meditation & brain science

Tune your brain for happiness and effectiveness

A huge amount of research over the last few years has given us a better idea of what happens in the brain when we meditate, and how meditation brings us long term benefits. Meditation, for example:

  • Helps to slow down aging of the brain
  • Increases thickness in parts of the brain to do with memory and learning
  • Reduces mind-wandering and unhappiness
  • Increases the thickness of parts of the brain connected with emotional regulation
  • Improves concentration
  • Reduces our susceptibility to anxiety and depression
  • Helps us tolerate pain
  • Reduces feelings of isolation

It may seem rather staggering that one activity can lead to such a varied range of benefits. It is clear in fact that meditation has not just one effect on the brain, but generally helps it to run optimally. Indeed, meditation could almost be defined as “a series of exercises that help us to optimize our brains.”

Neuroscience offers us a more precise way of talking about the mechanisms of meditation. For example, we can recognize that in meditating we are exercising and thickening the parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala, which is involved in generating anxiety, and thus encouraging the amygdala to shrink, leading to long-term changes in our emotional being. Some of our older ways of talking about our experience, by contrast, are based on faulty metaphors. For example we used to say that emotions are like hydraulic fluids that will leak or burst out if we don’t express them. This isn’t how the brain works! Neuroscience gives us more accurate metaphors and thus helps us to understand ourselves better.

Neuroscientists can actually see the changes I’ve described above taking place in the brain. Not only that, but they can see them happening over a timescale of a few weeks, rather than the years we might assume they might require. Most neuroscientific trials last only eight weeks. And in many of those trials, participants are meditating for an average of around 20 minutes. That isn’t a lot of time!

If you’re one of those people who assumes that somehow you’re not cut out for meditation, or believes that only certain people (the “spiritual” ones) will experience the kinds of benefits I’ve outlined, then perhaps you will find confidence in knowing that exercising the brain is, in many respects, exactly like exercising the body. Just as repeated physical exercise will inevitably promote muscle growth or flexibility, so repeated meditation will help promote brain growth and emotional resilience.

I’d like to add one caveat, which is that in talking about optimizing your brain I’m using a figure of speech known as a metonym. In metonymy, we use a part to represent a whole, or sometimes a whole to represent a part. So when we talk, for example, about combatting climate change in order to “save the planet,” we’re using a metonym. It’s not the planet we want to save, but the biosphere that lives on the planet. Similarly, when we talk about optimizing the brain, we really mean that we’re optimizing our entire being, or even our entire lives.

That’s what we’ll be exploring in the 28 sessions of my online course, Optimize Your Brain. We’ll be focusing on brain research and meditation in order to bring positive change in a number of aspects of our lives, including developing greater calmness and focus, enhancing our ability to experience happiness, boosting our creativity and intelligence, bringing into being greater interpersonal harmony, and cultivating insight.

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Meditation expert tells us what the science really says

Connie Ogle, Miami Herald: So you fell asleep easily enough, but now it’s 3 a.m. Your mind is spinning, and rest is elusive. You’re reliving every foolish or embarrassing thing you did in the past 24 — or 48 or 72 — hours, and that is a lot of material to run through. And you simply can’t stop.

Except maybe you could, if only you knew how to be mindful.

“When you’re caught in that loop of rumination, that’s very real, and it creates very intense feelings,” explains psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, who reported on brain …

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Schools combine meditation and brain science to help combat discipline problems

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Shaina Cavazos, Chalkbeat Indiana: It was the Friday morning before spring break, and Deanna Nibarger’s fifth-graders were noisily chatting and enjoying their breakfast of milk, granola bars and raisins when a woman’s voice crackled over the school intercom:

“Sit up straight and close your eyes,” the woman on the intercom said.

The room immediately went silent as the woman’s command was followed by a series of short, high-pitched “dings,” as if someone were hitting a key on a metal xylophone and letting the sound reverberate.

