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Homeostasis And The Constancy Principle – We Are All Creatures Of Comfort Even When We Go Out Of Our Comfort Zone

It is autumn in our part of the world, and the first chills are in the air in the late evening and early morning, and the family discussed last night the need to get out our warm clothes from storage in readiness for the approaching winter, in order to be well prepared for its arrival. After sharing in the fun of Easter Sunday yesterday and eating some chocolate eggs with the children, a persistent voice in my head this morning instructed me to eat less than normal today to ‘make up’ for this out of the normal chocolate eating yesterday. It is a beautiful sunny day outside as I write this, and I feel a strong ‘urge’ to stop writing and go out on a long cycle ride because of it, and have to ‘will’ these thoughts away and continue writing, which is my routine activity at this time of morning. After a recent health scare I have been checking on my own physical parameters with more care than normal, and found it interesting when checking what ‘normal’ values for healthy folk are, that most healthy folk have fairly similar values for things like blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol concentrations and other such parameters, and that there are fairly tight ranges of values of each of these which are considered normal and a sign of ‘health’, and if one’s values are outside of these, it is a sign of something wrong in the working of your body that needs to be treated and brought back into the normal range either by lifestyle changes, medication, or surgical procedures. All of these got me thinking about the regulatory processes that ensure that the body maintains its working ‘parts’ in a similar range in all folk, and the concept of homeostasis, which as a regulatory principle explains and underpins the maintenance of this ‘safe zone’ for our body’s multiple activities, including the sensing of any external or internal changes which could be associated with the potential for one of the variables to go out of the ‘safe zone’, and initiates changes either behaviourally or physiologically which attempt to bring the variable at risk back into the ‘safe zone’ either pre-emptively or reactively.

Homeostasis is defined scientifically as the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between inter-dependent elements. The word was generated from the Greek concepts of ‘homiois’ (similar) and ‘stasis’ (standing still), creating the concept of ‘staying the same’. Put simply, homeostasis is the property of a system whereby it attempts to maintain itself in a stable, constant condition, and resists any changes or actions on the system which may change or destabilize the stable state. It’s origins as a concept were from the ancient Greeks, with Empedocles in around 400 BC suggesting that all matter consisted of elements which were in ‘dynamic opposition’ or ‘alliance’ with each other, and that balance or ‘harmony’ of all these elements was necessary for the survival of the individual or organism. Around the same time, Hippocrates suggested that health was a result of the ‘harmonious’ balance of the body’s elements, and illness due to ‘disharmony’ of the elements which it was made up of. Modern development of this concept was initiated by Claude Bernard in the 1870’s, who suggested that the stability of the body’s internal environment was ‘necessary for a free and independent life’ and that ‘external variations are at every instant compensated for and brought into balance’, and Walter Cannon in the 1920’s first formally called this concept of ‘staying the same’ homeostasis. Claude Bernard actually initially used the word ‘constancy’ rather than homeostasis to describe the concept, and interestingly, a lot of Sigmund Freud’s basic work on human psychology was based on the need for ‘constancy’ (though he did not cross-reference this more physiological / physical work and concepts), and that everyone’s basic needs were for psychological constancy or ‘peace’, and when one had an ‘itch to scratch’ one would do anything possible to remove the ‘itch’ (whether it be a new partner, a better house, an improved social status, or greater social dominance, amongst other potentially unrequited desires), and further that one’s ‘muscles are the conduit through which the ego imposes its will upon the world’. He and other psychologists of his era suggested that if an ‘itch’, urge or desire was not assuaged (and what causes these urges, whether a feeling of inadequacy, or previous trauma, or a desire for ‘wholeness’, is still controversial and still not clearly elicited even today), the individual would remain out of their required ‘zone of constancy’, and would feel negative emotions such as anxiety, irritation or anger until the urge or desire was relieved. If it was not relieved for a prolonged period this unrequited ‘itch’ could lead to the development of a complex, projection or psychological breakdown (such as depression, mania, anxiety, personality disorder or frank psychosis). Therefore, as much as there are physical homeostasis related requirements, there are potentially also similarly psychological homeostasis related requirements which are being reacted to by the brain and body on a continuous basis.

