating the use of consciousness-altering drugs as a self-educational tool, a technique to open the 'doors of perception' and un-bottle spontaneous genius. Intoxication is assumed to remove sensory barriers and experiential filters, break up rigid patterns of unnatural thinking and allow the melted mind to recrystallize in conformity with underlying truth. Aldous Huxley expressed this view in perhaps its most extreme form when he suggested that the human mind knew everything in the universe, but had evolved a filtering mechanism (a 'valve') in order that we are not overwhelmed with stimuli. The peak experience (induced in his case by mescaline) had the effect of releasing this perceptual valve and allowing more of reality to get through to awareness; giving access to otherwise arcane knowledge concerning events and entities in the universe of which we have no direct experience.
Creativity is here seen as something to be liberated. It is sometimes claimed that by rendering apparently peak experiences more common and controllable, drugs may allow the attainment of a 'higher' form of human evolution.
Sorry to be boring, but
Evolutionary theory takes exactly the opposite view to Huxley - instead of humans 'naturally' knowing everything and evolving the ability to experience less; biology sees the starting point in insentient, inert matter and regards the capacity to perceive anything at all as having evolved gradually over many millions of years.
Knowledge is certainly not out there waiting to burst in on our minds as soon as intoxication lets it through. Rather, the capacity to attain knowledge, to perceive, and to be aware of our perceptions, are all adaptations that have been painstakingly constructed over an evolutionary timescale. Neither is scientific creativity spontaneous, natural or pre-formed; it is attained by constructive human striving - something made, not a spontaneous fact of nature.
No scientific breakthroughs have ever come from ignorant and uneducated prodigies who happened to be intoxicated. Neither does creativity in science emerge like a beautiful butterfly breaking from a chrysalis of social convention, rather it is something constructed by efforts and gifts (and luck) - including the efforts and gifts of colleagues. Science requires knowledge and skill as well as the right state of mind.
Consciousness as a storyteller
Human consciousness operates as a storytelling device. The somatic marker mechanism associates perceptions with emotions in working memory, so that thought is accompanied by a flow of emotions. These emotions in turn generate a flow of expectations or predictions, which the story may either confirm, or else contradict in interesting ways that - after they have happened - can retrospectively be seen to flow from what went before by less obvious paths hence are not contradictory after all. What makes a story is essentially this flow of linked emotions, a bodily enactment of physical states that have been associated with those propositions that we use in internal modelling.
Consciousness seems always to ascribe causality - it is not content with recording detached representations, but works by synthesizing events into a linked linear stream which is then projected into the future as a predictive model to guide behaviour. As bodily emotions fluctuate, feedback to the brain will monitor and interpret this flux in terms of the meaning of perceptions - the emotions interpret the perceptions. Since the somatic marker mechanism is a device for using emotions to infer intentions and other states of mind, then sequences of emotions will automatically create inferred narratives of quasi-social relationships - in other words stories.
Consciousness is so compulsive a storyteller as to be a master confabulator - consciousness will always invent a story in terms of cause and effect relations, even when it has no idea what is going on, and available data are inadequate or contradictory. Young children will interpret abstract computer images that 'pursue' and 'flee' and 'hit' one another in terms of exactly these social behaviours - they will give the abstract shapes personalities and intentions even though they are merely shapes moving on a screen. Seeing faces in the fire, or animals in the clouds, is another instance of the same kind of nearly automatic meaning-generation.
Theoretical science works largely by analogy, by modelling. Perhaps nobody can reason in utter abstraction. Scientists build simplified working models of reality, and map these models onto reality to make predictions - seeking a one to one correspondence between the model and the world. Some scientific models are mathematical - where real world entities are mapped onto mathematical symbols and real world causes are summarized in mathematical operations - such as Einstein's theory of special relativity: e = mc2 where e stands for energy, m stands for mass and c is a very large number. Mathematics predictions can then be tested against observation to see whether the model corresponds to reality.
Other models are much simpler - the 'ball-and-spring' models to show atoms and chemical bonds and valencies, and a host of idiosyncratic mental models which are used to make breakthroughs and then discarded, often unacknowledged. The molecular shapes used by Crick and Watson to construct their model of the double helix of DNA are a well known example, the models represented the shape of molecules and some of their ways of bonding to each other - and physically manipulating the shapes was a vital element in solving the structure of DNA. Indeed the 'eureka moment' was probably when Watson put together cardboard shapes of the bases and saw that they formed specific complementary pairings. The great physicist Clark Maxwell's notebook musings about how electro-magnetism works strike modern observers as extraordinarily 'childish' - with their peculiar shapes and swirls of how magnetism and electricity might operate - yet they nonetheless led this first-rate genius to the insights that enabled several major breakthroughs in theoretical physics.
The social nature of scientific models
Stories are perhaps the commonest mode of analogical thought. The link between story-telling and scientific theorizing is instructive. A scientific hypothesis is like a story in the sense that entities and causal processes are analogous to characters and their motivations. I would guess that - at a deep level - the science and the storytelling processes of the conscious mind are identical; what differs are the ingredients. It has even been suggested that theoretical physicists and chemists endow their musings with human like qualities, just as chess masters constantly deploy 'battle' metaphors to describe their strategies in what would otherwise appear to be the most objective and mathematical of games.