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A trance settled over the class for nearly a minute. Then, the daily morning announcements resumed, and the class sprang back to life as everyone stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Rarely do such moments of calm appear in elementary school classrooms, but it’s exactly this kind of focus that Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township is looking to build in its students. The dings over the intercom are one example of ways teachers at the school have armed students with meditation-like practices to help increase focus and attention.

It might sound strange, but in a fast-paced classroom, teachers at Crooked Creek say just having their students close their eyes and listen for a minute can help them improve their ability to focus. It’s part of the school’s efforts to incorporate the tenets of the growing academic field known as “educational neuroscience” into the classroom…

The field of educational neuroscience is at the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience, and some of its teachings suggest findings from brain research can be applied to classroom management and discipline techniques.

Some trend toward the area of “mindfulness,” such as attempting to sharpen students’ focus through meditation. Other facets of the field that Crooked Creek teachers employ in the classroom include taking short breaks from instruction to ward off boredom and teaching children explicitly about parts of the brain and how they respond to stress.

Crooked Creek has been working with teacher and college professor Lori Desautels to help infuse elements of educational neuroscience into the classroom.

Desautels isn’t just teaching brain science to the teachers. She’s also helping children understand how their own brains work to in an effort to help them learn to change their behavior.

The educational neuroscience field is in flux, and some of its teachings — especially ones that directly tie student learning outcomes to brain science — still leave neuroscientists skeptical. But that’s not at the core of what Desautels is doing in Indianapolis schools. Rather, it’s about using what experts know about the brain to build stronger relationships and classroom culture.

“We are in a new time in education,” said Desautels, who works with teachers and students in several Indianapolis schools. “We hear about reform every day in the paper. We read it, we hear it in the news, but what’s really at the crux of all of this is educational neuroscience. Students are learning about their own neuroanatomy, and they are loving it.”

A growing field

Researchers have been exploring how brain science and education work together for about 50 years, but Desautels said the field has recently morphed into something new that is taking off across the country and outside the U.S.

“It’s a brand-new discipline that is catching on fire right now,” Desautels said.

The idea is to introduce both teachers and students to a basic understanding of how the brain works. If teachers have an idea of what’s going on behind the bad behavior, they can more effectively reach their students because they know it might not just be a child choosing to be defiant or difficult. When students know how parts of their brains work, they might better understand why they might feel frustrated or aggressive. That can help them develop strategies to lower stress so they can work to improve behavior in the future.

“Neuroanatomy knowledge eases their stress because they know they are not alone and can have control over that,” Desautels said.

The exact relationship between the how the brain works and how kids learn — and how teachers should teach — isn’t fully fleshed out, said Lise Eliot, a neuroscience professor from Chicago Medical School and Rosalind Franklin University.

“The so-called ‘neuroscience of education”… it’s not ready for prime time yet,” Eliot said. “There are a lot of very good neuroscientists who are interested in translating our understanding to how our brain learns to better educational practices, but I would say that at this point, improvements in educational practice have come only from the behavioral level.”

And that’s mainly where Desautel’s work lies — in using new strategies and information to improve behavior. The methods are especially relevant as schools look to correct disparities in instances of school discipline. Indiana, like many places across the country, has acknowledged racial differences in the way that suspensions, expulsions and other punishments are meted out.

Nibarger, the fifth-grade teacher from Crooked Creek, had a background in special education and behavior management before she ever met Desautels. The year she came to Washington Township just happened to be the first year Desautels piloted her approach with the Crooked Creek fifth-graders.

Since she started working with Desautels three years ago, she’s seen school culture begin to change, and she’s more sure of her own teaching. The very first year of the pilot, no students were suspended, and school office referrals decreased, she said.

Understanding what her kids’ brains might be going through during moments of stress or frustration has helped Nibarger make sense of a lot of disparate classroom management concepts she’d already learned.

“It has kind of affirmed a lot of what I already knew to be best practice,” she said. “When people asked me what I was doing for behavior, I didn’t have research or knowledge to do that. Now I know why I do what I do.”

Educational neuroscience, Desautels said, is the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience. The element of it that encourages building relationships through better understanding of how emotions and stress impact the brain informs some of the philosophies behind discipline strategies becoming popular in the U.S, she said.

