Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation

A special issue of Brain Sciences (ISSN 2076-3425). This special issue belongs to the section "Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (31 March 2021) | Viewed by 42504

Special Issue Editors


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Guest Editor
Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, Montreal, QC, Canada
Interests: brain bases of self-representation; social communication and creativity in developing and adult populations

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Guest Editor
University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
Interests: relationship between brain connectivity and cognition in typical and atypical development; cognitive neuroscience; human connectomics; neurodevelopmental disorders

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

What is consciousness? What is the self? How do they relate to one another? While philosophers have pondered upon these questions for millennia, scientists have only recently been able to explore the connection quantitatively through lesion studies, electrophysiology, and measurements of the brain’s activity.

At a basic level, it may be said that consciousness is comprised of arousal and awareness, with a hierarchy of consciousness corresponding to increasing brain complexity. Minimal consciousness is attributed to animals with simple nervous systems that register raw internal and external sensory experiences – light, dark, hunger, warmth, and fear - with little awareness of their meaning. Awareness of the self, and by extension, self-representation is necessary to be able to construct a lifelong narrative of experiences centred on this abstract concept.

In recent years, a number of neuroimaging studies have investigated the neural basis of self-recognition processes in humans, including the bodily self and the mental self. The bodily self, and sense of agency appear to be based on the brain regions that process the visual-perceptual information about body parts and that match the visual and proprioceptive information with the movement information in the premotor cortex. Self-representation, or the mental self, is thought to be most closely associated with medial prefrontal cortex and cortical midline structures.

In conjunction, these investigations have contributed to our current understanding of the neural correlates of conscious awareness and self-representation in neurotypical and pathological states, but many questions remain unresolved in our understanding of the neural correlates of these multifaceted concepts and the interplay between them.

For this Special Issue, we aim to bring together cutting-edge research on the neural mechanisms of consciousness and conscious awareness, as related to the self, as well as self-representation in the brain. We welcome contributions from psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, and philosophy that address typical brain function or psychopathology in development and across the lifespan. We are accepting scientifically rigorous and novel original papers on behavioral, psychophysiological and neuroimaging data, as well as reviews and meta-analyses. 

Dr. Istvan Molnar-Szakacs
Dr. Lucina Q. Uddin
Guest Editors

Manuscript Submission Information

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Keywords

  • Consciousness
  • Conscious awareness
  • Development
  • Lesion studies
  • Mental self
  • Neuroimaging
  • Psychiatry
  • Psychopathology
  • Self
  • Self-recognition
  • Self-representation

Published Papers (11 papers)

