Learning to Learn

03 June 2014

Making brainwaves: from how babies' brains develop, to how children learn language and even unravelling the adolescent mind, this month's live show panel of guests walk us through how we learn to learn! Plus, popping balloons shows why teenagers take risks, and some practical tips to improve your short term memory.

In this episode

02:35 - How the baby brain develops from birth

Richard O'Connor hides toys from tots to explore how babies' brains develop learning and memory skills...

How the baby brain develops from birth
with Richard O'Connor, PhD student in Developing Cognition Lab, Cambridge University

Richard O'Connor hides toys from tots to explore how six-month-old babies' brains develop learning and memory skills, as he explained to Ginny Smith...

Richard -   Baby with DNAI'm at the department of psychology in Cambridge and I work with babies, looking at how they learn to search for hidden objects.

Ginny -   So first of all Richard, you're working with 6-month olds, that very young.  What can you actually do with children that young?

Richard -   So usually in psychology, you'd be asking questions and getting them to do verbal tasks.  But obviously, where they're 6 months old, it's more focusing on what they do behaviourally.  So, some of the work that I do is getting them to search hidden objects - so, hiding the toy in a little hiding box and covering it with a cloth and see how they learn to get the toy back.

Ginny -   So, is that the equivalent of peekaboo?  You're playing peekaboo with kids for your job?

Richard -   Yes, in a way.

Ginny -   So, what does that tell you about how babies learn?

Richard -   So, what I'm interested in is how they can learn from specific experiences with specific toys.  So, hiding a certain toy within a certain box to generalising to learning the ability to search for hidden toys across different situations.

Ginny -   So, if they've learned that you hide their cuddly cat and they can get it back, they also generalise that to when you hide their teddy bear?

Richard -   Yeah, that is the idea and learning across different hiding things whether it's underneath a cloth or behind a screen.

Ginny -   And how good are babies at generalising one thing they've learn to something else?

Richard -   Well, it depends on the situation. The age I'm looking at is 6 to 8 months, sometimes they can and sometimes they can't essentially.  It depends on quite how involved they are with the sort of task and game that they're playing.

Ginny -   Is there an age at which they can always pass the task?

Richard -   So, for finding hidden objects, then generally around 7 to 9 months old, they start being able to find it across all different situations.

Ginny -   What do we think is going on in their brain before that?  Did they just think that when it's hidden, it's disappeared and it's not there anymore?

Richard -   So, this is the interesting part of it.  When measuring them that they can search for it in a box - so to say, they tend not to pass until about they're 8 months old, but using different techniques.  So, one technique is based on looking time which is how long they look at different things.  And we use this as a measure of how surprised they are by different events.  With babies from about 3 months, 4 months - if they see that a toy or an object has been hidden, say, behind a screen and then the screen is revealed and the object has disappeared then they tend to be quite surprised by this sort of thing.  So, we infer from this that if they're surprised by this sort of thing going on then they do know that the object is still there.  But for some reason, they aren't quite being able to connect, knowing that the object is still there, with knowing that they have the ability to search for it themselves.

Ginny -   So, it's learning that they can actually interact with the world and affect it in some way.

Richard -   Yes.

Ginny -   Has anyone got any questions on very young babies and how they interact with the world?  Yup!  Someone on the back there...

David -   Hi.  I'm David from Cambridge.  Are you good with children?  How do you keep them entertained while you're putting them through these tasks?

Richard -   So, I suppose you've got just lots different toys, lots of different stimuli going on.

David -   How many did you have in there at one stage?  Is there like rows of babies lying down?

Richard -   Well I suppose, for any given study then I'll be looking at around about 20 or so babies.

David -   Good grief!

Richard -   So, quite a load of effort to get them all in through the door.

Ginny -   I've got a question down here.

Jackie -   Hi.  I'm Jackie and I'm just outside of Cambridge, Bassingbourn.  I just wondered with premature babies, how you then gauge the age of the child because obviously, they've come to the world early and then how that equates with children that weren't premature.

Richard -   Generally speaking, with premature babies, for working out what's their age of development, you take it from their due date.  So, if the baby was born 2 months premature then you would say that they are 6 months when they've reached 8 months in terms of time.

Ginny -   Is that something that carries on when you're looking at older children?  So Sarah, you work with school age children.  Do you still take into account if they were premature?

Sarah -   No, we don't actually.  I think that the differences between children are smaller and smaller as they get older in terms of the importance of the age itself so although we still look at children in terms of the number of months up until kind of the age of 10 let's say.  After that, you would really start to talk in terms of the years and not so much of the months anymore.

Sarah -   I'm Sarah.  I'm from Ohio in the United States.  I was just wondering if this kind of disproves the idea of object permanence like a child, knowing that it's still there, like it does not exist anymore, but they just don't know how to get to it or that they can get to it.

Richard -   Yes, so it's all to do within the realm of object permanence.  So, prior to 3 months, they may not show the sort of surprise and suppose we're moving away from this idea of it being an 'all or nothing' type thing that either they do know that the object is still there or they don't, to know what qualities of the object are they able to remember.  So, they will show memory for certain things like what shape the object was before they'll show memory for things like what colour it was.

Ginny -   So now, it's time to go over to Kate and Hannah for some experiments.  What are you going to do for us first guys?

Kate -   Well, I'm afraid this experiment is a little bit harsh.  We need a volunteer or guinea pig from the audience, someone that's willing to come up and take part in an experiment.  That's very brave of you kind sir.  A big round of applause for this very fine chap.  Please come and join us on stage.  What's your name?

George -   George.

Kate -   George, where are you from?

George -   Bassingbourn.

Kate -   So Hannah, you've got what looks like objects of torture here for George.  What actually are they?

Hannah -   This is a white board with a bulls eye target right in the middle of it and what I'm going to ask you to do is, can you try and move your hand, your finger from your chin to hit the bulls eye and do it repeatedly and really quickly.  I think George is pretty good at that.  That's good coordination there, George.  Can you talk at the same time?  Tell us a joke.

George -   Yeah, hi.

Hannah -   What I'm going to do is change George's world by asking him to put these goggles on.  Now, they're pretty special goggles.

Kate -   They look like they've got prisms on the front.  Is that what's going on, Hannah?

Hannah -   Exactly, yeah.  They've got a big lens here at the front which basically directs light in a wonky angle into George's eye.  So, it's going to give him a really topsy-turvy view of the world.  So, we're going to try and fit these.