At Crooked Creek, Nibarger has taken the lessons to heart and uses them on a daily basis.

“If you were to come to room 18, we talk a lot about emotions being contagious.” Nibarger said. “We do morning meetings, and we talk through conflict. I teach the kids about neuroplasticity; their brains being able to change because of their experiences in life.”

Using brain knowledge to better behavior

One of the first things Desautels teaches students and teachers is “the 90-second rule,” which admittedly has a much larger following in psychological circles than neuroscientific ones.

“Our body rinses clear and clean of negative emotion in 90 seconds,” she said. “Why do we stay irritated for so long? We keep thinking about it, replaying it and generating more negative emotions.”

The premise is championed by Harvard-educated brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, who essentially says the chemicals that course through the brain during a stressful experience dissipate after 90 seconds. Eliot said she wasn’t familiar with the concept. But while emotional recovery time is likely different from person to person, the point, Desautels said, is to let kids know they can have a hand in controlling their emotions.

Things don’t always run smoothly in classrooms, between teachers and students or between kids themselves — conflict is inevitable. But rather than focusing on just being reactive, Desautels said, teachers and students can arm themselves with strategies early on so moments of stress don’t turn into meltdowns.

There are three key ways to de-escalate a conflict that are known to reduce stress as well: movement, time and breathing.

When kids can release energy by moving around, take some time away from the stressful moment or just breathe, Desautels said, they can calm down and actually think about what’s going on around them. Otherwise, they stay stressed out and might lash out more, she said.

The same goes for teachers — those strategies can ease their tension so they can respond constructively to a student. Desautels recommends asking these questions: What do you need? How can I help? What can we do to make this better?

“Consequences don’t need to be immediate,” Desautels said. “That, neurobiologically, is the worst thing we can do.”

When the brain is under stress, Desautels said, the part that controls problem-solving, logic, planning and organizing — known as the “prefrontal cortex” — isn’t getting enough blood and oxygen. Instead, all the blood is heading to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotion. That’s why feeling upset might make a child yell or hit before it makes them sit back and talk a problem through. Plus, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to develop, so children are already more likely to respond emotionally to stress than adults.

“We have to prime the brain for discipline and learning before we can do anything else,” Desautels said. “Unless we teach the behaviors that we want to see, many times emotional regulation, which is what negative behavior is all about, it’s not there. And we just assume everybody is born having great ability to emotionally regulate.”

Teaching neuroscience to kids isn’t quite as hard as it sounds — First, they’ll start with model that lets them learn each part of the brain and what it does.

In Nibarger’s class, it’s clear the teaching has taken hold. Her students use words and phrases like “neurons” and “brain trauma” in regular classroom conversation. On the day before spring break, she asked them to tell her what happens when you have “hidden anger.”

Almost immediately, one boy piped up. He said a lack of sleep can cause trauma in the brain that blocks synapses from firing, which mean the brain works more slowly. Another girl said keeping anger to yourself means you can’t connect well to your friends.

“If you don’t talk about it and get it out of your system, you get frustrated and isolated,” she said.

Aside from the three basic strategies of movement, time and breathing, Desautels encourages teachers to use “brain breaks” to keep kids from drifting off during class.

“The brain pays attention to novelty,” Desautels said. “It’s a good way to change up because the brain is lulled to sleep with routine.”

A brain break could be almost anything — kids can get up and balance on one foot or play coordination games that ask them to hold out both hands and switch between making an “L” with one hand and a Sign Language “I” with the other. Or, it can be chimes on the intercom to give children a moment of calm in the morning.

Using the brain breaks and attention exercises throughout the school day not only helps kids shake things up if they need to refocus, but they are strategies they can turn to in times of stress.

The approach isn’t magic — managing behavior can still be slow-going, Desautels said, especially if kids become aggressive and don’t yet trust their teachers.

One third-grade class she’s working in this year at Washington Township’s Greenbriar Elementary School is particularly challenging — many of the students come from low-income families, and some have parents in jail.

