How curiosity makes us see by Annie Pesskin

The psychoanalyst Money-Kyrle (1971) defined the aim of psychoanalysis as helping a patient to face the Three Facts of Life.  They are:- 1) I was conceived as a result of two people having sex, 2) Time passes and I shall eventually die and 3) I cannot get through life on my own – I need help.  Repudiate number 1 and you are a paedophile because you do not accept there is any difference between the generations.  Refuse number 2 and you live like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations, living out your days in a psychic retreat where time stands still and the food prepared for your wedding banquet rots around you.  Evade number 3 and you are eating disordered, feeding an omnipotent phantasy that you don’t need anything or anyone outside yourself to survive.

How is it that the healthier among us manage to tolerate these Three Facts?  Philip Stokoe, in his stimulating book, The Curiosity Drive (Phoenix, 2021) thinks we have the Curiosity Drive to thank.  He describes this drive as a process which requires us to be continually engaged in explaining to ourselves what is happening to us.  This business of curiosity seems to be inalienably human and is indeed a characteristic we could argue our species exhibits to the nth degree. But Stokoe’s point is that while the ability to be curious is innate, our capacity to be curious is profoundly linked to our developmental trajectory – much like someone born with a musical ear only becomes a great musician through good tuition and a lot of practice.  The work to grow our curiosity, he argues, starts in the early months of life and continues until our last breath.  If all goes well, it enables two essential components of mental health: – 1) A robust sense of self and 2) the conscious ability to ‘think’ and actualize ourselves.  It would seem these components are also essential in facing Money-Kyrle’s Three Facts of Life.

Wilfred Bion, the influential 20th century British psychoanalyst, talked about containment as a state of maternal reverie believing it was a process in which the caregiver turned the baby’s unprocessed experience into psychic material the baby could then use to make sense of themselves.   You will see the similarity here between Bion’s description of containment and Stokoe’s definition of the Curiosity Drive.  It is the relationship between the two that I am keen to explore in this blog post.

Let’s start at the beginning, then.  A tiny newborn baby has woken from a sleep and is screaming in its cot.  His mother goes into the room, picks up the baby and holds him against her chest.  She might say to him, ‘Oh you poor little thing, perhaps you thought Mummy wouldn’t come’, nuzzling her lips on the baby’s head as she moves from one foot to the other, gently rocking him from side to side.  Slowly the baby quiets, or perhaps he doesn’t and starts to scream more.  So the mother says to her baby, ‘Oh dear, I think you must be hungry.  Let’s give you some food’, and so she either sits down and breastfeeds the baby, or takes him to the kitchen to prepare a bottle.  The baby communicates his assent to this plan by opening his mouth and knocking his head towards her breast, much like a little lamb knocks at the ewe’s udders before latching onto the nipple.

This perfectly ordinary, yet miraculous process, involves two minds – one primitive, infant mind which instinctively projects an experience of pain and distress out into the world through crying and writhing around – and a more evolved mind in the shape of the caregiver’s.  If the baby had words, he might be screaming something like, ‘I am frightened to death! I am coming to bits! I am dying!’  This raw experience of annihilation anxiety in the baby’s mind is converted by the mother’s mind into something that can be thought about; she feels his bodily distress and converts it in her mind into action (holding/feeding the baby) and words (“Poor you, I think you are hungry!” said in a sympathetic tone of voice).

Repeated ad nauseam, many times a day, this process slowly allows the baby to build up the idea that distress, ie. experiences of fear and panic, are converted by his caregiver into the twinned pleasures of satiation and safety.   ‘Mummy’ is a ‘transformational object’ (as psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas (1987) points out) and her transformational capacity to change his emotional state is something the baby will hopefully, after many years of parental containment, incorporate into his own developing psyche.  By the time he is an adult, this will enable him, for example, to experience a pang of hunger and turn it into satiety by eating an apple; or to experience anxiety about an upcoming challenge and reach out to a friend for advice or reassurance.  He has a container inside him which can contain the distress attendant upon all of us when having face reality.

