August 12, 2013
Not many people want to live to be 120.
That’s one of the findings of a Pew Research Center report that came out last week. In fact, almost 70 percent of those surveyed said an ideal lifespan would be somewhere between 79 and 100 years.
Yes, one reason they’re wary of that much longevity is the fear of how their bodies and minds would hold up–despite the promise of medical advances that will keep both healthy much longer. But more than half also think treatments that prolong life for at least four more decades could be a bad thing for society. More specifically, two out of three people agreed with the statement that “longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources.” And while almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe life-extending medicine should be available anyone who wants it, two-thirds of them thought it would be accessible only to the wealthy.
Naturally, this raises some hefty ethical issues, which Pew addresses in an accompanying report.
Would so many more healthy old people make it that much harder for young ones to get jobs? Will everyone just assume they’ll have multiple marriages since one won’t have much chance of lasting a lifetime? With mortality put off for decades, would people feel less motivated to have children? And the big one: By delaying death so long, would daily life have less meaning?
Live long and prosper
Which brings me to one more question: How realistic is the notion that science can one day make 100 the new 60?
For starters, we’re not only living longer–life expectancy in the U.S. is now close to 79–but the period of truly dismal health before death is getting shorter. That’s one of the main findings of a Harvard University study published last month–that most people no longer are very sick for six or seven years before they die. Instead, that stretch of poor health has shrunken to about a year or so. Thanks to medical science, we are becoming more like light bulbs–we work well, then go out fast. “People are living to older ages,” said lead researcher David Cutler, “and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”
As far as adding more years to our lives, there’s been some serious progress there, too. In May, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York concluded that by suppressing the release of a single protein produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, they were able to extend the lives of mice and reduce the onset of age-related illnesses. Plus, the mice performed better on learning tests.
A little earlier in the year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found more evidence that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in berries, grapes and particularly red wine, can help cells in the body live longer. And that could lead to the development of drugs that stifle the conditions that can make old age a slice of hell–heart disease, diabetes, and that old demon, mental decline.
And a week or so ago, scientists at the National Institute of Aging said their research found that men who take metformin, a drug often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, may be helping themselves live longer. At least that’s what happened with mice. The researchers gave middle-aged mice small doses of metformin and they not only lived 6 percent longer than the control group of mice, but they also weighed less, even though they ate more.
None of the above means we’re on the cusp of having a pill that will let us dance at our 100th birthday party. But each means we’re getting closer to finding ways to not just fight the diseases of old age, but take on age itself.
Out with the old
Here’s other recent research on the battle against aging:
- Now find out something good about marshmallows: Hot cocoa doesn’t just hit the spot on a winter morning; It also may be keeping your brain sharp. A new study from Harvard University says that two cups of cocoa a day was enough to increase the blood flow in the brains of older people. It also apparently helped their memories work faster.
- Didn’t see that coming: Living through a traumatic experience may actually help men live longer. Research just published in PLOS One says that male survivors of the Holocaust tend to live longer than men who didn’t experience it. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the researchers say it could reflect a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” where high levels of psychological stress serve as stimuli for developing personal skills and strength and a deeper meaning to life. The same longevity effect was not seen in women Holocaust survivors.
- In with the bad air: A study by M.I.T. professor Michael Greenstone has quantified the impact of the heavy air pollution from coal-burning power plants in China. By comparing statistics from a more urbanized region where power was supplied mainly by coal plants with a more rural one without any power plants, Greenstone concluded that regular exposure to coal pollution can take more than five years off a person’s life.
- Now will you get your beauty sleep?: If you don’t get enough sleep, you aren’t doing your skin any favors. That’s the conclusion of a study that found that the skin of poor sleepers ages quickly and also takes longer to recover from sunburn and dirty air.
- This explains many things: And finally, researchers in Japan found that aging animals like sweets less and are more willing to put up with bitter tastes.
Video bonus: As chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey de Grey has plenty to say about longevity. Here’s an interview he did for Big Think, broken up into snippets.
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August 7, 2013
A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.
Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.
But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”
This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:
1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.
2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.
3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.
4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.
5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.
6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.
7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.
8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.
9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.
10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.
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July 2, 2013
Not that any holiday is a testament to healthy eating, but none quite compares to the Fourth of July when it comes to embracing our inner pig.
Exhibit A: The National Meat Institute says that on Thursday, Americans will consume about 150 million hot dogs. That means every other person will eat one dog, although more likely a lot of people will chomp down two or three. And those of us who don’t will be eating burgers or sausages or ribs, after warming up with a pile of chips.