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Research

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32 pages, 1152 KiB  
Article
Self-Boundary Dissolution in Meditation: A Phenomenological Investigation
by Ohad Nave, Fynn-Mathis Trautwein, Yochai Ataria, Yair Dor-Ziderman, Yoav Schweitzer, Stephen Fulder and Aviva Berkovich-Ohana
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(6), 819; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11060819 - 21 Jun 2021
Cited by 22 | Viewed by 5499
Abstract
A fundamental aspect of the sense of self is its pre-reflective dimension specifying the self as a bounded and embodied knower and agent. Being a constant and tacit feature structuring consciousness, it eludes robust empirical exploration. Recently, deep meditative states involving global dissolution [...] Read more.
A fundamental aspect of the sense of self is its pre-reflective dimension specifying the self as a bounded and embodied knower and agent. Being a constant and tacit feature structuring consciousness, it eludes robust empirical exploration. Recently, deep meditative states involving global dissolution of the sense of self have been suggested as a promising path for advancing such an investigation. To that end, we conducted a comprehensive phenomenological inquiry into meditative self-boundary alteration. The induced states were systematically characterized by changes in six experiential features including the sense of location, agency, first-person perspective, attention, body sensations, and affective valence, as well as their interaction with meditative technique and overall degree of dissolution. Quantitative analyses of the relationships between these phenomenological categories highlighted a unitary dimension of boundary dissolution. Notably, passive meditative gestures of “letting go”, which reduce attentional engagement and sense of agency, emerged as driving the depth of dissolution. These findings are aligned with an enactive approach to the pre-reflective sense of self, linking its generation to sensorimotor activity and attention-demanding processes. Moreover, they set the stage for future phenomenologically informed analyses of neurophysiological data and highlight the utility of combining phenomenology and intense contemplative training for a scientific characterization of processes giving rise to the basic sense of being a bounded self. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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17 pages, 1462 KiB  
Article
Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Correlate with Psychosocial Development in Contemplative Practitioners and Controls
by Omar Singleton, Max Newlon, Andres Fossas, Beena Sharma, Susanne R. Cook-Greuter and Sara W. Lazar
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(6), 728; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11060728 - 30 May 2021
Cited by 6 | Viewed by 4142
Abstract
Jane Loevinger’s theory of adult development, termed ego development (1966) and more recently maturity development, provides a useful framework for understanding the development of the self throughout the lifespan. However, few studies have investigated its neural correlates. In the present study, we use [...] Read more.
Jane Loevinger’s theory of adult development, termed ego development (1966) and more recently maturity development, provides a useful framework for understanding the development of the self throughout the lifespan. However, few studies have investigated its neural correlates. In the present study, we use structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate the neural correlates of maturity development in contemplative practitioners and controls. Since traits possessed by individuals with higher levels of maturity development are similar to those attributed to individuals at advanced stages of contemplative practice, we chose to investigate levels of maturity development in meditation practitioners as well as matched controls. We used the Maturity Assessment Profile (MAP) to measure maturity development in a mixed sample of participants composed of 14 long-term meditators, 16 long-term yoga practitioners, and 16 demographically matched controls. We investigated the relationship between contemplative practice and maturity development with behavioral, seed-based resting state functional connectivity, and cortical thickness analyses. The results of this study indicate that contemplative practitioners possess higher maturity development compared to a matched control group, and in addition, maturity development correlates with cortical thickness in the posterior cingulate. Furthermore, we identify a brain network implicated in theory of mind, narrative, and self-referential processing, comprising the posterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and inferior frontal cortex, as a primary neural correlate. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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12 pages, 1576 KiB  
Article
Differentiating Real-World Autobiographical Experiences without Recourse to Behaviour
by Jonathan Erez, Marie-Eve Gagnon and Adrian M. Owen
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(4), 521; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11040521 - 20 Apr 2021
Viewed by 2606
Abstract
Investigating human consciousness based on brain activity alone is a key challenge in cognitive neuroscience. One of its central facets, the ability to form autobiographical memories, has been investigated through several fMRI studies that have revealed a pattern of activity across a network [...] Read more.
Investigating human consciousness based on brain activity alone is a key challenge in cognitive neuroscience. One of its central facets, the ability to form autobiographical memories, has been investigated through several fMRI studies that have revealed a pattern of activity across a network of frontal, parietal, and medial temporal lobe regions when participants view personal photographs, as opposed to when they view photographs from someone else’s life. Here, our goal was to attempt to decode when participants were re-experiencing an entire event, captured on video from a first-person perspective, relative to a very similar event experienced by someone else. Participants were asked to sit passively in a wheelchair while a researcher pushed them around a local mall. A small wearable camera was mounted on each participant, in order to capture autobiographical videos of the visit from a first-person perspective. One week later, participants were scanned while they passively viewed different categories of videos; some were autobiographical, while others were not. A machine-learning model was able to successfully classify the video categories above chance, both within and across participants, suggesting that there is a shared mechanism differentiating autobiographical experiences from non-autobiographical ones. Moreover, the classifier brain maps revealed that the fronto-parietal network, mid-temporal regions and extrastriate cortex were critical for differentiating between autobiographical and non-autobiographical memories. We argue that this novel paradigm captures the true nature of autobiographical memories, and is well suited to patients (e.g., with brain injuries) who may be unable to respond reliably to traditional experimental stimuli. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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16 pages, 1961 KiB  
Article
Agency, Ownership and the Potential Space
by Shahar Arzy
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(4), 460; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11040460 - 5 Apr 2021
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2696
Abstract
The potential space, the space between the experiencer and the experience, is at the heart of Winnicott’s theory. The concepts of agency of one’s actions and ownership of one’s experience have been recently applied to such a space lying in between the experiencing [...] Read more.