Sometimes, they’ll yell or swear or even knock over a desk. Desautels said that can be typical for students constantly living in a state of stress, but the class is making progress. She encourages teachers to carve out areas of their classrooms where kids can go to take a break and calm down. Teachers at the school are partnered with each other so they have extra hands if one needs to the leave the classroom with the student or contact a parent.

How to deal with frequently disruptive, or even violent, students is a question common to most all classroom management or discipline techniques. There isn’t an easy answer Desautels said — it takes time for teachers and students to build trust. Incorporating aspects of educational neuroscience can help ensure that when confrontation does happen, frustration and rash decisions aren’t king.

“For teachers who say it’s too gentle, I say absolutely not,” Desautels said. “What we have to do is set up those procedures and transitions and boundaries, and the hardest part is we have to stay connected emotionally to those students during the worst of conflicts.

And regardless of the particular field you’re in, Eliot said, that connection piece is paramount to success in the classroom.

“What we know about human brain function is that it can’t be divorced from social environment,” Eliot said. “The more teachers appreciate how crucial that is to have healthy positive, nurturing relationships and extensive bonding and connecting and mentoring of their students, the more successful they’ll be, the healthier their students will be and the better they’ll learn.”

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The surprising benefits of compassion meditation

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Stacey Colino, USNews: In recent years, mindfulness meditation has garnered loads of attention for its beneficial effects on the body and mind. Now, there’s a new star on the block: compassion meditation, a less well-known but increasingly popular contemplative practice that aims to strengthen feelings of compassion and empathy toward different people (both those you care about and those who are difficult).

“It’s deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy, which has taught us a lot about how people are connected and what is the purpose of our existence,” explains Stefan G. Hofmann, a professor of psychology in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University. “Compassion is the fundamental idea at the root of Buddhist philosophy – if life is suffering and we can’t avoid it, we need to embrace it and be compassionate toward the suffering of others. It brings us closer to others.”

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More than just a feel-good practice, compassion meditation leads to improved mood, more altruistic behavior, less anger, reduced stress and decreased maladaptive mind wandering, according to recent research. A 2013 study at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle found that practicing loving-kindness meditation (a form of compassion meditation) for 12 weeks reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as well as anger and depression among veterans with PTSD. A 2005 study from Duke University Medical Center found that practicing loving-kindness meditation for eight weeks reduced pain and psychological distress among patients with chronic low back pain. And a 2015 study from Brazil found that practicing yoga along with compassion meditation three times a week for eight weeks improved quality of life, vitality, attention and self-compassion among family caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. …

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It’s brain science: University fights binge drinking with meditation

Susan Donaldson James, NBCNews: A song by U2 blares from loudspeakers as Dr. James Hudziak tosses a brain-shaped football back and forth to students, calling them out by name as they file in to the University of Vermont lecture hall.

The neuroscience course, “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies,” is about to begin, first with meditation, then the latest research on the benefits of clean living.

The class is part of a pioneering program — Wellness Environment or WE, which is anchored in four pillars of health: exercise, nutrition, mindfulness and mentorship.

Last year, the university accepted 120 …

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Mindfulness meditation linked to the reduction of a key inflammation marker

Fiona MacDonald, Science Alert: Mindfulness meditation has been linked both to a whole lot of health benefits over the years, from altering cancer survivors’ cells to improving heart health. And while it sounds pretty new-age, research has shown that meditation really can change the shape, volume, and connectivity of our brains. But until now, no one’s known how those brain changes can impact our overall health.

Now new research could help explain that link between mind and body, with a study showing that stressed-out adults who practiced mindfulness meditation not only had their brain connectivity …

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Science and meditation: integrating a first-person experience into the scientific process

Marjorie Woollacott, Huffington Post: As a long time meditator and neuroscientist, my interest in the effect of meditation on brain function is both personal and professional. The benefits meditation has brought to my life mirror first-person accounts of other meditation practitioners–basically, a sense of greater peace and more joy.

