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Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

I know there’s a colour called “sea green” but I must say that most times I look at the sea, I don’t think “Look how green the sea is!” But on this particular day, I did. In fact, the singular most striking feature of the sea in this photo is how green it is. Growing up in Scotland I’m used to seeing the land as green….the hills, glens, fields and forests. There is a lot of green in Scotland. I associate those greens with Nature, and with Life.

When I think of a calm, soothing landscape, I usually envisage one which is green, but this green seascape isn’t calming at all. The fact that the wind is whipping up the waves and causing them break far from shore tells me this is a day of a more “active” form of weather…..not a day of peace and ease. And there’s something else in this scene which makes it a bit disturbing….the lighthouse.

The lighthouse? Why should that be disturbing? Well, what’s a lighthouse for? For warning people sailing in this area. Why this area? Because there are dangerous rocks, and/or dangerous tides here. If you’re not careful around here then you could run aground, and even lose your life.

Noticing the lighthouse and realising that I was feeling unsettled as I looked at this image reminded me that we are constantly bombarded with warnings these days – “yellow weather warnings” (what is yellow weather by the way?), “red weather warnings”, “danger to life”, “virus warnings”, “health warnings”, “safety warnings”…….there’s no end to it.

What do all these warnings do? Keep us safe? Maybe. But one thing they certainly do is trigger our inner warning systems. There’s a part of the brain which is called the “amygdala” which has a key role in our alert system. It sets off the famous “Fight or flight” response, flooding our bodies with adrenaline, speeding our hearts and our breathing, tensing our muscles, tightening our stomachs, preparing us to take action. What kind of action? Survival actions.

This essential survival system comes with a problem however….when it’s constantly triggered it sets a higher level of body defence…..that’s the inflammatory system…..and a chronically alerted, activated inflammatory system is at the basis of most chronic disease – from heart disease, to any form of “-itis”, to autoimmune diseases and chronic psychological problem states like chronic anxiety, phobias and depression.

So, I think it’s important to be able to do something about that, and here’s a simple, but helpful exercise – take three very deep breaths, slowly one after the other, completely filling your lungs, then gradually letting all the air out bit by bit. Repeating that big, deep breath three times.

That’s it.

Sure, there are loads more things you can do, but, believe me, this is a good start! Firstly by consciously choosing to do these three breaths you’re taking your attention away from the alarm state. Secondly, this form of breathing changes the chemical balance in your body, changing the oxygen/carbon dioxide ratio in a way which triggers cascades of anti-inflammatory change in your whole system. Thirdly, it triggers the vagus nerve, slowing the heart and pretty much literally steadying your nerves. Finally, this all breaks the loops, helping your break out of stuck hyper-activated circuits….a kind of “re-set” if you like.

If you want to extend these benefits and deepen them, the next thing to do is call to mind a calming, safe, relaxing scene…..preferably one you once experienced. Re-create that event, or that circumstance for a few moments and the emotions which arise with it will begin to dilute the alarm state and deepen the benefits of the three breaths.

You might want some help with this. I find a sunset helps. Here’s one taken from garden on a night where the crescent moon sat above the plum tree and the planet Venus hung in the depending night sky just above the moon.

You might well have a photo of your own somewhere on your phone…..a peaceful, pleasing, calming scene, which you, yourself witnessed. If you do, mark it as a favourite and keep it handy. It could be just what you need.

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Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Le Petit Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I often notice, and photograph heart shapes, but in this particular photo what I like best is that the heart is in a path.

I like that because I think this is the most fundamental value for me. It’s not a simple value….this heart-focused one….but its complexity adds to it, rather than diluting it.

The heart is a symbol of love for us. If I want to live the best life I can live, I believe it has to be a life of love. Love in all its forms. Love in the form of care and compassion. Love in the form of passion and desire. Love in the form of bonds and relationships. Maybe we don’t speak much about these forms of love these days, but it’s always something I think we can do with more of.

The heart is also a symbol of the soul. “Heart felt”, “heart warming”, “good hearted”, “heart to heart” are all phrases which suggest authenticity and depth. It is the antithesis of the superficial and careless. It nurtures. It supports. It nourishes.