Kate -   It's a pretty snazzy look.  How does it feel George?

George -   It feels kind of weird.

[laughter]

Hannah -   Now George, I'm going to ask you to do exactly the same thing again.  So, from your chin to the target really quickly and go.  You're not quite hitting the target there and go.  You're getting closer there George, aren't you?  You're hitting the target as quick as you can.  You're hitting it.  Yes, you've hit the target.

Kate -   Is it feeling easier George as you carry on?

George -   I think you kind of have a technique.  You have to kind of go that way.

Hannah -   Your brain kind of learns to go in the right direction, doesn't it?  Now, what [Rosies'sis going to do, as you continue doing that, is she's going to gently move the goggles off your head and we're going to ask you to continue to hit the bulls eye.  Okay, so keep going and ignore [Rosy] as she starts taking the goggles off after 5 more goes - 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.  You're still a bit wonky and you're going back again.  That's brilliant!  You're hitting the bull's eye.

Kate -   So, what happened there George?  As the goggles got taken off, how did you feel?

George -   It kind of all came back into real life and it wasn't until like one side or anything.

Hannah -   The wonderful George here has got a bit of the brain right back here called the cerebellum.  It's basically involved in helping to control movement.  George adapted his cerebellum and changed probably connections in his brain when we put on those goggles and took them off.  So that he was then able to coordinated his movements depending on how we'd change what the world looked like to him.  So, George has got a very flexible cerebellum that was able to learn from his environment and change the way he reacted to his environment based on the information that was coming in through his eyes.  So, I think we should all give a very big round of applause to George's cerebellum.

Ginny -   Brilliant!  Thanks to that Hannah and Kate. 

11:00 - How can rhythm help us learn a language?

How do we learn new words? Can babies learn language from inside the womb? At what age can we first understand grammar?

How can rhythm help us learn a language?
with Susan Richards, Language therapist & PhD student in the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Cambridge University

How do we learn new words? Can babies learn language from inside the womb? At what age can we first understand grammar? When you think about how complicated it is, it's amazing how young we can first learn to speak. But, not all children learn to speak at the same age. Ginny Smith spoke to Susan Richards, a language therapist and PhD student in the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Cambridge, who works on children with language impairments.

Susan - So, these are children who otherwise are fairly typical.  school child learningThey're developing normally.  They learn to walk at the kind of time that you would expect, but when it comes to language, to understanding the words that people are saying to them to try to say words themselves, starting to put words together, trying to speak in sentences, learning new words.  They find that very difficult and you start to see them falling behind where maybe there are more typically developing peers are.

Ginny -   Do we know what's actually going on in our brains when we're learning language?

Susan -   There are lots of different things that the brain has to do in order to learn language.  So, it has to be able to hear the words that are coming in, it has to process those sounds and it has to start to recognise the patterns in the speech signal that it's hearing, start to be able to find out where the words are, where the phrases are, find out where grammatical structures are that enables us to make sense of what we hear.  It's those aspects of this speech signal that we think that some of these children might be struggling with, might be struggling with identifying and that's preventing them from efficiently learning language.

Ginny -   How do you work out what elements of all that really complicated process is the bit that the children are struggling with?

Susan -   What we're looking at in particular is what's important very early on in language learning.  So, Richard was talking about babies and we know that babies are learning language right from inside the womb.  They're responding to the sounds they can hear through the womb and that's particularly things like intonation patterns that they can hear their mother's voice going up and down, rising and falling with pitch.  And we also know that they can hear the rhythm.  So, they're kind of bup, bup, bupabupa kind of sound that comes through.  We know that they're responding to that straightaway and so that immediately as they're born, they can recognise the difference between languages based on those rhythmic properties alone.

Ginny -   How do you know that they're hearing this in the womb?  You can't ask a baby in the womb what it's listening to, can you?

Susan -   Well, because of the fact that when they're newborn, they can discriminate Babybetween those things.  They can hear the difference between languages which vary in their rhythmic pattern.  So, if you have a language like English which is called a stress-timed language, that's a very clear, buba,dadada dadada kind of feel to it as opposed to a language like French which is what's more syllable-timed, we have much more even dadadadada kind of feel to it and you can do experiments, as Richard does, with very young babies that show that they can hear the difference between those patterns.

Ginny -   So, language is so much to do with rhythm.  Is that one of the things that you think might be a problem for people with language difficulties?

Susan -   Well, that's the particular that we're interested in at the moment and it's particularly to do with thinking about the patterns of syllables and the patterns of stressed syllables that you hear in language because we know from very early studies that children are using these patterns, these regularities that they can hear to find out where the words are to work out where the grammar is.  It's one of the cues that they can use.  So for example, we're used to thinking of words as isolated units.  They're the bits that are separated on a page by the white sections.  But spoken languages isn't like that, it goes on a continuous stream.  And so, a baby has to find out where are the white bits if you like, where are those word sections?  We know that they use things like stress patterns in order to be able to determine where the words are.  And so, we think that if children are less able to hear those stress patterns if, they're not able to process those aspects of the speech signal as efficiently then that will prevent them using that as a cue.  So, they're missing out one of the important bits of the signal which enables other children to learn language more effectively and more efficiently than perhaps that they're able to.

Ginny -   That's one of the hardest things I find as an adult about trying to learn a foreign language.  I'm not very good at any foreign language.  I speak a tiny little bit of French, but if someone says one word to me in French, I've got a much better chance of working out what it was than if they say a whole sentence to me, just because it all seems to run together.  So, is that what learning English would be like or learning a first language would be like for children who have these problems?

Susan -   Yeah, absolutely and so, what you would want to do kind of in terms of intervention is to make sure that you're maximising that child's chance to pick up on all of these language cues by simplifying your language.  And we're particularly looking at rhythmic and entrainment.  So, looking at, if you make a very structured rhythmic pattern to a language, is that helping them then to pick up on some of those cues which otherwise might be lost?

Ginny -   What do you actually do with children who are struggling in this way?  Do you have to teach everyone around them to talk in a different way or are there kind of training mechanisms you can use?