The potential space, the space between the experiencer and the experience, is at the heart of Winnicott’s theory. The concepts of agency of one’s actions and ownership of one’s experience have been recently applied to such a space lying in between the experiencing self and the mental (cognitive) map she creates, representing her surroundings. Agency is defined as “the sense that I am the one who is generating the experience represented on a mental map”, while ownership is defined as “the sense that I am the one who is undergoing an experience, represented on a mental map”. Here these concepts are introduced and applied to five main realizations of Winnicott’s potential space: Playing, transitional phenomena, the therapeutic space, culture and creativity. Through theoretical constructs and clinical analyses, it is shown how agency and ownership, and their mutual interrelations, may help to better understand Winnicott’s theory with implications to clinical practice. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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12 pages, 703 KiB  
Article
Gray-Matter Expansion of Social Brain Networks in Individuals High in Public Self-Consciousness
by Tomoyo Morita, Minoru Asada and Eiichi Naito
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(3), 374; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11030374 - 15 Mar 2021
Cited by 10 | Viewed by 2753
Abstract
Self-consciousness is a personality trait associated with an individual’s concern regarding observable (public) and unobservable (private) aspects of self. Prompted by previous functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, we examined possible gray-matter expansions in emotion-related and default mode networks in individuals with higher [...] Read more.
Self-consciousness is a personality trait associated with an individual’s concern regarding observable (public) and unobservable (private) aspects of self. Prompted by previous functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, we examined possible gray-matter expansions in emotion-related and default mode networks in individuals with higher public or private self-consciousness. One hundred healthy young adults answered the Japanese version of the Self-Consciousness Scale (SCS) questionnaire and underwent structural MRI. A voxel-based morphometry analysis revealed that individuals scoring higher on the public SCS showed expansions of gray matter in the emotion-related regions of the cingulate and insular cortices and in the default mode network of the precuneus and medial prefrontal cortex. In addition, these gray-matter expansions were particularly related to the trait of “concern about being evaluated by others”, which was one of the subfactors constituting public self-consciousness. Conversely, no relationship was observed between gray-matter volume in any brain regions and the private SCS scores. This is the first study showing that the personal trait of concern regarding public aspects of the self may cause long-term substantial structural changes in social brain networks. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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16 pages, 2315 KiB  
Article
Self-Positivity or Self-Negativity as a Function of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex
by Alla Yankouskaya and Jie Sui
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(2), 264; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11020264 - 19 Feb 2021
Cited by 17 | Viewed by 3936
Abstract
Self and emotions are key motivational factors of a person strivings for health and well-being. Understanding neural mechanisms supporting the relationship between these factors bear far-reaching implications for mental health disorders. Recent work indicates a substantial overlap between self-relevant and emotion information processing [...] Read more.
Self and emotions are key motivational factors of a person strivings for health and well-being. Understanding neural mechanisms supporting the relationship between these factors bear far-reaching implications for mental health disorders. Recent work indicates a substantial overlap between self-relevant and emotion information processing and has proposed the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) as one shared neural signature. However, the precise cognitive and neural mechanisms represented by the MPFC in investigations of self- and emotion-related processing are largely unknown. Here we examined whether the neural underpinnings of self-related processing in the MPFC link to positive or negative emotions. We collected fMRI data to test the distinct and shared neural circuits of self- and emotion-related processing while participants performed personal (self, friend, or stranger) and emotion (happy, sad, or neutral) associative matching tasks. By exploiting tight control over the factors that determine the effects of self-relevance and emotions (positive: Happy vs. neutral; negative: Sad vs. neutral), our univariate analysis revealed that the ventral part of the MPFC (vmPFC), which has established involvement in self-prioritisation effects, was not recruited in the negative emotion prioritisation effect. In contrast, there were no differences in brain activity between the effects of positive emotion- and self-prioritisation. These results were replicated by both region of interest (ROI)-based analysis in the vmPFC and the seed- to voxel functional connectivity analysis between the MPFC and the rest of the brain. The results suggest that the prioritisation effects for self and positive emotions are tightly linked together, and the MPFC plays a large role in discriminating between positive and negative emotions in relation to self-relevance. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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11 pages, 514 KiB  
Article
Preliminary Evidence of the Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Self-Enhancement: A Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Study
by Birgitta Taylor-Lillquist, Vivek Kanpa, Maya Crawford, Mehdi El Filali, Julia Oakes, Alex Jonasz, Amanda Disney and Julian Paul Keenan
Brain Sci. 2020, 10(8), 535; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci10080535 - 8 Aug 2020
Cited by 5 | Viewed by 3229
Abstract
Humans employ a number of strategies to improve their position in their given social hierarchy. Overclaiming involves presenting oneself as having more knowledge than one actually possesses, and it is typically invoked to increase one’s social standing. If increased expectations to possess knowledge [...] Read more.
Humans employ a number of strategies to improve their position in their given social hierarchy. Overclaiming involves presenting oneself as having more knowledge than one actually possesses, and it is typically invoked to increase one’s social standing. If increased expectations to possess knowledge is a perceived social pressure, such expectations should increase bouts of overclaiming. As the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is sensitive to social pressure and disruption of the MPFC leads to decreases in overclaiming, we predicted that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) applied to the MPFC would reduce overclaiming and the effects would be enhanced in the presence of social pressure. Twelve participants were given a test in which half of the words were real and half were fake, and they were asked how well they knew each word. They were not told that any of the words were fake. Half of the participants were exposed to social pressure while the other half were not. Following TMS delivered to the MPFC, overclaiming rates decreased, specifically under conditions of high social pressure. Medial PFC TMS did not influence real word responses and real words did not interact with the MPFC and social pressure. These preliminary findings support the significant role the MPFC plays in social cognition and the importance of the MPFC in mediating socially meaningful situations. We suggest the role of the MPFC as being highly influenced by the premium placed on social manipulation in human evolution. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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Review