The heart is an important part of the body for processing emotions. We now know there is a neural network, of the kind of cells we used to thought you found only in the brain, around the heart. What does that network do? It seems to be involved in the generation and management of emotions.

The heart also focuses us on qualities rather than quantities. What we see, what we feel, what we know, with the heart can’t be examined under a microscope, weighed, measured or have a monetary value attached to it.

A path of the heart is a path of love, emotion and quality.

What is essential is invisible – and can only be seen with the heart.

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Just below the long bridge from the mainland to Ile d’Oleron, at low tide, you can see lots of people out gathering seafood, digging up the shells from the mud. I like this photo I took of them one day. I like the blue colour of the scene and the way people are scattered across the beach. I imagine they almost look like notes on a musical stave.

There’s a growing understanding of human beings, human behaviour and character which comes from taking an evolutionary approach. I think that sometimes it’s a bit overdone, but there are significant insights to be gained by taking this perspective.

For example, one way to understand the brain is to use the “triune” model – the idea that you can see three, distinct, regions or parts – the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. Taking an evolutionary perspective we can see that the vital life-sustaining functions of the brain stem are shared with many creatures much further back along the evolutionary tree than human beings. Then we can see the functions of social connection and the emotions which seem to be the domain of the limbic system….functions shared with other mammals. Finally, the cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex, and the development of the frontal regions in particular, are shared with higher primates. This model can help you to get a handle on brain function but it falls down when you take a too reductionist approach to it…..a common problem with a lot of neuroscience which, at worst, degenerates into a kind of phrenology. The brain is a much more complex, massively interconnected, distributed network. It can’t be so easily divided into three separate parts.

Psychologists often explain to people about the alarm function of the amygdala and how it developed to keep us safe as hunters and gatherers but that now that we live in urban environments, pretty free of daily predators, those ancient circuits have a tendency to alert us to imaginary existential threats, rather than real ones.

Last year I read “The Emotional Mind. The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition” by Stephen Asma and Rami Gabriel which brilliantly places emotions in a central role in human behaviour by tracing the evolutionary path of affect. It wasn’t an easy read, and I was glad I’d read so much about neuroscience and evolutionary psychology before I came across it, but it really has helped me understand the emotions as “adaptive strategies”…..something I’ve explored in my book, “And not or”

As I was looking through my photo library I found this photo quite close to the one I’ve shared at the beginning of this post –

See any similarities?

Ha! Sometimes I think it helps to remind ourselves that we humans are part of Nature, not apart from Nature. We have a lot in common with all other forms of Life as we mutually strive to survive and thrive.

If remembering our hunter gatherer origins helps us to remember that, then it’s a good thing!

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Like yesterday, I’ve found two images that I want to use together. Unlike yesterday, they don’t represent a single phrase. Instead, I think they demonstrate a single concept.

We try to make sense of the world by focusing on bits of it. A bit like looking through a keyhole, or catching sight of what lies through a gateway.

Our left cerebral hemisphere seems to have evolved to develop this skill to the great heights we now experience. It drills down. It focuses. It abstracts elements from the whole to analyse them, categorise them and label them. In both physical and mental senses of the word, it helps us to “grasp” things.

“Things”. That’s an important word to use here, because this is what this type of narrow focus does. It turns whatever it grasps into objects. It separates “objects” out from each other, and from their contexts. This can work pretty well when we are dealing with material forms, but it starts to go wildly astray when we are dealing with living creatures, with non-material reality such as feelings, thoughts, beliefs and relationships, or, even, I would claim, when dealing with illness.

We often hear illnesses described as if they are objects or entities – “stand up to cancer!”, “conquer heart disease!”, “defeat dementia!” etc. But illnesses are not objects, and neither are they entities. They are more like processes, dysfunctions and disorders of complex networks of relationships.