Philip Stokoe calls this essential work of the caregiver – converting distress and pain into safety and satiety – the ‘yummy yummy’.   He makes the case that if our baby self doesn’t take in adequate amounts of yummy yummy, our minds simply cannot cope with the Three Facts of Life and all manner of trouble ensues.   Like the tiny baby adrift on a sea of raging annihilation anxiety, we are forced to rely on more primitive defence mechanisms to manage our minds and our relationships.   This requires us to behave in ways other people are sure to find bewildering, self-sabotaging, controlling or scary.  For example, try going out with someone who is frustratingly passive-aggressive, or depressed; who makes suicide attempts, abuses substances, or is coercively controlling.   None of these behaviors are fun to be around but all of them are difficult to stop.  They all, in one way or another, are attempts to avoid facing the Three Facts and they all involve a shut-down in the Curiosity Drive, one way or another.  

It is interesting to me that when patients leave treatment, if they do give me a present, it is often a bowl of some sort.  Bowls have the innate capacity to contain something.  Even if they are empty, we could say they contain air.    I think people come to talk to me because they need help reinforcing their internal container which holds the yummy yummy.  If their container is leaky they cannot hold on to the good in others or in themselves.  If they have a container but not much yummy yummy in it, they struggle to find life worth living.   When they are really in trouble, you could say they suffer from the double whammy – a leaky container and not enough yummy yummy.  This is why the experience of containment forms the heart of the therapeutic process and why I think departing patients who have found the experience helpful are so often moved to give me a container of some sort to symbolize what I have been doing for them in our work together.

So what has the successful development of our Curiosity Drive got to do with containment in the psychoanalytic sense?  If you have ever listened to toddlers playing on their own, you will have heard them speak to their teddy or dolly in a narrative flow where they barely draw breath: ‘Come on, now, don’t be scared, you are only having a bath, it’s OK, it’s only water, now I am going to shampoo your hair, don’t cry, it’s OK’ etc. ad infinitum!  Becoming an adult means automatising this process for ourselves rather than doing it for our dolly, so that it happens under the radar of our conscious awareness.  The Curiosity Drive carries on actively but unconsciously, unless we need to bring our attention to a particularly difficult task.   See my blog on how our brain really works (https://psychoanalysisinotherstories.com/2021/02/08/the-loom-of-origins/) for more on this aspect of brain function.

To go back to the baby briefly, the mating of the preconception of food with an actual teat is a type of experience, which, once it has been given a ‘name’ then allows our strange and special species to share what we call a symbol.  The word ‘symbol’ has an interesting etymology.  It derives from the ancient Greek practice of striking a deal, whereby a clay tablet is broken and each deal-maker goes away with their half, bringing them back together at a later point when the deal comes to fruition.   Thus inherent in the word ‘symbol’ is the notion of something which was once whole being broken up, then brought back together, to be made whole again (albeit temporarily) by the owners of the two broken pieces.  Think of a flag for a moment.  The flag operates as a container of feelings around identity and patriotism, for example.  These feelings are not inherent in the flag itself, but are brought to it by the eye and the heart of the beholder.   Money works in a similar fashion.  There is no inherent value in the piece of paper making a £10 note, unless the people exchanging it both agree it has the same value to each of them. 

Symbols matter because they are the elements we use for thinking.  They are the material that we can play with in our imagination, from which meaning can be derived.  Stokoe argues we develop our capacity to think symbolically from our evolving capacity to use our curiosity to explain what is happening to ourselves.  But getting to the place where an apparatus for thinking symbolically is installed is rife with peril.  Impediments to this process cause all manner of mental health problems, so it is to this area I now want to turn.

So what about the people who do not have an adequate ‘container’ inside them?  Melanie Klein contributed to our thinking here by calling our attention to the role that envy plays in infant development.   She defined it as ‘the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable, often accompanied by an impulse to take away and spoil it’ (Spillius, 2011, p. 166).   She thought the baby’s envy forces the baby to see that Mummy is the source of the yummy yummy.  You might think this would be obvious, but Klein thought this was a developmental step on from where the baby starts, which was as an entirely omnipotent being who ‘knows’ he can produce yummy yummy for and by himself whenever he wants.   She observed how a baby slowly wakes from sleep, ‘hallucinating’ the breast by opening and closing his mouth as though a teat was in his mouth.  He does this for a while but when his hunger pangs do not diminish, he starts to cry.  At this point, we could say his ‘hallucination’ hasn’t worked, ie. his omnipotent thinking has proved fallacious and he needs to do something else to solve his problem of hunger.  