In truth, though, it really doesn’t take a special occasion for us to fall to the siren song of naughty chow. As Stephanie Clifford noted last weekend in a New York Times piece titled “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries,” the dilemma for many Americans when they enter a fast food restaurant is that while their head says “salad,” their heart is screaming “BACON!” She listed some of the more recent hits on fast food menus–the bacon habanero Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s, the bacon-filled tater tots at Burger King, the six-slices-bacon-and-cheeseburger at Carl’s and Hardee’s and the piece de resistance, Dunkin’ Donuts’ egg and bacon sandwich between two halves of a glazed doughnut.
The story also quoted McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson, who pointed out although the chain spends about 16 percent of its advertising budget promoting salads, they account for only two to three percent of its sales.
Clifford cited a study done a few years ago at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which concluded that the mere presence of healthy items on a menu actually encourages diners to tumble for the unhealthy ones. Lead researcher Gavan Fitzsimons calls this “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Simply seeing healthy items are available, he says, allows people to feel they’ve made the effort. And then they order meals they know aren’t good for them.
Enough with all the counting
We have ourselves a quandary.
Almost a third of Americans now qualify as obese and yet, to believe Fitzsimons, putting healthy meals on fast food menus only makes it more likely that we’ll gravitate to the bad stuff. There are those who believe that providing calorie counts for meals will start to make a difference. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, requires that starting next year, any restaurant chain with more than 20 outlets must tell customers how many calories its meals contain.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to help much, at least according to several studies that already have been done. Research at the University of Pennsylvania, published in 2011, found that even though most of the study’s participants said they noticed the calorie counts, and almost a third said they were “influenced” by them, they didn’t lower their calorie intake all that much. That’s pretty much what a 2011 study of Taco Time restaurants in Seattle also concluded–that people consumed as many calories in the outlets with listed calorie counts as in those without them.
So what gives? Does that mean that no amount of calorie-guilting will make a difference?
Now it’s personal
Maybe not. Maybe it’s all in the presentation. Some experts believe that calorie totals aren’t all that effective because they make people add up a bunch of numbers, and if they do make the effort, many still don’t realize when a meal has gone over the top.
Recent research suggests that what may work are basic visual cues. A study published earlier this year showed that menus using symbols of green, yellow and red lights seemed to make a difference. A green light was printed next to foods with fewer than 400 calories, yellow lights next to foods with between 401 and 800 calories and red lights next to foods with more than 800 calories. And it turned out that diners ordering from menus without calorie info or symbols ate meals averaging 817 calories, while those exposed to the streetlight icons consumed meals averaging 696 calories. Not a huge difference, but it can add up over time.
Another approach is to make calorie consumption personal. Two recent studies, one at Texas Christian University and another at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that telling people how much they would need to walk to burn off the meal they were about to order got their attention.
When you read that it could take two hours of “brisk walking” to get rid of the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger, well, that’s hard to ignore. People using menus providing that information ordered meals with an average of 100 to 200 fewer calories than those without it.
Said Ashlei James, who worked on the TCU study: “Brisk walking is something nearly everyone can relate to.”
Here’s more recent research on our eating habits:
- You mean you’re supposed to get a low score?: Even when they go to restaurants where calorie counts are posted, people–particularly teenagers–grossly underestimate the number of calories their meals contain. In a study published in the British Journal of Medicinelast month, diners’ estimates of the calories on their trays were, on average, 200 calories too low. For adolescents, the number was closer to 300. Oddly enough, the estimates were farther off the mark in Subway restaurants, apparently because people associate them with healthier meals.
- But it’s nice to have all that time to get to know the bread: For all the beatings that fast food restaurants take, a study by University of Toronto researchers found that the average number of calories in meals of sit-down chain restaurants were considerably higher. The average meal contained 1,128 calories, compared to 881 at fast-food places. Plus, meals at the sit-down places, on average, contained contained 151 percent of the recommended daily salt intake, 89 percent of daily fat, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol.
- Dreaming of Doritos is way less fattening: New research published last weekend in the journal Sleep confirms the bad news for night owls: the later you stay up, the more you eat.
- But how will they know what tastes good?: According to a study by Canadian researchers, young children who eat a lot of their meals in front of the TV tend to have higher cholesterol levels than kids with better eating habits.
- I’ll see your tofu and raise you a carrot: And if all of the above has motivated you to look for a new way to lose weight, there’s now an app called DietBet. Based on the principle of “social dieting,” it gets a group of people to pony up a little money–about $25–and everyone who loses four percent of their body weight in four weeks splits the pot.
Video bonus: Casey Neistat turns calorie detective to see how accurate calorie counts on labels really are. Not very, it turns out.
Video bonus bonus: And from BuzzFeed, here’s what 2,000 calories looks like.