There is no doubt that zero-ing in on some phenomena helps us to recognise them, classify them, and, yes, grasp them. But the job is only partially done at that point. The normal function of the brain involves the left hemisphere handing back to the right hemisphere the results of its analysis, where the contexts, environments, connections and relationships are re-created. This is how we better understand what we are dealing with….by seeing the whole, by seeing the flows of materials, energy and information, by spotting the dynamic movements, the constantly changing web of connections and relationships. And, in so doing, “objects” often turn out not to be “things” after all.

These two photos remind me of that.

They remind me of the value of peeking through the keyhole, but also the need to step through and into whatever we are observing, in order to know better, to understand more deeply, to more fully grasp….

Looking through the keyhole, turning the key, unlocking the door, approaching the gate…..these are all just a beginning. They invite us to enter, to experience, to explore.

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I am very attracted to liminal spaces…..the zones of change, the places where the boundaries dissolve, the areas where the elements mingle at their far edges creating new, different and unique phenomena.

One of my most favourite such space is the shore line. That magical rhythm of the sea dissolving on the sand as the big waves turn to foam and flatten themselves out as they land on the beach, followed by a rush of water, sand and pebbles as the closest waves to dry land retreat speedily back into the sea again.

On this one particular evening an extra layer of “liminal” came into play, as the light turned pink and tinted both the sea and the sand with the colours of a setting sun.

So, simultaneously, in both the dimensions of space and time, that liminal zone emerged….that place of wet sand, not quite beach any more, but not yet wholly ocean yet. And that time of the day, not quite daytime any more, but not wholly night yet.

It makes me tingle just to remember it.

These phenomena of borders, of liminal spaces, of junctions and transitions….they all appear in the “between-ness”. That means they all share that characteristic of revealing connections, influences, bonds and relationships. Whilst the left hemisphere of the brain is so brilliant at selectively focusing on parts, analysing them, classifying them and categorising them, it’s the right hemisphere which sees the “between-ness” and in so doing reveals the singular, the unique, relationships and connections, and, so, the “whole”.

I think it’s good to stimulate your right hemisphere with these experiences. If we are to re-balance the influences of the two hemispheres and move towards more human, more humane, more holistic values, the more we can develop our right hemisphere powers the better!

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One of my most favourite phrases in French is “L’Emerveillement du quotidien” – which translates as something like “the wonder of the everyday”, but actually there are other layers of meaning which I find hard to capture in English.

I suppose the thing I love about the word “wonder” is that has several connotations. It suggests a certain curiosity, a “wondering” what something is, or how it came about. But it also suggests a kind of awe, something amazing, astonishing, or, at very least attention-catching. The sense of “everyday” also has a couple of nuances. It means something common, as in something you might encounter any day, and it means something ordinary. So you immediately find yourself dealing with a paradox – how can the “ordinary” seem “extraordinary”? How does something “common” become both “particular” and “special”?

I’ve come to believe that there is always something extra-ordinary in the ordinary, and, after working with thousands of patients over four decades of clinical work, I’m convinced that every human being is “special”. Special not in the sense of above or superior, but in the sense of particular and unique. In fact, I think it a dehumanising act to reduce any person to “ordinary” or “common”. It’s a failure to really meet and get to know the individual.

So, although these terms seem somewhat paradoxical I find no conflict in them. I find that every single day I can have my attention captured and feel a sense of wonder and amazement develop inside me, just by living my “ordinary”, “normal”, “everyday” life.

I think there are two important principles to bring to this idea and practice – attention and imagination.

We humans have remarkable powers of unconscious and subconscious functioning. We can easily slip into auto-pilot. Have you ever had that experience of driving somewhere with you head full of thoughts to such an extent that on your arrival you have virtually no memory of the actual journey? This happens especially if your trip is one you have taken many times before. You navigate, without much conscious thought, from one familiar landmark to the next, through one well known intersection to another, but you might be hard pushed to describe any of the details of the journey. We are equally great at acquiring habits, and once we set those routines off, unless anything interrupts the expected flow, then we cruise through those activities, “without a second thought”, or, maybe more accurately, without a first one!

These are great powers and they enable us to get on with living without having to stop and make sense of life in every lived moment. But it comes at a price. We miss a lot. In fact, it comes at another, perhaps even greater price. We open ourselves up to being controlled. There are vast industries of advertising, propaganda, and persuasion designed to hustle us along towards somebody else’s desired goals without stopping to consider them.