Any system operating using homeostatic principles (and all our body systems do so) has setpoint levels for whatever substance or process is being regulated in the system, and boundary conditions for the substance or process which are rigidly maintained and cannot be exceeded without a response occurring which would attempt to bring the activity or changes to the substance or process back to the predetermined setpoint levels or within the boundary conditions for them. The reasons for having these set boundary conditions are protective, in that if they were exceeded, the expectation would be the system would be damaged if the substance or process being regulated (for example, oxygen, glucose, sodium, temperature, cholesterol, or blood pressure, amongst a whole host of others) was used up too quickly or worked too hard, or was allowed to build up to toxic / extremely high levels or not used enough to produce life-supporting substrates or useable fuels, which would endanger the life and potential for continued activity of the system being monitored. For example, oxygen shortage results in death fairly quickly, as would glucose shortage, while glucose excess (known as diabetes) can also result in cellular and organ damage, and ultimately death if it is not controlled properly. In order for any system to maintain the substance or process within homeostasis-related acceptable limits, three regulatory factors (which are all components of what is known as a negative feedback loop) are required to be components of the system. The first is the presence of a sensory apparatus that can detect either changes in whatever substance or process is being monitored, or changes in the internal or external environment or other systems which interact with or impact on the substance or process being monitored. The second is a control structure or process which would be sent the information from the sensory apparatus, and would be able to make a decision regarding whether to respond to the information or to ignore it as not relevant. The third is an ‘effector’ mechanism or process which would receive commands from the control structure after it had made a decision to initiate a response in response to the sensed perturbation potentially affecting the system it controls, and make the changes to the system decided upon by the control structure in order to maintain or return the perturbed system to its setpoint value range.

The example of temperature regulation demonstrates both the complexity and beauty of homeostasis in regulating activity and protecting us on a continuous basis from harm. Physiological systems in most species of animals are particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and operate best in a relatively narrow ranges of temperature, although in some species a wider range of temperatures is tolerated. There are two broad mechanisms used by different organisms to control their internal temperature, namely ectothermic and endothermic regulation. Ectothermic temperature regulators (also known as ‘cold-blooded’ species), such as the frog, snake, and lizard, do not use many internal body processes to maintain temperature in the range which is acceptable for their survival, but rather use external, environmental heat sources to regulate their body temperature. If the temperature is colder, they will use the sun to heat themselves up, and if warm, they will look for shadier conditions. Ectotherms therefore have energy efficient mechanisms of maintaining temperature homeostasis, but are more susceptible to vagaries in environmental conditions compared to endotherms. In contrast, endotherms (also known as ‘warm-blooded’ species), into which classification humans fall, use internal body activity and functions to either generate heat in cold environments or reduce heat in warm conditions. In endotherms, if the external environment is too cold, and if the cold environment impacts on body temperature, temperature receptors measuring either surface skin temperature or core body temperature will send signals to the brain, which subsequently initiates a shiver response in the muscles, which increases metabolic rate and provides greater body warmth as a by-product of fuel / energy breakdown and use. If environmental temperature is too warm, of if skin or core temperature is too high, receptors will send signals to brain areas which initiates a chain of events involving different nerve and blood-related control processes which result in increased blood flow to the skin by vasodilatation, thereby increasing blood cooling capacity and sweat rate from the skin, thus producing cooling by water evaporation. All these endotherm associated heating and cooling processes utilize a large amount of energy, so from an energy perspective are not as efficient as that of ectotherms, but they do allow a greater independence from environmental fluctuations in temperature. It must be noted that endotherms also use similar behavioural techniques to ectotherms, such as moving into shady or cool environments if excessively hot, but as described above, can tolerate a greater range of environmental temperatures and conditions. Furthermore, humans are capable of ‘high level’ behavioural changes such as putting on or taking off clothes, in either a reactive or anticipatory way. It is evident therefore that for each variable being homeostatically monitored and managed (on a continuous basis) there are a complex array of responsive (and ‘higher-level’ pre-emptive) options available with which to counteract the potential or actual ‘movement’ of the variable beyond its ‘allowed’ metabolic setpoints and ranges.