Susan -   So, you would look at two different ways.  I mean, my work as a speech and language therapist, we would often work on a specific aspect of language that a child is finding difficult.  If there's a particular aspect or grammar that they're not able to understand, particularly things like tenses for example, children with language difficulty will find very difficult to understand the concept of tenses and using -ed to mean past and things like that until you might work specifically on that.  But also, because they're in school and language is obviously part of the environment that they're exposed to at school to access to curriculum you would be working with the teachers, with the support staff in school.  So, that the curriculum is accessible to them, managing that school environment so that they're using shorter, simpler sentences, they're checking that the child is understood, that they're emphasising key words of vocabulary in order to make that learning process easier.

Ginny -   Anyone got any questions about learning languages either in children or as an adult?

Keith -   Keith from Cambridge.  In terms of its structure and the rhythm, what's the easiest foreign language to learn do you think?

Susan -   Well I mean, the easiest language to learn is always our native language.  It's the one we have most exposure to, it's the one - as we've already discussed, it's the one that we've been learning since we were in the womb.  So, that's no different from any other languages.  If you're thinking of learning a foreign language then you're going to be most successful with ones which are most closely approximate your native language.  So, for English, that might be say, a language like German which has a lot of the same roots, a lot of the same vocabulary and you're certainly going to be able to pick up the stress patterns because it's a similar stress pattern as opposed to learning a language that's very different in its structure and then its sound pattern, and its phonological pattern.  So, that will be say, a language like Japanese where they have a different sentence structure.  Their word order is different, their sound system is different and none of the vocabulary is likely to be similar.

Ali -   Hi.  I'm Ali from Derby.  I was born deaf.  It was fixed when I was about 3 or 4 with grommets.  To this day, if I'm not thinking about it, I speak very fast and I've always used this as my excuse, considering there's about 40 years where I could hear fine and 4 years where I couldn't.  It does appear to be an excuse.  But I wondered really, how much does hearing affect language development?

Susan -   Well, it has an enormous impact. If you're learning language through hearing then of course, if the signal that you're hearing is degraded in some way, so either because you've got a lot of fluid in your ear which you need grommets for in order to drain it, then the speech signal that you're getting is not as good quality as other people are getting.  And so, that means that it's again, so like the children we were talking about, it's going to be harder to pick up on the sound differences between words.  So, you might have quite a fuzzy representation of what the words and sounds are like.  But it's perhaps not going to as clear and as robust as people who have better hearing.

Rachel -   Rachel from St Neots. Just going back to the language, the native language that you can learn, what if you're in the womb that you hear your mother speaking one language and your father speaking another language, are you more inclined to be able to learn both or one, your mother over your father?

Susan -   I don't know specifically over mother over father, but I think you know, the languages that you're exposed to are ones that you will continue to learn.  So, if you're growing up in a bilingual family, then you will continue to learn those two languages and again, there's some work that came out last year that shows that actually, the rhythmic things that we've been talking about, children who are bilingual are also using that even if those two languages are rhythmically different.  They're still using the same kinds of rhythmic cues in those two languages to separate out things like word order and word structure in those two languages.  So, the same process applies.

Ginny -   Thank you, Susan.  That was Susan Richards, speech and language therapist and a PhD student at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education. Now over to Naked Scientists Kate Lamble and Hannah Critchlow for another experiment.

Kate -   I'm going to need all of your help this time I'm afraid.  There's no volunteering.  You're all in whether you want to be or not.  So, I'm a "speechie" in a former life.  I used to be a speech and language therapist and now, I work in radio, but I'm using my former knowledge today.  So, we just heard about how rhythms help us learn languages, but also, what "speechies" and linguists want to know is, do we learn each word individually as we hear it for the first time or do we learn rules that we can apply generally?  And there's a very famous test that can help us understand this.  So, I'm going to show you two pictures in just a second, but in the second one there's a gap and I'm going to need you all to shout out as loud as you can, what the word that should be in that gap is.  Are you ready?  I'm looking for nods all around here.  Fabulous!  Some of you are more ready than others but we'll role with it.  So, let me show you a picture.  This is a wug.  It's a bit of a monster.  None of you should've seen it ever before because Dave drew it this afternoon and it's his own mental creation.  So, this is a wug.  Let me show you the next picture and I'll read it out to you and then you need to all shout out the final word.  So, this is a Wug.  Now, there is another one.  There are two of them.  There are two...

Audience -   Wugs.

Kate - Wugs.  Everybody knows it.  Everybody knows it even kids down to 3 or 4 years of age can tell you that there are two wugs.  So, how do they know that?  They've never heard the words before.  It's entirely made up.  I'm sorry to break it to you, this is a fictional creature.  So, how do they know it? And what this tells us actually is that children have rules.  They know how to make something plural and they know the rules of grammar even though they don't know that they know it.  Some of you might have ended up in English class when you were 15,  and you were like, "pluperfect tense I don't know what that is", but you sort of know it as you speak the language.  So, you know it when you're 3 or 4, so what happens before then?  They did some tests.  They looked at kids who were two years old and they did sort of a variant of this where they showed them.  They said, "What's here?" to two-year-olds, "what can you see?"  Well, after they've told them that it's a wug.  And do you know what the biggest response for 2-year-olds who spoke English was? They just didn't say anything.  They clammed up and were absolutely silent.  But children who spoke Japanese which doesn't have a pluralisation - you don't have to put an -s or something on the end to make it plural - they'd happily say wug.  So, what that implies is that because kids know they should be doing something with it, they don't quite know the rule, but they know that something should be happening there that they're not quite sure about, they just don't say anything at all.  So, that means your kids from the age of two are learning grammar which you probably don't think you're learning until you're about 15 or so.

21:40 - Can you boost your memory?

Can computer games boost memory? Are there tricks to help people with ADHD or dyslexia? And what does anxiety do to your memory capacity?

Can you boost your memory?
with Dr Joni Holmes, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge.

Can computer games boost memory? Are there tricks to help people with ADHD or dyslexia? And what does anxiety do to your memory capacity?Sleeping Student

Ginny Smith spoke to Dr Joni Holmes from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, who works on short term memory.  

Joni -   So, I'm interested in short term memory and a specific aspect of short term memory that we call working memory and there's a very subtle but important distinction between just short term memory and working memory.  So, short term memory is about remembering something that you've just heard or that you've just seen.  Your working memory is all about remembering that information, but also being able to use it in something that you're doing right now.  So, I'm going to do a very short experiment if that's okay.  And so, what I want you to do now in your head is listen to these two numbers and then add them together.  Okay, so what is 25 plus 19?