So, how do challenge that? By slowing down and paying attention. OK, maybe not all the time, but more than we are in the habit of doing. The more often we slow down and pay attention to what is here and now, the more we notice. And, my contention is, the more we notice, the more we wonder.

Repeated experiences of wondering undermine the belief that there is nothing interesting or different about any individual, that all flowers are the same, that nothing changes, or that generalisations are more true than specificities. In fact, repeated experiences of wondering create the exact opposite. They affirm, every single day, that every person is unique, that every plant is unique, that no experience is ever really repeated, and that the truth is always found deeper than in a surface generalisation.

When I walked along the banks of this stream, which you can see in the photo at the start of this post, I noticed rocks and water. Everywhere I looked the rocks looked different, and I spent a long time mesmerised by the flow of the ever changing water.

Have another look at this particular shot. Don’t you find yourself starting to wonder? Starting to wonder about the shapes of the rocks? How smoothly they have been carved by the water. Don’t you start to wonder how each rock becomes this particular shape, and how the rock got to this position in the stream in the first place? It’s pretty easy to let a whole river of questions pour through your mind, and even without answers, those very questions start to stir a sense of amazement, of awe, of wonder.

The second element is imagination. We humans don’t just “see” the way a camera “sees”. We select, represent and interpret. We pick certain elements out of the immense flow of materials, energy and information which constantly course through our minds and bodies. We re-present those original flows and turn them into mental images, thoughts and ideas. And we interpret those representations, colouring and shading them with meanings which we draw from our memory banks and conjure up with our imagination.

I look at these particular rocks and I see a giant wide open mouth. I can imagine that some great monster fell, or was thrown or chased, into the water some time in the distant past. I can imagine that “once upon a time” something happened here, and there’s a story to be told to “explain” what we can see now. In Celtic traditions there is an abundance of such stories about the landscape. The mountains, rivers, forests, lochs, boulders, trees and ponds have stories attached to them, names given to them. Those stories and myths enrich the landscape, and add an extra, invisible layer to Life on Earth. Some people refer to this phenomenon as “enchantment” and I rather like that.

Here’s to a life of wonder and enchantment bursting up into our consciousness every single day.

Here’s to finding our inner heroes and discarding our inner zombies!

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Tiny photo, huh?

I do a lot of scrolling through my digital photo libraries looking for images. Sometimes I’m skipping across thumbnails not much different from this one in size. I stopped when I saw this particular image and thought “when did I take a photo of a gorilla on a wall?”

Do you see what I saw there?

One click zooms the image up to its full size…..

Ha! Where did the gorilla go??

This is a photo of a bell!

If I try hard I can just about still see the gorilla’s face in the full size image but it’s really not nearly as clear as it is in the thumbnail.

Did you know that there are parts of our brain whose whole function is to spot and recognise faces? It seems to work so well it can even see faces where there aren’t any! Like in this image. I’ve shown you examples of this before with photos I have of rock formations and so on, but I’m sure you’ll have lots of experiences of your own to confirm this.

Why should we devote such a lot of brain resources and energy to spotting and recognising faces?

It turns out that we are THE most highly social creatures on the planet. It’s one of the key features which distinguishes us from other primates. Dan Siegel, of “Mindsight” fame says that the frontal cortex of our brain is our map making part – it creates, he says, a “me map, a you map and a we map”. We use more of the brain than our frontal cortex to recognise others, establish bonds and communicate our feelings, but that’s an important part. Iain McGilchrist, of “The Master and His Emissary”, describes how the two cerebral cortexes engage with the world differently, and how the right side has a predilection for the particular, for seeing the over all, contextualised big picture, and for seeking and making connections. Neuroscientists have described specialised “mirror neurones” which we use to tune into and harmonise with others….partly explaining why if I touch my chin while speaking to you, you are more likely to touch your chin (if we are face to face….doesn’t happen on WhatsApp!)