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23 pages, 4435 KiB  
Review
The Lost Neural Hierarchy of the Autistic Self—Locked-Out of the Mental Self and Its Default-Mode Network
by Fuxin Lian and Georg Northoff
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(5), 574; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11050574 - 29 Apr 2021
Cited by 6 | Viewed by 5730
Abstract
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a fundamental change in self-awareness including seemingly paradoxical features like increased ego-centeredness and weakened self-referentiality. What is the neural basis of this so-called “self-paradox”? Conducting a meta-analytic review of fMRI rest and task studies, we show [...] Read more.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a fundamental change in self-awareness including seemingly paradoxical features like increased ego-centeredness and weakened self-referentiality. What is the neural basis of this so-called “self-paradox”? Conducting a meta-analytic review of fMRI rest and task studies, we show that ASD exhibits consistent hypofunction in anterior and posterior midline regions of the default-mode network (DMN) in both rest and task with decreased self–non-self differentiation. Relying on a multilayered nested hierarchical model of self, as recently established (Qin et al. 2020), we propose that ASD subjects cannot access the most upper layer of their self, the DMN-based mental self—they are locked-out of their own DMN and its mental self. This, in turn, results in strong weakening of their self-referentiality with decreases in both self-awareness and self–other distinction. Moreover, this blocks the extension of non-DMN cortical and subcortical regions at the lower layers of the physical self to the DMN-based upper layer of the mental self, including self–other distinction. The ASD subjects remain stuck and restricted to their intero- and exteroceptive selves as manifested in a relative increase in ego-centeredness (as compared to self-referentiality). This amounts to what we describe as “Hierarchical Model of Autistic Self” (HAS), which, characterizing the autistic self in hierarchical and spatiotemporal terms, aligns well with and extends current theories of ASD including predictive coding and weak central coherence. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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Other