Audience -   44.

Joni -   44. So, what you did there to work that answer out was you used your working memory.

Audience member -   I added 20 and subtracted 1.

Joni -   Absolutely.  It's a good way to do it.  In order to do the sum, what all of you will have done is remember the two numbers that I gave you.  You remembered 25 and 19, and then you actually did something with that information.  You added the numbers together so you did some processing.  So, you were using your working memory.  What we know when it comes to learning in the classroom is that this working memory system is really important.  If you're sitting in the classroom, hearing some information from the teacher, you've got to hold that in your working memory and be able to use that information to carry out the activity that's been set.  So, in every classroom task that a child is given, they need to use their working memory.

Ginny -   Now, we actually have a little task for you guys to try now.  So Kate and Hannah, do you want to tell them what they're going to have to do?

Kate -   Yeah, we want to see how good your short term memory is.  I know it's exam season, but adults, you're in this as well.  It's not just the kids who have to remember at the moment.  So, what we're going to do is we're going to show you a list of words and I'm going to give you a minute to look at the words and try and memorise them.  As soon as we turn it off after a minute, you've got your pens and paper under your thing, now's the time to get them out,  I'm going to need you to write down all the ones that you can remember.  Everyone ready because you're going to be comparing these answers to your kids, so you better do well adults or there's going to be hell to pay. Hannah, do you want to bring up the list?  You have one minute.  Don't write them down.  Just try and memorise as many as you can of them.

Hannah -   So, we've got nine, swap, cell, ring, love, lamp, plugs, apple, table, sway, army, bank, fire, hold, worm, clock, horse, colour, baby, sword, desk, find, bird, and rock.  Has that been a minute?  I didn't count.

Kate -   Not quite, no.

Hannah -   I should be doing the countdown music.

Kate -   Turn them off.  Write down as many as you can remember please.  No conferring.  I can see you.

Hannah -   No conferring.  We can see you.

Kate -   Right.  I want to find out how many you guys have.  Who thinks they've got the most in the entire room?  Who's really proud of the list that they have?  One hand!

Hannah -   So George, with his wonderful cerebellum thinks that he's got the most.  How many have you got George?  So, don't tell them, but how many?

George -   14.

Kate -   Wow!

Hannah -   Has anyone got anything close to 14?

Ginny -   Can we do a hands up and see who's got how many?

Kate -   How many do we have in the beginning - something like 20.  No one's got 20 seeing as no one admitted having 14.  Who's got 15?  14?  One person.  13, 12, 11?  One person at the back has got 11.  10?  A few more have got 10, about 5.  9?  About 4 have got 9.  8?  5 have got 8.  7?  Yeah, about - oh, I can't count anymore.  5?  We've got 7.  6?  Loads have got 6.  5?  3 have got 5.  4?  3?  We're getting fewer and fewer people as we go down the list.  The average that we can hold in our short term memory is between 5 and 9.  So, it's 7 plus or minus 2.  So, we did actually get most of you getting between 5 and 9 writing down.  So, that's probably your round average.  Don't worry about it if you got those.  So, I just want to know what kind of words you got.  Can I ask you down the front?  What's your name and where are you from?

Nestor -   My name is Nestor Syar and I'm from France.

Kate -   What kind of words have you got written down there?

Nestor -   Bird, sword, worm, and clock.

Kate -   Quite a few people have got those same words.  So, we're seeing a lot of worm and rock - those kinds of words and that's because it's actually a lot easier for us to remember concrete words like worm and rock and more difficult to remember words like - probably, what's the most abstract one there?  Sway.  Did anyone get sway?  Quite a few of you got sway.  The adults though we're seeing are getting sway.

Hannah -   Who out of you got nine and swap?  So, most of you got the words nine and swap which is the first ones that I read out actually.  So actually, it's more likely to get the first ones and the last ones as well.  So, you're more likely to remember the first thing that somebody reads out because you think, "Oh God!  I've got to remember this.  Let me get it in my head now" and then the last one.  So, what we're going to do, in just a minute's time, we're going to hear about some more memory strategies to help you remember more.  We'll have another go to see if we can get more right.

Ginny -   A round of applause everyone for doing really well.  So Joni, coming back to you, what kind of interventions do you use to help children who have problems with these short term memory tasks?

Joni -   So, there are different ways that we can work with children who've got memory problems.  For many years, we didn't think we could improve people's memory directly.  So, we've done a lot of work in schools with teachers, getting them to think about trying to reduce the amount of information that they give children.  We can also help children to use strategies.  So for example, you might try to look for meaningful links between words or the information you're trying to remember.  In the task there, many of you probably remembered bird and worm and that's because they're related to each other.  So, it's much easier if you can make links between the things you're trying to remember.  You might also want to think about chunking the information or grouping it together.  So, instead of remembering lots of separate words, you could form a sentence for example and that might help you to remember it because there are less bits of information to remember.  But the main focus of my research is actually now on directly trying to train memory skills in children.  We do this by using the very controversial brain training.  So, we use computerised memory training.

Ginny -   I'm sure most of us here have heard of brain training.  I don't know about you, but I've heard quite a lot of kind of debunking of it.  People saying that you might get better at the task you're practicing, but that doesn't relate back to real life.  Is that something you find with the children you're working with?

Joni -   Yeah, absolutely.  In many of the studies that we've run now, we've looked at trying to train children to remember, for example, lists of words or locations that might light up on the computer screen.  What we see is that children improve on these kinds of tasks.  We also see they get better at other tasks that are very similar to those tasks they've been training on.  But we know obviously that working memory is important for learning, so we expected that if we could improve children's working memory ability that we would then see improvements in how they could learn in the classroom.  We haven't yet been able to do this and I think there are many people out there, I think I'd describe brain training as a bit of a marmite kind of intervention -  you love it or you hate it.  And people do have very extreme views.  And so, it has been debunked, but I think that that's a very extreme stance to take.  What we know is that if you're training on these memory tasks, you get better on tasks that have a very similar kind of feel to them.  So, what we're doing in our current research is trying to take the activities that children train on and trying to make them more like how children use their working memory in the real world.

Ginny -   So, people who have these working memory problems, do they tend to go alongside other developmental disorders or are there people who just specifically have memory problems?