Certainly, I find that I develop emotions about all aspects of science. For example I must admit to an idiotic preference for adrenergic over cholinergic neurotransmitters, since the adrenergic system was associated with physical action (eg. the 'adrenalin rush', while cholinergic activity had connotations of lying around feeling bloated after a meal (acetylcholinergic fibres innervate the gut). Silly, of course, but I couldn't help anthropomorphizing about entities which were important to me.
I would go so far as to suggest that creative science is constrained anthropomorphism. Learning to do a science involves learning how to tell a particular kind of story: who are the important characters and what are their typical causal motivations - that is the anthropomorphism. Each scientific discipline has a distinctive set of personalities and behaviours - in physics there might be fundamental particles acted on by gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces; in biology there might be cells and organisms acted on by macromolecules such as DNA and proteins under the influence of natural selection.
The constraint comes in because the range of possible stories one is permitted to tell about particular entities is strictly limited by previous relevant science. So that whether the entities in the story are attracted or repelled, counterbalanced or exaggerated, add or multiply their effects… these aspects are controlled strictly by scientific criteria. But having established a proper set of 'dispositions, motivations and intentions' for the entities, we predict what they will do by exactly the kind of 'story generating' social intelligence that we have been exploring in the earlier parts of this book. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that most people can only be creative in this quasi-narrative fashion, and scientific creativity involves storytelling of a highly specialized kind - the exception is mathematics, where the outcome of interacting entities is determined not by quasi-social factors but by mathematical functions.
The role of narrative is both to generate theories and to make them useable - because science is a human product it needs to be shaped to the human mind. If a scientific theory cannot be put into a quasi-social shape, then we find it very difficult to think about. Our mind, after all, is bubbling with social meaning even when the world is chaotic: we see pictures random dots, monsters in the shadows. We confabulate causal pathways to explain our emotions and behaviours. Inanimate objects - such as stones, rivers and trees - are imbued with personality and powers of malevolence or benignity. For humans, the world is full of relevance and purpose. Reality comes to us already imprinted with labels of preference. Theories that cannot be subsumed to this world do not have much chance of being remembered or used, they will be forced aside by more 'interesting' ideas.
So it is a fusion of constrained reality, trained aesthetic appreciation and emotional preference that makes possible the scientific peak experience. The peak experience is that moment when analogy strikes us - we see underlying unity, similarity in difference, meaning emerging from chaos - a bunch of disconnected facts coalescing into a story.
Humans view the world through spectacles of social intelligence. And this applies to science as well as the arts, both endeavors are intensely subjective and the difference lies in the social validity of their insights rather than the mode of generation.
The significance of a peak experience is essentially subjective. The apparently self-validating emotion of deep and profound significance which sweeps like a wave across clear consciousness is probably a somatic marker informing us that we have performed cognitions of special importance and significance to our own goals - and to reward us with ecstatic feelings for having done so. It is analogous to the satisfaction of a good story, well-told - a story with the ring of truth to it.
The subjective importance of the PE is considerable. The peak experience has a talismanic function, something remembered as a reward for difficult but desirable behaviour in the immediate past, something pointing toward a fruitful line of behaviour for the longer term future.
The objective validity of the scientific peak experience is determined by its public dimension - whether it stands up to testing by peers. The predictive value to be placed upon an hypothesis attained during a peak experience is not wholly arbitrary, however; it is a product of the quality of the scientist. In the first place a scientist must be competent to assert the hypothesis, he should have a mind that is informed and unclouded. The probable objective validity of a scientific peak experience is affected by the quality of the scientist's thinking and preparation, and how well he has internalized the processes and constraints of his discipline.
Peak experience insights have the potential to mislead as well as enlighten. The easy induction of pseudo-profound insights by intoxicants serves as a warning of the potential pitfalls. When the mind is deranged by drugs, delirium or drowsiness, then this emotion may short-circuit and 'spontaneously discharge' to become attached to almost any event - such as an idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word 'Coll-oh-nell' or the importance of an exclamation mark. Then an arbitrary object or stimulus becomes labeled with an obscure sense of delight and personal relevance. When the brain is impaired, the specific object to which the sense of significance attaches itself may be a matter of chance, and the insights may be nonsensical - a process we might call the Colonel Flastratus phenomenon - portentous meaning projected onto an irrelevant stimulus. By making the peak experience easier, and by severing affect from cognition, intoxication also diminishes its meaningfulness.
Peak experiences are the result of a 'significance alarm' going off in the brain. When things are working properly, this alarm will only be triggered when something 'important' has happened, that is worthy of sustained attention. So we are often right to take peak experiences seriously - yet their 'significance' is seldom transparent, and we cannot take the insights of peak experiences at face value. Perhaps the best approach is to regard them as a fascinating enigma, a code which may contain a message of profound import.
On the other hand, after laboriously cracking the cipher, we may not find the secret of life - merely a pointless pun.
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Department of Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
also by Bruce Charlton
Cargo Cult Science
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Delirium and Psychotic Symptoms
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Pharmacology and Personal Fulfillment
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Psychopharmacology and The Human Condition
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology
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