There are a number of questions still to be answered regarding how homeostasis ‘works’ and how ‘decisions’ related to homeostasis occur. It is not clear how the regulatory mechanisms know which variable they ‘choose’ to defend as a priority. Brain oxygen would surely be the most important variable to ‘defend’, as would perhaps blood glucose levels, but how decisions are made and responses initiated for these variables preferentially, which may impact negatively on other systems with their own homeostatic requirements, is not clear. Furthermore, there is the capacity for ‘conflict’ between physical and psychological homeostatic mechanisms when homeostatic-related decisions are required to be made. For example, one’s ego may require one to run a marathon to fulfill a need to ‘show’ one’s peers that one is ‘tough’ by completing such a challenging goal, but doing so (running the marathon) creates major physical stress for and on the physical body. Indeed, some folk push themselves so hard during marathons that they collapse, even if they ‘feel’ warning signs of impending collapse, or of an impending heart attack, and choose to keep running despite these symptoms. To these folk, the psychological need to complete the event must be greater than the physical need to protect themselves from harm, and their regulatory decision-making processes clearly valences psychological homeostasis to be of greater importance than physiological homeostasis when deciding to continue exercising in the presence of such warning symptoms. However, running a marathon, while increasing physical risk of catastrophic physical events during the running of it, if done on a repetitive basis has positive physical benefits, such as weight loss and increased metabolic efficiency of the heart, lungs, muscles and other organ structures, along with enhanced psychological well-being which would be derived from achieving the set athletic performance-related goals. Therefore, ‘decision-making’ on an issue such as running a marathon is complex from a homeostasis perspective, with both short and long term potential benefits and harmful consequences. How these contradictory requirements and factors are ‘decided upon’ by the brain when attempting to maintain both psychological and physical homeostasis is still not clear.

A further challenge to homeostatic regulation is evident in the examples of when one has a fever, where a high temperature may paradoxically be beneficial, and after a heart attack, where an altered heart rate and blood pressure setpoint may be part of compensatory mechanisms to ensure the optimal function of a failing heart. While these altered values are potentially ‘outside’ of the ‘healthy’ setpoint level range, they may have utilitarian value and would be metabolically appropriate in relation to either a fever or failing heart. How the regulatory homeostatic control mechanisms ‘know’ that these altered metabolic setpoints are beneficial rather than harmful, and ‘accepts’ them as temporary or permanent new setpoints, or whether these altered values are associated with routine homeostatic corrective responses which are part of the body’s ongoing attempt to induce healing in the presence of fever or heart failure (amongst other homeostatically paradoxical examples), is still not clear. Whether homeostasis as a principle extends beyond merely controlling our body’s activity and behaviour, to more general societal or environmental control, is also still controversial. For example, James Lovelock, with his Gaia hypothesis, has suggested that the world in its entirety is regulated by homeostatic principles, and global temperature increases result in compensatory changes on the earth and in the atmosphere that lead to eventual cooling of the earth, and this warming and cooling continues in a cyclical manner – and most folk who believe in global warming as a contemporary unique catastrophic event don’t like this theory, even if it is difficult to support or refute without measuring temperature changes accurately over millennia.

Homeostatic control mechanisms can fail, and indeed our deaths are sometimes suggested to be the result of a failure of homeostasis. For example, cancer cells overwhelm cellular homeostatic protective mechanisms, or develop rapidly due to uncontrolled cellular proliferation of abnormal cells which are not inhibited by the regular cellular homeostatic negative feedback control mechanisms, which lead to physical damage to the body and ultimately our death, for these or other reasons that we are still not aware of. In contrast, Sigmund Freud, in his always contrary view of life, suggested as part of his Thanatos theory that death in the ultimate form of ‘rest’ and is our ‘baseline’ constancy-related resting state which we ‘go back to’ when dying (with suicide being a direct ‘mechanism’ of reaching this state in those whose psyche are operating too far away from their psychological setpoints, whatever these are), although again this is a difficult theory to either prove or disprove. Finally, what is challenging to a lot of folk about homeostasis from a control / regulatory perspective is that it is a conceptual ‘entity’ rather than a physical process that one can ‘show’ to be ‘real’, much like Plato’s Universals (to Plato the physical cow itself was less relevant than the ‘concept’ of a cow, and he suggested that one can only have ‘mere opinions’ of the former, while one has absolute knowledge of the latter, given the physical cow changes as it grows, ages, and dies, while the ‘concept’ of a cow is immutable and eternal). It is always difficult scientifically to provide categorical evidence which either refutes or support concepts such as universals and non-physical general control theories, even if they are concepts which appear to underpin all life as we know it, and without which function we could not exist in our current physical form and living environment.