We are the world’s greatest mimics. That’s how we learn, but it’s also how we form bonds with each other. At a trivial level, think of the “ganga style” dance moves. At a far from trivial level, see how the same slogans, gestures, and behaviours are spreading around the world just now as people in many countries respond to the horror of the killing of George Floyd.

We have an astonishingly large number of facial expressions which communicate our emotions. Are you familiar with the work of Paul Ekman on facial expressions? He has shown how certain facial expressions are universal across cultures, and has studied and documented many “micro expressions” which are used in social interaction.

I know there is a lot of talk just now about communication technologies during this time of social distancing, but we humans need the opportunity to connect literally face to face. Does video conferencing, Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime etc do that? Well, what’s your experience?

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We like to be close to the edge, don’t we?

I think that the “call of the sea” is real. We are pulled towards the oceans. Are houses with seaviews the most expensive houses in any country? Why is that? Is it that the sea represents both freedom and adventure? When we look out across the water towards the horizon it is somehow incredibly appealing when all we can see is water and sky. We don’t need to glimpse any distant coastlines to feel drawn to the edges of our land.

It does seem as if the sea, itself, stirs our souls.

But I think there is another factor. The edge.

I am naturally drawn towards the edges. I love to walk along a beach, gazing at the far horizon, breathing in tune to the rhythm of the breaking waves. That constantly changing, dynamic, irregular, line which marks where the water meets the sand, and the sand meets the water.

It’s the same with rocky outcrops. Just like the fisherman in the second photo there, we love to get to the edge (of course, he’s hoping to catch fish so if he doesn’t go to the edge, he’s not going to have much success!). But it’s not only the fishermen who like to stand, or sit, at the edge of a rock.

I wonder how much this instinctive attraction is due to a basic law of Nature – that all complex adaptive systems move towards “far from equilibrium” points? All living systems do. All ecosystems do. In fact, I think the concept of “steady state”, or “balance” misleads us. When I was taught about “homeostasis”, the idea that our “internal environment” has multiple checks and balances to maintain a constant inner state, I thought it made a lot of sense. I learned about all the feedback loops which kick in to ramp up or damp down activity in the body, to keep things ticking along in the “normal range”. But gradually I realised that was a bit simplistic.

The missing pieces included growth and adaptation, both of which are linked to creativity. That creativity manifests itself in “emergence” – the appearance of new behaviours and conditions which couldn’t have been predicted from the pre-existent ones. It manifests itself in novelty and difference. It manifests in growth, development, and maturity.

Once we start to understand that Life is based on a dynamic equilibrium – the kind of balance which never settles down – then we notice that everything tends to be drawn towards the edges.

It’s the same when we look at the activity of organs like the heart and the brain. The rhythm of the heart is constantly changing. You can measure the “heart rate variability”, and find that when there is next to none, the heart has become rigid, non-adaptive, and is about to fail. On the other hand, when you find that it’s chaotic, the heart is also about to fail. The sweet spot is the zone at the edge of both of those extremes. Same with the brain. When a seizure occurs the somewhat chaotic activity of the brain waves suddenly develop zones of constancy. It’s the imposition of rigid, regular wave patterns which seems to obliterate the underlying, normal, variable rhythms. The sweet spot, again, is in that zone at the edges of these two extremes – the zone between rigidity and chaos.

If we are going to learn from this pandemic we’re going to need new thinking, new ideas, different ways of living and organising ourselves. We aren’t going to learn if we try to “return to normal”.

The future is still to be invented, and we’re going to find it at the edge.

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I can remember science lessons in High School where we studied waves. I thought they were fascinating. I still do. All kinds of waves. Waves in the sea

waves in a pond

the electromagnetic spectrum which includes the light and colours we can see, the radio waves we can tune into and many other varieties of invisible waves which affect us.

the waves produced by our hearts and brains which we can’t see, but we can measure and represent on charts (did you know that when your heart rhythm emits a wave pattern which can influence the heart rhythms of people who are physically close to you? 

Even the representation of waves drawn in the stones in a temple or shrine (like the one at the start of this post).

Waves change us.

Waves carry energy and information.

As energy and information reaches into our bodies and minds it changes us.