Joni -   So, what we know is that children who've got a whole range of developmental disorders, this includes children who've got specific language impairment as Susan was talking about, children who have ADHD, children who have dyslexia - they would typically have working memory impairments as well.  So their working memory capacity, the amount of information that they can remember, is typically less than the child of the same age who hasn't got that problem.  But what we also know is that working memory problems can occur even without a diagnosis of another disorder.

Ginny -   So, has anyone got any questions on working memory and how that relates to learning?  I think we've got one from Kate.  Is it from you or from the audience?

Kate -   It's from me.  I wanted to know.  We had two guys - George and his dad over here - who both got 14, the highest out of anybody.  Is there some sort of genetic link that maybe they both did well together?

Joni -   Or were they cheating?

Kate -   Or were they cheating?

Audience member -   When you flashed them back up, I actually got 13.

Kate -   It's still pretty high, 13 or not.

Audience member -   I put them together in pairs which is...

Joni -   That's a very good strategy to use.

Kate -   So Joni, the question, is there a genetic link to memory abilities?

Joni -   There are heritability estimates which suggests that working memory is about 50% heritable. In terms of trying to identify any specific genes that might be related to your short term or working memory, this is something we don't yet know.

Ginny -   Lots of more research needed.

Joni -   Absolutely.

Ginny -   Any more questions?  Got one at the front here.

Simon -   Hi I'm Simon from Melbourne near Cambridge.  I was wondering if there were different triggers and can you see different triggers in how people remember?  So, I know I would've done better had I just read those words rather than listening to them being readout.  Do children react differently for different ways of learning?

Joni -   Absolutely.  I think that some children find it easier to remember things that they've heard.  Other children find it easier to remember things that they see.  And this probably just plays into what your natural strengths are.

Ginny -   Sarah, is that something you see when children are learning about physics and science as well, that different children learn in different ways?

Sarah -   Absolutely.  That's one of the main things I'm interested in actually, are the differences between different people and how some children may pick up on one thing very quickly and others, it's something else.  But there's so many differences between all of us that we don't really understand that well yet, I think it's very interesting.

Dokusha -   Hi.  I'm Dokusha from Cambridge.  I'm wondering whether the children remember things when they're happy.  Like, when they're clinging on to their favourite teddy bear or when they're at home, whether they learn better than in a new environment?

Joni -   So, what we know about trying to remember information is that if it's information that's important to you, if it's more salient then you're more likely to remember it.  If you find it interesting, you're likely to engage with it more and to remember it more easily.  We also know that the opposite of being happy - so, if you're feeling particularly anxious then that has a negative impact on your memory ability.  So, what happens is that the resources that you would use in your brain for remembering information are actually diverted and they're focusing on your anxious thoughts.  So, it can actually make your memory worse.

Simon -   Simon from Bassingbourn.  What's the brain training exercise that you've found to be generally the best one for kids to try?

Joni -   I think that's a very important question.  So, there are many different ways of training working memory.  Lots of different commercial products are actually now available.  In my research, I've just used one particular programme.  But what we know is that really, any kind of memory training programme produces very similar kinds of effects.  So, whether you use one of the commercial products off the shelf or you use something that a researcher might have developed in their own research lab, as long as people are having to remember information and the better they get, the more information they're asked to remember.  So, we're adapting it and challenging people.  What we know is that that's the key and that is what will actually yield benefits in memory performance.

Ginny -   Thanks, Joni.  That was Dr. Joni Holmes from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.  Now Kate, did you say we were going to have a go at remembering those words?

Kate -   Yes, we're going to see if we can catch up with George.  We haven't got time to brain train you all unfortunately.  I would if I could, but there are some tips on how we can improve.  So, we heard before that we can only really hold in our brain between 5 and 9 things, but by grouping things together and connecting them, that means we can hold more things than before.  So Hannah, if we can go back to the last set of things.  So, if I thought about an image of a baby on a horse with a sword, I'd group those three words together and that would just take up one piece of information.  So, if I come up with a number of images or stories to connect these together, I could hold more of them in my brain.  So, I'm going to give you another list of words now.  We're going to give you a minute again.  See if you can come up and think of images or stories to connect them altogether and then we'll write them all down again in the end.  I want to hear some of these images and stories.  So, we'll see what you guys come up with.  Are you ready?  I'm going to read them out as well for the radio audience so I apologise for distracting some of you.  Go...we got wonder, tennis, stiff, month, owl, hand, shy, alien, detail, farm, rock, serious, umbrella, village, method, swamp, manor, building, gender, time, kettle, history, pencil, pig, and odd.

Ginny -   I can see from the looks on some people's faces that they're coming up with quite amusing stories.

Kate -   They're thinking of some good stories, we can tell.  Hannah, blank screen please.

Ginny -   I think people are writing for longer than they were last time.

Kate -   Do you think they're writing for longer?  More remembered?  I hope so.  I hope this works.  Otherwise, you're going to let me down guys.  Everyone looks finished.  We'll bring them up again.  Who got more right than they did last time?  Loads of hands!  I'm a genius, I can make a million out of this.  Hello, what's your name and where are you from?

Maddie -   I'm Maddie from Bassingbourn.

Kate -   How many did you get right last time and how many did you get right this time, Maddie?

Maddie -   I got 8 right last time and 12 right this time.

Kate -   Four more than before.  That's really good.  So, what sort of images or stories did you think of?

Maddie -   I thought of a game of tennis between an owl and an alien and that the alien was shy and the owl was stiff.

Kate -   That is a very good image.  Excellent!  Can we have a round of applause for Maddie because that was beautiful? [clap]  Is there an adult who got more right this time than last time?  Over the front here...

Keith -   Keith from Cambridge again.  I got 7 the first time and 11 this time.  And obviously, the village farm has a pig and there was a band called the "Wonder Stuff" - wonder stiff.

Kate -   Very good.  Using things you already remember and adapting them.  That is a very clever strategy.  So, we had an improvement of 4 from Maddie.  Did anyone improve by more than 4?

Xian -   My name is Xian and I come from Montemitro in Italy.

Kate -   You miscounted.  That's okay.

Xian -   I miscounted.

Kate -   That's alright.  How many did you get right this time?

Xian -   I got 3 last time so this time I got 5.

Kate -   That's really good.  That's a really good improvement.  So, what did you think about while you were trying to remember them?

Xian -   I thought there was an odd tennis racket wondering about detail and that was swamps.