Now the baby at this point has two choices.  He can either stay with the omnipotent thinking of his primitive mind in which he is certain that since he ‘isn’t’ in the state of yummy yummy then a destructive hunger monster must be trying to kill him (Klein called this the paranoid-schizoid position).  Or he can employ his curiosity to look around and see not a hunger monster, but an absence of the thing he expects, which is to say he might get to experience a thought.  If he had words, it would run something like: ‘I need my Mummy to come along and give me my yummy yummy’.   To paraphrase Bion, in his seminal work, Theory of Thinking, what is happening in the baby’s mind at this moment is that a preconception (teat solves hunger) mates with an absence (where’s my yummy yummy?) to create a thought (Where’s my Mummy?).

I think psychoanalysis has helped me understand that if a baby has introjected (taken inside) enough of the mother’s capacity to turn awful feelings of fear and distress into the yummy yummy of safety and satiety, then he can employ his Curiosity Drive to take a peek at reality.  When he does this, he can discover not a hunger monster persecuting him but the painful awareness of absence.  This gives birth to a new experience which is the baby’s awareness of needing something (the yummy yummy) from a separate Other (Mummy).   When Mummy returns, she has lost her idyllic quality.   This is because if she has needs of her own, meaning the baby must have temporarily come second, then she cannot be ideal, after all. 

The key consequence of circumstances being ‘good enough’, as opposed to ideal (which is impossible) or not good enough (which is scary), is that the baby can engage their Curiosity Drive to seek a new explanation for the yummy yummy’s failure to be there when needed.  The answer the baby comes up with,  understandably enough, is that Mummy must be off somewhere else, getting the yummy yummy for herself.   This new explanation provokes awareness of loss and separation.  For if Mummy isn’t here, where on earth is she? What if she   doesn’t come back?  What if she prefers the person giving her the yummy yummy to the baby? This is scary stuff.  But if the baby has managed to take in enough yummy yummy up to this point, then he can tolerate this, albeit in short bursts and always vulnerably.  This state of mental functioning Klein called the depressive position.

Then, if the baby is able to tolerate the thought that Mummy is absent, as opposed to feeling assaulted by annihilatory anxiety about the hunger monster’s persecution, something crucial can happen.   The baby can give birth in his mind to, “A new conceptualisation of relationship, one in which, because we are separate, we can exchange things.” Stokoe goes on, “I can love you and you can love me.  I can ask for something and you can respond to my request.  I, the baby, have discovered a reciprocal relationship…[and it is] curiosity in a loving context which enables the discovery of the outside (separate) world” (p.141).

This process, whereby new information stimulates a new explanation for an old story, might be said to encapsulate human development.  Bion called it “learning from experience” (p.62).  It is certainly at the heart of the Curiosity Drive, whose function is to explain what is happening to ourselves, as we do our best to thrive in a dynamic world where circumstances are changing all the time.

Curiosity, according to Stokoe, is what enables us to leave the ideal, certain, timeless state of the paranoid-schizoid position in which we and Mummy are omnipotent, ideal and merged to achieve the depressive position where we recognize our separateness and with it, the risk of loss.  You could say we are born into a body at birth, but only born into our mind at this juncture.  Crossing this critical threshold enables us to face two mind-bending facts:  The first is that we depend on others for survival (Money-Kryle’s Fact No.3) and therefore we can know we are separate from our caregiver.  The second is that by using our curiosity to land in the depressive position, we are able to separate reality from phantasy by realizing that our envious, phantasied attacks on Mummy for making us wait for the yummy yummy, do not, in fact, damage her in reality.  

Have you ever watched toddlers playing and noticed how often a dolly is thrown against a wall or cars crashed together, only for them to be miraculously resuscitated?  These play sequences are repetitive for a reason because they  enable the developing child to discover and re-discover how his envious and hateful feelings damage the object in phantasy but that the object goes on surviving in reality.  The child is beating the bounds between phantasy and reality.  But this boundary is precarious, which is why a child losing their beloved blanket or cuddly toy is so dreaded by the caregiver, who knows the toy or blanket is both of the child and with the child, an object imbued with phantasy but existing in the real world, able to straddle the border of what is me and what is Other at one and the same time.  This is why Winnicott (1971) called it a transitional object.  You could say the toy or blanket forms part of the child’s external scaffolding because they have not yet installed their containment apparatus internally.   It also explains why caregiver(s) who are not good enough, either because they are scary, neglectful, or even worse, dead, have the effect of swinging a wrecking ball into the fragile, developing container inside the child. 