I read the other day that “influencers” are having a hard time. Bear with me, I’m 66 next month, and “social media influencers” are not my specialist subject, but as best I can tell people who make a living from advertising and marketing revenues from companies by sharing pictures and videos of themselves wearing or using those companies’ products have seen a sharp decline in their income.

Seems one of the things during this pandemic is that people are consuming less “stuff”. Well, given that around the world millions of shops are closed and production lines are at a standstill, maybe this is no surprise. But there’s another element to this story which seems to be a sort of re-evaluation that’s going on. Less people seem interested in the lives of “celebrities” (ie people who are famous for being famous) just now. Priorities and values are changing.

However you want to look at this, the underlying reality is that we are all influencers. There is nothing I do, from the breaths I take, to the beating of my heart, to the communications I make and the behaviours I show, which doesn’t change the world. OK, yes, of course, not the whole world! Well, probably a very small part of the world actually. But collectively we are all influencers.

We send out materials, energy and information into the world constantly. Unceasingly.

What materials do you send out? What “waste” do you produce and what do you do with it?

What energy do you send out? How does that energy affect your relationships?

What information do you send out? What are your messages? How do you say them? Are they based on kindness or hate? Hope or fear? Anger or Joy?

You cannot escape being an influencer.

The question is – what waves are we making? You and I.

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There’s something of this shrub that makes me think about the human brain. The leafy cortex forming a curved border and the mesh of branches, twigs and stems which look a bit like a neural net.

Deleuze and Maturna wrote about two common models we use to organise our world view – the arboreal and the rhizomal. They described how we use the former to create tree structures everywhere…..those hierarchical constantly branching sets of binary choices. Think of a genealogy chart, and how we refer to it as a “family tree”. But think also of “organisation charts” which lay out the positions within a company, and show the power flows, with the “Chief Executive Officer” at the top. We see it in protocols, guidelines and algorithms, which proscribe the actions to take at every point to get from a starting position to an “outcome” or “goal”.

I love trees, but “arboreal” models of thought and world view make me uneasy. They are too binary for me. At every stage you can go this way or that way, and there is often an implication that there is only one way which is the right way. It assumes that the starting conditions are exactly as the author expects them to be, and the goals or outcomes which the model maker identifies are the best, or most relevant, or most “efficient” ones, so everyone should share them. Like all models the people who make them have certain values, beliefs and world views, but, rarely are those things made explicit. They are also too hierarchical for me. I’m not a fan of strongly hierarchical, centralised power structures.

On the other hand, there is something very appealing about these tree-like diagrams. I probably drew little family trees every working day. I found it helpful to chart a patient’s relationships, siblings, parents, grandparents, partners and children. They often revealed patterns which shone a light on this patient’s illness. And there is no denying the tree-like branching structures within the body – particularly in the lungs and the circulatory system, but not only there.

In Jacques Tassin’s “Pour un Ecologie du Sensible”, he uses a variety of metaphors to show how interconnected all of life is. One of his metaphors is the tree. He says all life is like an invisible tree rooted in the Earth, each branch, each leaf a living being, a part of the same tree. I like that. If each of us is a single leaf, then, obviously we are connected to every other leaf through the over all structure of the tree. I also like his reference to the roots, which we usually don’t see, because it seems very true that we are vastly interconnected in invisible ways.

The rhizome model is more like grass. There isn’t a single trunk, or root. It’s massively interconnected. It’s a “distributed network” as opposed to a “hierarchical structure”. The brain is probably more like that. Every one of our millions and millions of neurones makes up to 50,000 connections with other neurones. Trees don’t do that. I find the network model very appealing. I love the way it reveals a multiplicity of equally “good” pathways. I love how it doesn’t pre-determine either the starting points or the end points. In fact, it’s kind of impossible to see where a brain begins and ends. It’s not even fenced off in the skull!

When I look at this shrub, then, I actually see elements of both of these models – the branching tree structure, and the presence of multiple, connected pathways.

OK, maybe only up to a point, but, hey, at the end of the day, it’s a pretty appealing and inspirational shrub!

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