Kate -   An odd tennis racket wondering about detail in a swamp.  That is beautiful.  Can we have a round of applause for all of you please?

36:39 - How do children grasp science reasoning?

How do children learn about physics and scientific reasoning? And do those with autism learn about the world in a different way?

How do children grasp science reasoning?
with Dr Sara Baker, Cambridge University

We've heard a lot about how memory is involved in learning, but when we're learning things like science, you need more than just memory.  You need understanding. So how does this develop? Sara Baker is based at Cambridge University and spoke with Lego steam engine modelGinny Smith...

Sara -   Well, that is a big question.  There are indeed a lot of things involved in learning about science.  There's learning certain facts and how those things work, but science itself is more of a process really, isn't it?  So, it's about thinking about what's in front of you, reasoning about all of these different things, putting together the pieces of evidence, and then drawing conclusions about what kinds of theories might be true of the world.  So, there's lots of different levels at which people need to be operating when they're trying to do science. 

What we know about even very young children, as young as say, 3 is that, it comes quite naturally to people to reason in a scientific way to test out different things and then see what happens and maybe adapt what they think according to what they've observed.

Ginny -   Now, I've seen babies sitting on a high chair and systematically dropping things over the side and sort of watching where they're going.  Is that what we think they're doing when they're doing that or are they just making a mess?

Sara -   It's true that even infants before they're talking are already experimenting with the world a little bit. What we think, those of us who do research in this area, is that children may even be born with theories of how things work.  Gravity is one of those things.  So, objects that just drop straight down when they're not supported seems to be a theory that children have from very, very young.  They're not taught that.  They just have this theory and then they have to actually sometimes learn to adapt that according to the circumstances.  So, a lot of science may be about unlearning things that you think are true.

Ginny -   So, how do you go about trying to find out what these kind of beliefs that children have are?

Sara -   Well, we do very simple things.  So, it might involve for instance, putting some object on a shelf and then asking people to predict what's going to happen when we drop them off of the shelf, and if you vary say, the weight of the two objects and ask people, will they fall at the same speed or different speeds, which one will land first, will it be a draw.  Just very simple things like that where you get people to make predictions and that's exactly what scientists are doing all the time.  they're observing a phenomenon, making a prediction about what will happen and then collecting the information and seeing whether that was confirmed or not.

Ginny -   You were talking earlier about how there are differences between different people and how they think and different children, how they learn.  What kind of differences do you see when it comes to scientific reasoning?

Sara -   We did one study where we were looking at how children in pre-school - so between the ages of 3 and 5 - learn about gravity and inertia, very basic principles of object motion.  And in this particular study, we let an object (so a ball) roll down a ramp and then they had to say where this ball would go when it came to the edge of this ramp and would it fall straight down or go forward and down or what would happen.  What we found was that the younger children had very fixed ideas about what should happen and when that's not what happened, they just didn't know what to do anymore.  Whereas older children may have had a fixed idea at first, but once they got the evidence, they said, "Oh yeah, okay.  So that's actually what's going to happen."  So, they were using the evidence much more readily than the very young children.

Ginny -   What kind of ages are we talking here?

Sara -   So, the 3-year-olds in fact, when we showed them this event, that was not what they expected.  Several of them just went, "What?  Again?"  You know, you can do this repeatedly and they still just don't take it on board whereas a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old, you may disprove their belief in the first go, and then they just immediately kind of adapt to that and say, "Okay, right.  So this is what's happening now."

Ginny -   So, we sort of learn that we have to change our beliefs as we get older?  Is this something that you can apply in the classroom and the teaching of science?

Sara -   Yes, hopefully.  I mean, our hope would be that a lot of this research could be used in science classrooms.  I think it's really important that in the classroom, kids have the opportunity to experiment with things and test them out.  Not just have one go at it, but probably, several tries because I think that's where we see really interesting things,  it's after lots of exploration.

Ginny -   Kate, did you have any questions from social media?

Kate -   Anthony asked us on Facebook, "Are children more receptive to habit forming when they're young?"  He wants to know, "If I start my 6-year-old making her bed now, will it stick?"

Sara -   Actually, I just want to tell you, this is not a scientific fact, but it's an anecdote from our neighbour who told me this the other day.  The first time he took his 18-month old and walked to school with the older child, they sat on the bench that day and had an ice cream.  So now, every time they walked to school, his little son who's 18 months wants to sit down on the bench and have an ice cream.  So, he's formed his habit in one go which is not necessarily very convenient for the school run.  But I think there are some things that kids will learn scripts like that, daily routines very quickly.  And that's probably a good thing because if they're meant to learn so much in such a short time, they're endowed with this brain that can do that.  But on the other hand, something like chemistry, you may have to hear it 10 times before you'll ever even understand it.  So, I think it's really going to depend, but you know, you can try it with a bed making.  That's a great idea.

Kate -   So, you're saying, all the parents should make their kids make their beds for the next week to see what happens.

Ginny -   Have we got any questions from anyone else?  Dave has got one.

Dave -   I'm Dave.  Do you find that everyone comes up with the same models in the universe in their heads or do different people have different models and does that affect them later on?

Sara -   Right.  That's an interesting question.  I think it certainly does depend.  I mean, I've done studies where we compare how pre-schoolers think about a given thing and we show the same thing to all the kids.  They'll learn about it at different rates and they'll come up with different theories to explain what's happening. That's true.  There are other things which seem to be more or less universal.  So for instance, if you ask young children to draw the world and to put people on it, they'll draw the people standing on the top which is quite interesting, isn't it?  If we think back to what we know about gravity and how that's complying, of course, they should be on the top.  So, there are universals like that and then other things where people make up their own ideas.

Ginny -   Now, I don't think we can keep Hannah's volunteer waiting over there with her electrodes on her head any longer.  Are you going to tell us what you're doing to this poor young lady?

Hannah -   So, we've got Maddie rigged up some electrodes here.  How are you doing Maddie?  How are you feeling?

Maddie -   Fine.

Hannah -   Fine.  She says very timidly.  What we've got here is Maddie's brain Traditional incandescent lightbulbwaves.  So, we're reading the electrical activity in Maddie's brain.  There are about a hundred billion nerve cells in Maddie's brain and they communicate with each other using electricity.  A little bit like the electricity that turns on a light.  This electricity that allows Maddie to have an understanding of the world around her and process all the information that's coming in through her senses like her eyes and her ears.