The creeping, complicated and careful process of building our internal container takes a long time, borne out by the fact that brain research has revealed that our brains are not fully mature until age 25.  The work to build the bowl inside us, a receptacle to hold the yummy yummy we need to thrive, requires our caregivers to be remarkably predictable, attentive and curious about us.   I think similar qualities are essential in good therapists.  We offer predictability, after all, in that we encourage patients to come at the same time each week to a room which stays the same; we give our patients 50 minutes of our undivided attention each time they come; and we take up a curious stance inviting them to say whatever comes to their mind no matter how shocking, shameful or apparently trivial that may be.   Interestingly, meta studies have shown that no matter what the theoretical orientation of the therapist, it is the degree to which the patient feels heard that predicts whether or not the therapy is perceived as helpful. 

The poet Mary Oliver (2019) writes that attention is the beginning of devotion.  If loving someone is being devoted to them, it follows that giving someone our attention is the same as loving them.   This is why I worry when I see parents of babies pushing a pram and staring at their smartphone, or toddlers slapped in front of screens on a bus while their parent sits beside them on their phone.   Luckily, most children will clamor for the attention they need and certainly make it difficult for their caregivers to ignore them for long, so perhaps this isn’t a catastrophe!  

Crossing the threshold between the paranoid schizoid position and the depressive position means swopping one type of anxiety for another.  Essentially, we trade fear of annihilation for fear of loss.  This portal divides the realm of heavenly feelings of certainty: “I am His Majesty the Baby, I create the world and that world revolves around me” from the realm of uncertainty: “What if Mummy goes away and never comes back?”    If, for manifold reasons, our caregiver cannot support us to use our curiosity drive to power us through the portal into the depressive position, then we retreat from uncertainty back into the safety of paranoid-schizoid certainty.  “It is the defence against loss that leads to the primacy of merger and, therefore, the denial of separation.  The absence of any experience of loss means there is no knowledge of grieving” (Stokoe, p.142). 

If we never manage to separate psychologically from our care-giver by building our own container for the yummy yummy, but need to remain merged to preserve our access to it, then we cannot develop a coherent sense of self.  We cannot separate phantasy from reality, therefore we cannot know with any certainty where we begin and the Other ends.  Without separation there is no awareness of loss and therefore no sense of time – nothing is truly past, nor present nor future.  We cannot accept the Three Facts of Life, let alone ‘know’ ourselves.

There is a terrible price to pay for staying in the land of paranoid schizoid certainty.   For in the land of the paranoid schizoid, where we are either psychologically merged or totally annihilated by the Other, we can only relate to others sado-masochistically, ie. by controlling them.  In all cases, their true Otherness, their alterity, does not exist.  But then, of course, neither do we.  So we cannot be concerned with how they feel, only with how well we control them and we cannot become ourselves because we haven’t separated psychologically from our care-giving object in the first place. 

What else happens when we cross that critical threshold from certainty to uncertainty? In addition to ushering in the birth of our self, it also opens a can of worms we can all recognize.  For when the baby enters the depressive position by accepting he is dependent, he ends up asking himself a key question: ‘If the yummy yummy isn’t with me, where the hell is it?’  His Curiosity Drive produces the triangular truth of an answer which is: ‘With Daddy!!!’  Now obviously, I am not implying all babies land in heterosexual couples, or even in couples at all necessarily, but wherever that baby lands, if they pass the threshold into the depressive position, they will have to recognize the existence not just of themselves and their care-giver, but the existence of a third object who takes up Mummy’s attention.  