As I look out the window at the falling autumn leaves and wonder whether we will have a very cold winter this year and whether we have prepared adequately for it clothes-wise (pre-emptive long-term homeostatic planning at its best, even if perhaps a bit ‘over-the-top’), while taking off my jersey as I write this given that the temperature has increased as the day has changed from morning to afternoon (surely a reactive homeostatic response), and as I ponder my health-related parameters, and work out how I am going to get those that need improvement as close to ‘normal’ as possible (surely as part of behavioural homeostatic / health-optimization planning), I look forward to that bike ride now I have managed to delay gratification of doing so until I have completed writing this (and feel a sense of well-being both from doing so and by realizing I am now ‘free’ to go on the ride and by doing so can remove the psychological ‘itch’ that makes me want to do it and therefore return to a state of psychological ‘constancy’ / homeostasis). Contemplating all of these, it is astonishing to think that all of what I, and pretty much all folk, do is underpinned by a desire to be, and maintain life, in a ‘comfort zone’ which feels right for me, and which is best for my bodily functions and psychological state. Given that all folk in the world have similar physical parameters when we measure them clinically, it is likely that our ‘comfort zones’ both physically and psychologically are not that different in the end. Perhaps the relative weighting which each of us assigns to our psychological or physical ‘needs’ create minor differences between us (and occasionally major differences such as in folk with psychopathology or with those who have significant lifestyle related physical disorders), though at the ‘heart of it all’, both psychologically and physically, is surely the over-arching principle of homeostasis. While on the bike this afternoon, I’ll ponder on the big questions related to homeostasis which still need to be answered, such as how homeostasis-related decisions are made, how the same principle can regulate not just our body, but also our behaviour, and perhaps that of societal and even planetary function, and how ‘universals’ originated and which came first, the physical entity or the universal. Sadly I think it will need a very long ride to solve these unanswered questions, and remove the ‘itch that needs scratching’ which arises from thinking of these concepts as a scientist who wants to solve them – and I don’t like to spend too long out of my comfort zone, which is multi-factorial and not purely bike-focused, but rather is part bike, part desk, part comfy chair, the latter of which will surely become more attractive after a few hours of cycling, and will ‘call me home’ to my next ‘comfort zone’, probably long before I can solve any of these complex issues while out on the ride watching the autumn leaves fall under a beautiful warm blue sky, with my winter cycling jacket unused but packed in my bike’s carrier bag in case of a change in the weather.

Elite Athlete Performance And Super-Achievers In Sport – Is The Essential Ingredient For Success An Inner Mongrel Or Unrequited Child Rather Than Purely Physical Capacity

Above my desk at home is a picture of my great University friend, Philip Lloyd, and I in our paddling days many years ago completing a race, shortly before he switched to mountain climbing, a sport where he achieved great success and pioneered a number of astonishingly difficult routes in a very short space of time before tragically falling to his death when a safety rope failed on a high mountain in Patagonia. Each year I enjoy watching the Tour De France and I am awed by the cyclist’s capacity to sustain pain for so long in the high mountain stages, and their capacity to train for huge amounts of time on a daily basis to ensure they get to the race in peak condition. This week I read about the extent of doping in sport, and wondered not only how they appeared to have gotten away for it for so long, but how so many athletes could have and do take drugs when there is so much evidence how potentially harmful performance enhancing drugs can be to the body of those that take them. All of these got me thinking about why people push themselves to such limits to win races, and what ‘separates’ these race winners and super-achievers in sport, including those that in order to win become dope takers, not only from their less successful peers, but the vast majority of the human population to whom cycling a few kilometres would be regarded as a big effort and achievement, and who would probably prefer to have a cup of coffee while reading a newspaper as their activity of preference.