Kate -   I can't see lots of neurons.  I can see a blue line and a wiggly green line.  What do those mean?

Hannah -   So, the Y-axis is the part of the graph that goes up towards the sky and that's the potential difference or voltage of Maddie's brain.  On the X-axis, it's time in milliseconds and there's lots of squiggly lines.  The blue graph is something called Maddie's beta waves.  So, it's a particular frequency of electrical activity.  Maddie, what I going to ask you to do is stay still as possible.

Kate -   There were lots of spikes on the blue one, but they're sort of dampening down.  They're getting smaller.  Does that mean Maddie is thinking less?

Hannah -   It does.  It means that she's thinking less.  Maddie, I'm now going to ask you to move your head repeatedly.

Kate -   We can see lots of spikes as Maddie moves her head.  What's the difference between the beta waves on the top and the green bit on the bottom?  Do they show anything in particular?  Is one happy or...?

Hannah -   So, the beta waves increase in the amount of spikes that they have when Maddie is concentrating or focusing on a particular task.  So, when I just asked Maddie to move her head, there was a part of her brain that was concentrating and focusing using lots of electrical activity in order to get her to move the muscles in her neck.  And we're also picking up the electrical activity of Maddie's neck muscles as well.  So, background noise.  I'm now asking Maddie to just stay as calm as possible and not concentrate on anything at all.  Instead, pretend that she's on holiday, relaxing with her best friend.  And we're now seeing a spike in the green graph.  There was a small spike there.  Now, the green graph is associated with o relaxed thinking.  And so, we're seeing a change in activity there.

Kate -   Can we have a big round of applause for Maddie and her beautiful brain waves?

Hannah -   So, this is another way that scientists look at the brains of children and also babies to find out how they learn things and how they remember things.  Scientists are trying to see if they can use many more electrodes than three electrodes that we've got on Maddie's brain here to try and find out if you can diagnose babies that might have for example autism or maybe they're predisposed to having Schizophrenia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or even dyslexia later on in life by using this type of analysis of electrical activity.  I have to say that Maddie's brain waves are beautiful.

45:50 - The teenage brain

What exactly is going on in the teenage brain? We uncover the risky, moody behaviour associated with the adolescent years.

The teenage brain
with Dr Cat Sebastian, Royal Holloway Dept of Psychology.

We've been talking about how much you have to learn between being born and An arch of colourful party balloonsgrowing up and going to school. But we all know what happens when you get to the end of being a child. You become a teenager and something changes. But what's going on in their brain that makes them different to children and adults? Cat Sebastian from the Royal Holloway Department of Psychology explained all to Ginny Smith.

Cat - Well, I think the first thing to say is that, being a teenager can be a very stressful time. There's new social pressures, there's new academic pressures, there's physical pressures. Your body is changing quite a lot. And also, what we've learned in the last 15 years or so is that there's a lot of brain development that's still going on during those important teenage years. So, one theory about why adolescents may be particularly prone to risk-taking or feeling sort of more emotional or having mood swings is that different parts of the brain are maturing at different rates.

So, one theory is that parts of the brain involved in processing emotions such as a region of the brain called amygdala may mature earlier than other parts of the brain involved in actually controlling or regulating those emotions. So, one part of the brain that I've been studying is the prefrontal cortex. So, that's the part of the brain right at the very front. This is the part of the brain which is particularly large in humans and also takes the longest time to develop. So, it's responsible for some of our most complex behaviours. So, things like working memory and reasoning that we've heard about so far but also, social and emotional behaviours. So pre-frontal cortex may help you to regulate or control emotions and to help you present yourself to the world in a way that you would like other people to see you. So, during adolescence, you're sort of like a fast car with poor brakes.

Ginny - What kind of tasks do you use to look at this kind of behaviour in teenagers?

Cat - So, at the moment, I'm involved in a study where we're going into schools and testing whole classrooms of teenagers on a number of tasks, looking at emotion regulation. So, one of the tasks that we're looking at is studying the strategies that teenagers use to regulate or control their emotions. So, we might show a teenager a picture that may evoke sort of slight emotion, so, for example, a person at a graveside, something that will evoke some sort of emotion and ask people first of all, just to look at the picture and rate how it makes them feel. But also then to use strategies to change the way they feel about that picture. So for example, you could use a strategy of saying, "Well, it's not real. These are just actors in a film." Or you could say, use a distancing strategy, "Oh well, that happened a long time ago. Everyone is feeling a lot better now." And these sort of strategies are strongly related to mental health in real life. So people who are able in real life to use strategies to change the way they're feeling to make themselves feel better about the world tend to be less likely to suffer for anxiety symptoms, depression and aggressive behaviour. So, that's one of the types of task that we use.

Ginny - Do you see that they do something different to what adults or children would do in those situations?

Cat - There's evidence that your ability to use those sorts of reappraisal strategies does improve as you get older. But also, as you get older, you rely less on a strategy called suppression. So, that's the sort of proverbial, keeping a stiff upper lip and not showing anyone your emotions. So, that's actually not a very helpful strategy for people to use when they're controlling their emotions to keep it sort of bottled-up inside. And there's evidence that as you get older, you become a little bit better at not doing that.

Another thing that I've looked at is how the brain changes between adolescence and adulthood during emotional tasks. So, we had one study where we asked teenagers and adults to play a social rejection game. So, they were playing a game of catch over the internet with some other players and at a certain point in the game, the other players stopped throwing the ball to the participant. What we found was that the teenagers were activating a part of their brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex to a lesser extent than the adults were. So, this is a part of the brain in that prefrontal cortex region which has been associated in previous studies with the ability to control emotions. So, it was interesting to us that the teenagers actually seem to be using this part of the brain a bit less than the adults were when they were being rejected.

Ginny - Anyone got any questions about teenagers and their brains and their behaviour?

Simon - Simon from Bassingbourn. What are the commonly understood processes that develop in teenagers in terms of their brain development and changes of functions?

Cat - So, we know that considerable development is still going on. So, academically of course, teenagers are able to complete much more difficult assignments than younger children but in terms of what we study, we know that things like executive functions are still improving in adolescents. So, that's actually a relatively recent finding, adolescence has been quite neglected as an area of study. People thought that adolescents cognitively were sort of just like sort of larger children who sort of gradually got better. But we're seeing that actually, adolescents are improving in a whole host of sort of social and emotional functions. They're also becoming better at what we call theory of mind so, the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. So, the improvements that we see are quite subtle but they allow the adolescent to negotiate an increasingly complex social world better than does a younger child.