While it is painful to be forced to share the yummy yummy (‘Why does Daddy/my sibling get so much of the good stuff?  How come I am excluded from their fun?’) the upside is that the baby starts to feel loved not just by his actual Mummy but also by the couple that the Mummy makes with the Other (this might be the other parent, but it could be any relative or friend the baby gets to know well, too).  Stokoe argues this internal image of being loved by a couple is a critical source of resilience for the growing child, indeed we could say that this forms the building blocks of our internal container.   Indeed, every time the child faces adversity, it is to his actual parent(s) that he looks for support and each time he triumphs, the internal couple inside him is reinforced, which becomes part of his inner source of resilience, allowing his container’s sides to deepen and hold more of the yummy yummy. 

The Oedipal situation is a place of fierce rivalry (let us not forget that the first murder in the Bible is Cain murdering his brother Abel) and it is full of painful feelings of being left out in the cold and excluded.  But be grateful if you can feel this way, because Stokoe argues that people with serious personality disorders do not have this internal resource because they have not crossed the threshold into the depressive position.  They have not been supported enough in early life by care-givers to be able to use their Curiosity Drive to acknowledge their separateness from the yummy yummy, then build their own internal container for it.   So they have developed neither a sense of self nor an internal couple whose loving gaze can sustain them in times of anguish.  They therefore live in the psychological and emotional equivalent of a body without a skeleton. 

In this context, it is interesting to think of the containment apparatus as initially an external scaffolding (remember the special toy or blanket?) which only slowly gets internalized over 25 years of brain maturation.  You could say we all start like the psychological equivalent of slugs, are helped to build our shell by good enough care to become a snail, then somehow during the terrifying and exhausting work of being an adolescent, we internalize that shell and are then held up by our internal skeleton.   A psychological recapitulation of our ontology from amoeba to crab to fish and eventually Homo sapiens!

Freud theorized that we all start off operating from our ‘Id’, a swirling nebula of unconscious instincts, dominated by the Pleasure Principle.  Along come our parents in early infancy who fill us full of ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ which builds up our ‘Superego’.  Then along comes our ‘Ego’ who, as charioteer, must yoke together the horses of the Id and Superego and make them go where the Ego wants.  The Ego, unlike the Id, must operate according to the Reality Principle.  Thus Freud thought psychoanalysis had one key aim: ‘Where Id was, there Ego shall be’, or in German, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden’.  His aim was to enable the patient to leave treatment ‘normally unhappy’ like everyone else, which he defined as able to love and able to work.  To function, by and large, in what Klein later came to call the depressive position, where there are many gradations between black and white, where no-one is all good or all bad, where we all know we are flawed; we can deal with the possibility of loss, bear our separateness and tolerate uncertainty.

In this ‘normally unhappy’ state, self-awareness can develop because instead of knowing facts, we discover we have beliefs.  If you want an example, think of the moment when you first realized Santa didn’t exist.   In my case, we were abroad the Christmas after I turned 5 and my Mum bought some shiny, metallic wrapped bonbons in the supermarket.  When she said I couldn’t have one, I was furious.  Three days later, they turned up in my stocking!  The cat, as they say, was out of the bag.  A key fact of my early childhood – ‘Santa fills my Christmas stocking’ – was replaced by a belief: ‘Santa isn’t real’.  Sadly, the Curiosity Drive isn’t there to make us happy, for all too often it forces us to stop operating in the Pleasure Principle, eg. ‘I can eat out whenever I like’ and live life according to the Reality Principle, ‘Oh sh**, I don’t earn enough money and I am going to have to economise’.

The two examples above feature an unconscious fact having its effect on the relationship between a mind and its environment.  What happens when unconscious facts operate between members of a couple?  The answer is often stormy.  Imagine the following: a couple are planning to move in together.  One half of the couple, A, wants more space and is prepared to pay a larger share of the rent.  A has told B this on multiple occasions and B has agreed.  But B is anxious about money and also about moving in together, nor is B in the habit of using their Curiosity Drive very much to try to understand what they feel and why.   One evening A and B are on rightmove.com looking for a home and B proposes a tiny place you couldn’t swing a cat in.  A responds gently, saying, ‘Don’t you remember, I said I wanted more space as I have more stuff and we need enough space to breathe if we are to make a success of this’.  B denies A ever said this and tells A they are spoilt for wanting a bigger place.  A is furious because B seems to be oblivious to A’s needs despite A repeatedly verbalizing them.  The relationship ruptures.