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16 pages, 1910 KiB  
Case Report
The Role of White Matter Disconnection in the Symptoms Relating to the Anarchic Hand Syndrome: A Single Case Study
by Valentina Pacella, Giuseppe Kenneth Ricciardi, Silvia Bonadiman, Elisabetta Verzini, Federica Faraoni, Michele Scandola and Valentina Moro
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(5), 632; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11050632 - 14 May 2021
Cited by 4 | Viewed by 3062
Abstract
The anarchic hand syndrome refers to an inability to control the movements of one’s own hand, which acts as if it has a will of its own. The symptoms may differ depending on whether the brain lesion is anterior, posterior, callosal or subcortical, [...] Read more.
The anarchic hand syndrome refers to an inability to control the movements of one’s own hand, which acts as if it has a will of its own. The symptoms may differ depending on whether the brain lesion is anterior, posterior, callosal or subcortical, but the relative classifications are not conclusive. This study investigates the role of white matter disconnections in a patient whose symptoms are inconsistent with the mapping of the lesion site. A repeated neuropsychological investigation was associated with a review of the literature on the topic to identify the frequency of various different symptoms relating to this syndrome. Furthermore, an analysis of the neuroimaging regarding structural connectivity allowed us to investigate the grey matter lesions and white matter disconnections. The results indicated that some of the patient’s symptoms were associated with structures that, although not directly damaged, were dysfunctional due to a disconnection in their networks. This suggests that the anarchic hand may be considered as a disconnection syndrome involving the integration of multiple antero-posterior, insular and interhemispheric networks. In order to comprehend this rare syndrome better, the clinical and neuroimaging data need to be integrated with the clinical reports available in the literature on this topic. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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11 pages, 697 KiB  
Brief Report
Corticospinal Excitability during a Perspective Taking Task as Measured by TMS-Induced Motor Evoked Potentials
by Elizabeth Murray, Janet Brenya, Katherine Chavarria, Karen J. Kelly, Anjel Fierst, Nathira Ahmad, Caroline Anton, Layla Shaffer, Kairavi Kapila, Logan Driever, Kayla Weaver, Caroline Dial, Maya Crawford, Iso Hartman, Tommy Infantino, Fiona Butler, Abigail Straus, Shakeera L. Walker, Brianna Balugas, Mathew Pardillo, Briana Goncalves and Julian Paul Keenanadd Show full author list remove Hide full author list
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(4), 513; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11040513 - 18 Apr 2021
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 3314
Abstract
Only by understanding the ability to take a third-person perspective can we begin to elucidate the neural processes responsible for one’s inimitable conscious experience. The current study examined differences in hemispheric laterality during a first-person perspective (1PP) and third-person perspective (3PP) taking task, [...] Read more.
Only by understanding the ability to take a third-person perspective can we begin to elucidate the neural processes responsible for one’s inimitable conscious experience. The current study examined differences in hemispheric laterality during a first-person perspective (1PP) and third-person perspective (3PP) taking task, using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Participants were asked to take either the 1PP or 3PP when identifying the number of spheres in a virtual scene. During this task, single-pulse TMS was delivered to the motor cortex of both the left and right hemispheres of 10 healthy volunteers. Measures of TMS-induced motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) of the contralateral abductor pollicis brevis (APB) were employed as an indicator of lateralized cortical activation. The data suggest that the right hemisphere is more important in discriminating between 1PP and 3PP. These data add a novel method for determining perspective taking and add to the literature supporting the role of the right hemisphere in meta representation. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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12 pages, 1858 KiB  
Brief Report
Neural Evidence of Mirror Self-Recognition in the Secondary Somatosensory Cortex of Macaque: Observations from a Single-Cell Recording Experiment and Implications for Consciousness
by Rafael Bretas, Miki Taoka, Sayaka Hihara, Axel Cleeremans and Atsushi Iriki
Brain Sci. 2021, 11(2), 157; https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11020157 - 25 Jan 2021
Cited by 6 | Viewed by 3969
Abstract
Despite mirror self-recognition being regarded as a classical indication of self-awareness, little is known about its neural underpinnings. An increasing body of evidence pointing to a role of multimodal somatosensory neurons in self-recognition guided our investigation toward the secondary somatosensory cortex (SII), as [...] Read more.
Despite mirror self-recognition being regarded as a classical indication of self-awareness, little is known about its neural underpinnings. An increasing body of evidence pointing to a role of multimodal somatosensory neurons in self-recognition guided our investigation toward the secondary somatosensory cortex (SII), as we observed single-neuron activity from a macaque monkey sitting in front of a mirror. The monkey was previously habituated to the mirror, successfully acquiring the ability of mirror self-recognition. While the monkey underwent visual and somatosensory stimulation, multimodal visual and somatosensory activity was detected in the SII, with neurons found to respond to stimuli seen through the mirror. Responses were also modulated by self-related or non-self-related stimuli. These observations corroborate that vision is an important aspect of SII activity, with electrophysiological evidence of mirror self-recognition at the neuronal level, even when such an ability is not innate. We also show that the SII may be involved in distinguishing self and non-self. Together, these results point to the involvement of the SII in the establishment of bodily self-consciousness. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Brain Bases of Conscious Awareness and Self-Representation)
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