Ginny - Kate, did you have a question from the audience, on Twitter?

Kate - I've got one from Facebook.  Favour Nkwocha asks, "What age is the peak for learning?"

Ginny - Who wants to come in on that first of all?

Kate - Fight over which of your specialisations are the best.

Ginny - Susan, do you want to come in on that to start with?

Susan - So, in terms of language, we're seeing most language learning that we're doing is as young children, children going through primary school. But that's not to say that language learning doesn't continue to a lesser degree throughout adolescence and indeed into adulthood. So, if we think of new vocabulary, we're learning that all the time, there's lots of new words like Twitter, that come along and we all know what they are and we learn them as we go along.

Ginny - Sarah, is there a peak time for learning about science?

Sarah - I want to say no. It just makes me think about one of the founding fathers in my field, Piaget, who some of you may have heard of, had this theory that there were certain ages at which children learned certain things. And I think that it's really important to know that these days, people don't really believe that anymore. Actually, it's really complicated. Children learn things a lot younger than we originally thought and even adults can still learn things due to neural plasticity. So, a lot of learning happens all the time.

Ginny - We've got about 5 more minutes for questions for the whole panel and then we're going to finish off with one more experiment. So, has anyone got any questions on any aspect of what we've talked about tonight - how babies learn about the world through language, memory, learning about science and the world around you, all the way up until teenagers? Anyone got any more general questions? Yeah, one at the back.

Sarah - I have a question relating to adolescents and their emotional processes.  I'm Sarah from Ohio in the United States by the way. Basically, are there ways that adults can help the adolescents learn these strategies or is it just up to them to develop it as individuals?

Ginny - Cat...

Cat - Yeah, so I think that's a really important question particularly with adolescence being a time where people are vulnerable to psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression and aggressive behaviour. So, I think people are waking up to the idea that it's really important to train emotion regulation perhaps as part of the school environment. And that there was a recent push for social and emotional aspects of learning to actually take a larger role in the curriculum and I think there are a number of techniques that have been tried so far. I don't think there are any that have been rolled out nationally, but for example, one thing that I know has been very popular at the moment is mindfulness training. So, this is a sort of form of meditation where you're taught to focus on the here and now as opposed to letting your thoughts sort of spiral out of control. And this has been shown in sort of small trials so far to be quite helpful in improving symptoms of anxiety and depression. We're also interested in this idea of reappraisal as a way of kind of actively allowing you to regulate your emotions. But I would imagine that that's something that takes practice. So, one thing that I'm quite interested in is the idea that you learn to regulate your emotions across adolescence. So just as you have more exposure to emotion provoking events, you learn through experience to modulate your own emotional reactions. So, I think it will be a bit of both - one, that it's just experience dependent building up a sort of reservoir of strategies to help you control your emotions and two, seeing if there is anything that we can do as adults to bolster that natural maturational process.

Ginny - Hannah, do you have a question that's come in for us?

Hannah - Yeah, it's really linked to what you've just said actually. So, Jeff comments via Twitter. He says, "If you're suffering from anxiety..." He heard earlier that you can decrease your ability to learn if you're having a high emotional response. Is that the case even if you're having treatment for anxiety and what can he do to help with his anxiety and help with his capabilities of learning and also, remembering things?

Ginny - Joni, did you want to jump in?

Joni - I think that when it comes to these kind of issues or if you have anxiety symptoms or any other kind of emotional response, it does come about. It does impact on your memory abilities. It will impact on learning. So, I think this really kind of takes us into the field of thinking about, we're all experts here. We all work in different areas. Probably, we're all thinking about interventions for our particular area. What we probably need to think about is, sort of doing these interventions together and thinking perhaps about ways that we can try to regulate and control emotions, and then that might actually allow us to then take on another intervention such as trying to improve our memory abilities.

Ginny - To finish us off, Cat, you had us give everyone a balloon. Why have you done that?

Cat - So this is a task that is normally done on a computer. But today, we're going to do it in real life. It's called the balloon risk task. This is used both in adolescents and also adults to measure impulsivity or risk taking. What you'll need to do is to blow the balloon up as large as you dare before it pops. The one who blows up their balloon the largest is the winner. However, there is of course the chance that the larger you blow it up, the more likely it will be to pop. So, we'll get to see who are the risk takers among you, who likes to play it safe, and who judges the balance very well and can win the game.

Kate - I can see everyone is stretching their balloons in preparation. They want to get going.

Ginny - I'm getting a bit dizzy.

Kate - Is anyone getting dizzy? Is he going to stop or do you think it will pop? Who popped their balloon?

David - I'm David from Cambridge.

Kate - Do you consider yourself a risk taking person, David?

David - Not ordinarily, no. But I thought, why not tonight. What's the worst that can happen?

Kate - Why not in this situation?

Scott - I'm Scott from Dumfries. Yeah, I'm a risk taker. I don't have much to lose. So, I gave it a shot.

Kate - Nothing to lose, so why not pop a balloon. Okay, is everyone finished? Can everyone hold their balloons in the air and we'll see who the most risk-taking is? I think this green one at the front over here is the winner. Hello, sir. Name and where are you from?

Simon - Simon from Melbourn.

Kate - Do you normally find that you are able to balance risk? That you want to take risk but you know when to stop?

Simon - Yes. I know that that bursting isn't a big deal, so I'm prepared to take that risk.

Kate - Cat, people have said that because the balloon popping isn't that big a deal, they're happy to take the risk this time but if it was something bigger, they wouldn't take the risk. Is that something that we see in teenagers?

Cat - So, it's definitely true that when the stakes are small, people will take bigger risks. However, an analogue of this task has been used in a driving simulator with teenagers and the researchers found that when the teenagers were with their friends, they were willing to take more risks than when they were alone. This translates into what we see in real life. So, we see that even when stakes are higher, for example, the risk of getting into road traffic accidents, that this sort of risk taking can be seen and also, that the influence of peers is very important as well. So, even though the risks in this task was small, it does generalise to real-world situations as well.

Kate - So, if the person next to you has a large balloon, be careful on the journey home please. Whatever happens.

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