It is clearly necessary for folk who are successful in sport to have the ‘right’ physical characteristics in order to be able to compete at the highest level, be it the right body shape for their chosen sport, or a big lung capacity, or great muscular strength, or good balance or agility. But you can have all of these, and yet if one doesn’t have the required amount of ‘will’ to push one’s body, no matter how specially ‘designed’ it is, to train for hours on a daily basis or to push oneself to near collapse during a race itself, one will never be a ‘winner’ during athletic events. Where this ‘will’ comes from, and how it is stimulated to be maintained in the face of extreme hardship, is still not clearly understood or determined. One of the biggest ‘wow’ moments of my science career was when after doing competitive sport for many years, and studying as an academic how sport was regulated for many years after that, I realized after spending thousands of hours reading about drive and motivation theories that performing sport is an essentially abnormal activity / thing to do. That might sound strange, but this ‘wow’ moment was underpinned by the knowledge that our bodies and brain have very well defined protective mechanisms, both physically and psychologically, that protect us from damage and resist any effort to get out of our ‘comfort zones’. In the physical sciences these processes are called homeostatic mechanisms, and in psychology they are described as being part of the ‘constancy principle’. Homeostasis was defined by Claude Bernard in the 1860’s as the tendency to maintain the body in a state of relative equilibrium well away from the limits of the body’s absolute capacity using protective physiological mechanisms. The constancy principle was developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900’s as an offshoot of his ‘pleasure principle’ theory and central to the principle is the concept that the human being is a biological organism which strives to maintain its level of ‘excitation’ at an always ‘comfortable’ level. To achieve this goal, Freud suggested that humans avoid or seek to diminish any external stimuli which are likely to prove excessive or which will threaten our internal state of equilibrium, using mechanisms in either the conscious or subconscious mind. So when we get up and exercise, which increases our body’s metabolic rate tremendously, and mentally requires effort, we are doing something that is essentially ‘anti-homeostatic’, and which would naturally initiate a number of mechanisms designed to make us resist the desire to continue exercising, or even stop completely. The symptom of fatigue would be an obvious example of one such protective mechanism which would be an overt part of or result of either physical homeostatic or psychological constancy mechanisms.

So why do folk do sport then if there are all these protective mechanisms. A possible reason may be ‘higher order’ homeostatic / constancy mechanisms, such as material or social rewards which may result from participating in sport, which are beneficial for the long term future of the individual and are ‘valenced’ as being more ‘important’ than the short term risk of being out of one’s safety ‘zone’ when doing sport. For example, being fitter would perhaps be thought to make one more desirable for a potential mate from a biological offspring choice perspective, or if one won a race this would lead to financial gain which would again one more socially desirable, and thereby enhance the reproductive capacity of the individual participating in sport because of the perceived increased ‘esteem’ associated with being a winner. This is a very biological theory for sport and race participation, and suggests that doing sport, racing and winning are beneficial from a Darwinian perspective, and involving oneself in such events would be part of some deep-rooted ‘propagation of species’ biological drive or motive.

The problem with this biological theory is that it does not explain why people push themselves to the level of collapse in sport or why folk continue competing either with warning signs of impending physical catastrophe such as angina (chest pain associated with heart disease), or take drugs in order to improve their chances of success, or become dependent on / addicted to sport (there are numerous examples of this and it is an increasing psychopathological problem), all of which would potentially damage rather than enhance one’s future life prospects and therefore also one’s reproductive capacity, so perhaps something ‘deeper’ is involved. Albert Adler, around the time that Freud proposed the constancy theory, put forward his theory of the inferiority complex, which suggested that performing great feats were related to a sense of inferiority related to prior issues, and that one competes or performs events as a mechanism of ‘hiding’ internal perceived inadequacies or short-comings of the self after previous negative experiences (being bullied in one’s youth, or teased about physical weakness in adolescence, for example). Freud suggested that damaging events in one’s youth lead to a state of ‘ego-fragility’, where in in order to ‘block out’ painful experiences from one’s past, one ‘represses’ these damaging memories or experiences and one ‘projects’ or externalises these internal conflicts into external drives or desires which are ‘transferred’ onto something or some action that can ‘compensate’ for these early formative related issues. Therefore, for example if one feels one is the cause of one’s parent’s divorce, to compensate one spends the rest of one’s life winning races or doing well at work in order to try and ‘make up’ for the ‘damage’ one perceives one has caused at some deep subconscious level, even if one is not the cause of it, and one does not even consciously realize that one is doing something for this ‘deep’ reason. Symptoms and signs of projection and transference include fanatical attachment to projects and goals, envy and dislike for other folk who are successful or receive awards, and falling apart when failing to complete a challenge successfully – all of which are endemic and part of the ‘make-up’ of the sporting world.