How to repair? Perhaps it would help A to understand that B is operating from the Pleasure Principle, in the grip of an unconscious fact which, if it had words might run something like, ‘Moving in with someone is scary, paying a lot of rent is scary, the less rent I pay the safer I will feel’.   In this modus operandi, A and their needs aren’t real, only B’s need to escape feeling anxious is real.  To go back to the baby operating in the paranoid schizoid position, B is merged with their ideal object who must by definition think the same way that they do.  When A asserts their separateness – “I want more space than you do” – B literally does not hear it because it does not chime with their unconscious fact – “I need to pay a low rent to feel safe”.  

Once A understands this, what might they do differently? Well, they might do what the mother does to the baby when she frustrates him by not immediately meeting his need.  A could calmly say to B, “We have spoken about what I wanted and why already.  You don’t seem to be listening to my needs.  I am going to take myself away and leave you to have a think about why this might upset me.”  This would enable B to experience the absence of A which might prompt B’s Curiosity Drive to generate the thought: “What have I done to upset A and what can I do about it?” instead of ‘knowing’ with total and utter certainty that he is ‘spoilt’.

The job of a therapist, then, is to ferret out the unconscious facts that patients hold deep inside them – ‘I am unlovable’, ‘I am bad’ – and kindle their interest in their nascent Curiosity Drive to discover their conscious beliefs.  For example, ‘I believe I am unlovable because my mother was too alcohol-addicted to love me properly’, or, ‘I feel bad about myself but I shouldn’t because it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t fix Mum’s post-natal depression’.  The key quality you model and which you seek to inculcate in your patient is Curiosity in the hope that they can start to be curious too (rather than hostile and judgemental) about themselves.   This hopefully leads them to use their emboldened Curiosity Drive to become more curious about others and more able to empathise in relationships.

In his paper The Missing Link, psychoanalyst Ron Britton describes how patients who lack a bowl to hold their yummy yummy believe that holding on to the external other is a matter of life and death and that the emergence of the Oedipal situation threatens the relationship with their ideal object and, thus, their relationship with the person they depend on to keep them alive. “Faced with the Oedipal situation the psychotic mutilates his mind” (Britton, 1989). It is no coincidence that Oedipus blinds himself with his wife’s brooch on discovering he has married his own mother.  John Steiner (2011) points out that Oedipus attacks his eyes, which are the link to the reality he cannot bear, and he tries to annihilate the source of his pain by destroying his capacity to experience and perceive.  I think we could also say Oedipus rips out his eyes to wipe out his capacity to be curious.  He quite literally has to turn a blind eye on the awfulness of his situation.

It is no coincidence that when exasperated with someone else, we will cry, ‘Can’t you see what you are doing!’ We say, ‘Have a look at this’ when we want someone else to attend to a problem we can’t solve.  We exhort others to ‘Look here’ to signify our frustration and we deny someone else’s feelings when we say, ‘I don’t see why I should have to….’

It is through our eyes that we receive the welter of non-verbal emotional cues on faces – frowns, stares, smirks, smiles, bitten lips, gritted teeth etc. – and it is through our eyes that we gaze lovingly at a baby or lover.   What’s more, it is by closing our eyes that we shut off the rest of the world in order to sleep.   

How all this works for someone who is blind is beyond the scope of this blog post.  But for those of us who are sighted, our eyes really matter in creating our sense of self since our eyes are the organs of our Curiosity Drive.   In the final analysis, perhaps we could say that what we can bear to see determines who we ultimately become.  

References

Bollas, C. The Transformational Object. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1979) 60, 97-107.

Bion, W.R.  A Theory  of Thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1962) 43, 306-310.

Britton, R. The Oedipus Complex Today (1989). London: Karnac.

Dickens, C. Great Expectations (1860). Chapman & Hall.

Freud, S. The Ego and the Id (1923). Standard Edition vol.19, 1-66. London: Hogarth.

Money-Kyrle, R. The Aim of Psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1971) 52, 103.

Oliver, M. Upstream (2019). New York: Penguin.

Spillius, E. et al. The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (2011). London: Routledge.

Steiner, J. Seeing and Being Seen. (2011). London: Routledge.

Stokoe, P. The Curiosity Drive (2021). Phoenix Books.

Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality (1971). London: Penguin.

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