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We Used to Actually Set Food on Fire to Figure Out How Many Calories It Had
June 28, 2013
I’d be the first to concede that the image of Archimedes yelling “Eureka” as he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse makes one fine visual for the concept of discovery.
Which is a shame, not only because it most likely didn’t happen–the story first appeared in a book two centuries after the Greek scholar had died–but also because it has long fed the fantasy of discovery as a solitary and sudden experience. Both history and research tell us that it rarely is–most of the time innovation is an iterative process that fits and starts over months, years, decades. And way more often than not, invention is the result of human friction, of people with different backgrounds and skills and ideas bumping into one another, sparking fresh thoughts and collaborative visions.
One of the better examples of this messy, but fruitful dynamic played out after World War II in a nondescript structure at M.I.T known simply as Building 20. In his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” published in 2010, Steven Johnson wrote about how, because the building was used to handle overflow from fast-growing science departments, it scrambled together an eclectic mix of nuclear scientists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, acoustical engineers and even linguists.
And that resulted in hallway conversations and random exchanges that made Building 20 one of the more creative places on Earth, a place that incubated an amazing sweep of scientific breakthroughs, from the first computer video game (SpaceWar!) to major advances in both microwaves and high-speed photography to the earliest attempts at computer hacking.
The beauty of congestion
Social scientists will tell you it’s that same swirl of commingled ideas and constant interactions–albeit on a much larger scale–that makes cities founts of creativity. In fact, research published earlier this month by scientists from M.I.T. concluded that productivity and innovation in urban areas grow at roughly the same rate as population, largely because the greater density of people living in a city increases the opportunities for personal interactions and exposure to different ideas.
The research team, led by Wei Pan, analyzed all kinds of factors to tabulate the “social-tie density” of different cities–that’s the average number of people each resident will interact with personally. They looked at everything from the number of call partners with whom a cellphone user will end up sharing a cell tower to the number of people connecting through location-based social networks like Foursquare to the contagion rates of diseases spread only through personal contact. And they found that the higher a city’s social-tie density, the higher its levels of productivity and patents awarded.
“What really happens when you move to a big city is you get to know a lot of different people, although they are not necessarily your friends. These are the people who bring different ideas, bring different opportunities and meetings with other great people that may help you.”
His model doesn’t hold up, however, for some huge African and Asian cities that have even denser populations than cities in the West. But Pan has an explanation for that. Generally, those cities have terrible transportation systems. If people can’t get around, can’t have those serendipitous interactions, a city’s density has less impact.
It’s all about the friction.
Here’s other recent research on what makes us more–and less–creative:
- They are, however, extremely cranky: Lose the image of the creative genius so inflamed with inspiration that he or she can go days without sleep. Not likely. According to a study at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, people who don’t get enough sleep tend not to be all that creative.
- Does “Words With Friends” count?: On the other hand, if you are staying up late, it may do you good to read a little fiction. Research done at the University of Toronto determined that people who read fiction were more comfortable with disorder and uncertainty than people who read an essay and that fostered more sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.
- Do not disturb. Daydreamer at work: And it turns out that being bored at work may not be such a bad thing. A team of British scientists found that people who do tasks they find boring tend to daydream more and that can lead to more creative thinking. The question that needs to be answered now, says lead researcher Sandi Mann, is: “Do people who are bored at work become more creative in other areas of their work — or do they go home and write novels?”
- Take a hike: It may not come as such a big surprise, but now there’s more evidence that spending time out in nature and getting away from all your digital devices sharpens your creativity. Researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah worked with a group of people going on Outward Bound excursions and found that those who took tests the fourth day into their trips showed considerably more creativity than those who did so before their journeys started.
- They also looked better: Meanwhile, in Germany, researchers concluded that people who were tested in a dimly-lit room exhibited more “freedom from constraints” and performed with more creativity than those who took the same test under bright lights.
- Pretend to smell the coffee: It was just a matter of time. Near the end of last year a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a study reporting that people showed more creativity in an environment of ambient sound–such as a coffee shop–than in a silent room. And now, if you’re too lazy to go out for coffee, you can head right down to a website called Coffitivity and it will play a coffee shop soundtrack for you–minus the mindless cell phone chatter.
Video bonus: When it comes to how good ideas come to pass, writer Steven Johnson is a big believer in what he calls the “slow hunch” theory.
Video bonus bonus: But wait, there’s more. Creativity author and expert Ken Robinson shares on his take on the components of truly creative environments.
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June 21, 2013
For a long time, memories were thought of as the biochemical equivalent of 3 x 5 cards kept in a file cabinet. And the words on the cards were written in ink, scientists thought, because, once created and stored in the brain, a memory didn’t change. It might be vivid, but it was static, as fixed as a photograph of a remembered moment.