If this sounds ‘odd’, or far-fetched, there are some interesting data and information that can be gleaned from athlete autobiographies and academic studies that would suggest that this theory may have a degree of veracity. Dave Collins and Aine Macnamara wrote a very interesting review a few years ago in which they suggested that ‘talent needs trauma’, and described data that would support this concept. For example, academy football players who eventually made it to become elite football players apparently have a greater number of siblings (more competition for parent’s attention) and a three times higher parental divorce rate than peers who did not reach elite level activity. They also suggested that successful footballers come from backgrounds with a higher incidence of single parent families, while rowers commonly reported an increased level of early childhood departure to boarding school (which Collins and Macnamara, rightly in my mind, suggested would be a ‘natural source of early trauma’). Looking at successful cyclists, information gleaned from their autobiographies or articles written about them describe that for example Lance Armstrong parents split up not long after he was born and he grew up with as step-father he didn’t like, Bradley Wiggins’s parents similarly split up when he was young, as did Mark Cavendish’s, and Chris Froome’s parents also separated when he was young. If all this described family history for these cycling champions, footballers and rowers is indeed true, it would be supportive of Collin’s and Macnamara’s suggestion, and that perhaps some of these athletes drive to succeed (and in Armstrong’s case to the level where he was willing to take drugs to do so) is related to some inner drive created by their challenging conditions in their youth (though of course it can be said that growing up in a divorced family environment may often be more easier than doing so in a marriage where there is continuous conflict between parents, or stifling living conditions), or is a compensation for it.

As I said earlier, us scientist folk are still not completely sure what makes an elite athlete, or why some folk push themselves to extreme levels of physical activity. My friend Phil Lloyd was interesting to me as he had such potential in all aspects of his life (and was such a great person and friend), yet he seemed to have some inner ‘edge’ that made him always restless and always want to go ‘higher’ or ‘do more’ and never seemed completely satisfied with what he had achieved – like a lot of us when we were young, there was always a more dangerous river to paddle down than the one we had just got out of, or a higher mountain that needed to be climbed. While I surely had my own demons in my youth, I remember asking Phil why he climbed these very and increasingly dangerous routes he was doing before he died. He gave several reasons, but one which always stuck with me was that when he was solo climbing ‘up there’ miles away from help and people, it felt a bit like when he was young and at boarding school as a child, and it helped him work through these memories. I did not understand his answer then, and thought he was perhaps joking with this answer, but after a career in science and reading basic psychology texts for many years, his answer eventually made sense to me (and perhaps was the ‘seed’ that led me to write this particular article). There are incredible rewards for those who achieve great success in sport. Those who do well / attain the pinnacle of success in any sport deserve our utmost admiration for what they put themselves through during races and on a daily basis when training. But perhaps there is an element that all this effort, which takes them (and me in my youth) far out of their own ‘constancy’ / homeostatic zones, is in effect in part potentially a compensation for trauma of times past which creates an ‘inner mongrel’ which refuses to give up until the ‘prize’ is won that will ‘make up’ for that past loss or trauma. In a way by doing so, perhaps (and hopefully) all these folk by winning enough will gradually attenuate the ‘unrequited child’ which may still reside in them, and reach psychological ‘peace’, and wake up one morning and choose to go and have a cup of coffee in a warm shop rather than ride a bike or kick a football for six hours in the pouring rain, and be happy and be able to feel relaxed when doing so. There is a huge energy cost and price involved over many years if indeed winning anything is related to an inner mongrel that won’t ‘keep quiet’ – and in the case of my great friend Phil, his drive to succeed in his chosen sport perhaps in part led to his death, and we never got the chance to see him reach his full potential, which he possessed in such abundance in all aspects of his work, social and sporting life, and each day I work at home I see the picture of us paddling together and feel a sadness for this lack. Equally though, if there was no inner mongrel and / or unrequited child, would there ever be winners, and would the high mountains of the world ever have been climbed? I’ll ponder that question more later today when I head off with the family to the coffee shop for our weekly Sunday coffee and newspaper routine!

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