But in recent years, that theory has been flipped on its head. Now, leaders in memory research don’t think that’s the way the mind works at all. Instead, they’ve come to believe that memories actually are fluid things, subject to alteration every time they’re retrieved. When a long-term memory is recalled, it becomes temporarily fungible and goes through a rebuilding process known as reconsolidation. Which suggests that memories, even terrible ones, can be changed during that period when they’re once again unstable.
Several studies published last fall reinforced this notion. One, from researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, found that a fear memory could be neutralized if the reconsolidation process is disrupted before the memory can solidify. Another, carried out by scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, concluded that even if a memory isn’t truly erased, it can be made to feel less personal or painful.
Changing the story
The latest evidence that memories can be manipulated came in a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Without using drugs, electroshock or any other invasive procedure, two researchers at Iowa State University, Jason Chan and Jessica LaPaglia were able to tamper with the memories of their study subjects.
Here’s how they did it. They asked those participating in the study to watch an episode of the old TV drama “24.” One of its more evocative scenes showed a terrorist on an airplane jabbing a flight attendant with a hypodermic needle to knock her out. A bit later, some of those in the study were given a quiz about what they had watched, the goal of which was to make them retrieve their memories of the show.
As their reconsolidation process began, however, they were asked to listen to an eight-minute audio recap of the program–except that several of the facts were inaccurate. For instance, they were told that the terrorist had used a stun gun, not a hypodermic needle to disable the flight attendant. When they were retested later, only 17 percent of the people in that group correctly identified the needle as the weapon of choice.
Meanwhile, 42 percent of another group got the weapon question right when they took the same test. They, too, had listened to the recap with the bogus information. But they hadn’t taken the first test the other group had; instead they played a computer game.
So why did people in the first group have such serious recall problems when they retook the test?
Chan and LaPaglia believe that by taking a test after watching the show, those subjects were forced to retrieve their memories of it, and it was during the rebuilding process that they heard the audio recap. And, the thinking goes, that’s what caused their temporarily vulnerable memories to muddle the story.
Chan noted that there are several key factors in reshaping memories. First, the disruption needs to happen soon after the memory is called up–for now, scientists seem to have settled on a six-hour window. Wait much longer and the changes don’t take. Also, any alterations need to fit into the context of the original memory. If they don’t make sense in the story that structures the memory, they’re not likely to have much effect in changing it.
This is a pretty dramatic shift from the old file cabinet notion. To appreciate how far thinking on the subject has evolved, consider the perspective of Daniela Schiller, one of the world’s leading memory researchers. “My conclusion,” she says, “is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings.
“Your memory is who you are now.”
You must remember this
Here are more conclusions scientists have made about memories in the past few months:
- Side effects may include memories of bad breakups: According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, people who take the sleep drug Ambien are more likely to remember bad memories. The human brain is built to remember negative memories more clearly than pleasant ones, says University of California Riverside researcher Sara Mednick, and her study found that Ambien seemed to ratchet up this tendency.
- My memory told me about people like you: Scientists at Harvard have found more evidence that memories of the past play a big part in how we predict how other people will behave in the future. The study reinforces the belief that memory is closely linked with imagination and is a tool used by the brain to weave past experience into thoughts about the future. Which could explain why people with memory problems, such as amnesiacs or the elderly, often struggle to envision the future.
- Unfortunately, they also started leaving the toilet seat up: While one recent study supported the belief that women suffer some memory loss during menopause, another one, presented earlier this week at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, determined that postmenopausal women had sharper memories after they had a testosterone gel rubbed into their skin. This is potentially big news since there currently is no effective treatment to prevent memory loss in women, who are at higher risk of dementia than men.
- They even remember the blank look on men’s faces: Two more studies found that women overall have better memories than men. The first study, from McMaster University in Canada, found that women tend to focus on the eyes, nose and mouth of someone they just met and, as a result, are better at remembering faces than men. The second study, done at Cornell, concluded that women are also better at remembering past events than men. The key, according to the researchers, is that women focus more on relationships and social interactions when recording an event in their mind and that enables them to retrieve more details about it later.
- Don’t forget to brush your teeth: It turns out that the fewer teeth you have, the greater your chances of losing memory. So says a new study published in the European Journal of Oral Sciences, which offered a few possible explanations for the tooth loss/brain decline connection. One is that reduced sensory input from our teeth results in fewer signals to our brain. Another is that chewing increases blood flow to the brain, and if you can’t chew, you can’t get the flow going.
Video bonus: Daniela Schiller talks about her memory research and what her father’s refusal to talk about the Holocaust had to do with it.
Video bonus bonus: And a little slice of how Hollywood views memory-erasing: Jim Carrey turns to “science” to literally get Kate Winslett out of his mind in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
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