In addition to being even-minded in the midst of life’s challenges, many meditators describe having experiences that might be called mystical–and not just in the state of meditation but also after their session of meditation has ended. Some individuals say that their …

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Optimizing your brain for happiness and effectiveness

Buddha portrait isolated on white

A huge amount of research over the last few years has shown more clearly what happens in the brain when we meditate, and how meditation benefits us. Meditation, for example,

  • Helps to slow down aging of the brain
  • Increases thickness in parts of the brain to do with memory and learning
  • Reduces mind-wandering and unhappiness
  • Increases the thickness of parts of the brain connected with emotional regulation
  • Improves concentration
  • Reduces our susceptibility to anxiety and depression
  • Helps us tolerate pain
  • Reduces feelings of isolation

It may seem rather staggering that one activity, or collection of related activities, can lead to such a varied range of benefits. It is clear in fact that meditation has not just one effect on the brain, but generally helps it to run optimally. Indeed, meditation could almost be defined as “a series of exercises that help us to optimize our brains.”

Neuroscience offers us a more precise way of talking about the mechanisms of meditation. For example, we can recognize that in meditating we are exercising and thickening the parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala, which is involved in generating anxiety, and thus encouraging the amygdala to shrink, leading to long-term changes in our emotional being. Some of our older ways of talking about experience, by contrast, are based on faulty metaphors. For example we used to talk as if emotions were like hydraulic fluids that would leak or burst out if we didn’t express them. This isn’t how the brain works! Neuroscience gives us more accurate metaphors and thus helps us to understand ourselves better.

Neuroscientists can actually see the changes I’ve described above taking place in the brain. Not only that, but they can see them happening over a timescale of a few weeks, rather than the years we might assume they might require. Most neuroscientific trials last only eight weeks. And in many of those trials, participants are meditating for an average of around 20 minutes. That isn’t a lot of time!

If you’re one of those people who assumes that somehow you’re not cut out for meditation, or believes that only certain people (the “spiritual” ones) will experience the kinds of benefits I’ve outlined, then perhaps you will find confidence in knowing that exercising the brain is, in many respects, exactly like exercising the body. Just as repeated physical exercise will inevitably promote muscle growth or flexibility, so repeated meditation will help promote brain growth and emotional resilience.

I’d like to add one caveat, which is that in talking about optimizing your brain I’m using a figure of speech known as a metonym. In metonymy, we use a part to represent a whole, or sometimes a whole to represent a part. So when we talk, for example, about combatting climate change in order to “save the planet,” we’re using a metonym. It’s not the planet we want to save, but the biosphere that lives on the planet. Similarly, when we talk about optimizing the brain, we really mean that we’re optimizing our entire being, or even our entire lives.

That’s what we’ll be exploring in these 28 days. We’ll be focusing on brain research and meditation in order to bring positive change in a number of aspects of our lives, including developing greater calmness and focus, enhancing our ability to experience happiness, boosting our creativity and intelligence, bringing into being greater interpersonal harmony, and cultivating insight.

We’ll be looking both at the theory and the practice of these activities. In terms of practice we’ll start today with a simple mindfulness meditation, a video of which you’ll find embedded below.

This post is extracted from our forthcoming 28-day online course, Optimize Your Brain: Awaken Your Full Potential With Meditation, which starts January 1. Click here for more details.

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Mindfulness meditation trumps placebo in pain reduction

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wildmind meditation news

Press release, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center: Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have found new evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain more effectively than placebo.

This is significant because placebo-controlled trials are the recognized standard for demonstrating the efficacy of clinical and pharmacological treatments.

The research, published in the Nov. 18 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation reported greater pain relief than placebo. Significantly, brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation produced very different patterns of activity than those produced by placebo to reduce pain.

“We were completely surprised by the findings,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study. “While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion.”

The study used a two-pronged approach – pain ratings and brain imaging – to determine whether mindfulness meditation is merely a placebo effect. Seventy-five healthy, pain-free participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or control.

Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants’ skin to 49 degrees Centigrade (120.2 degrees Fahrenheit), a level of heat most people find very painful. Study participants then rated pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response). The participants’ brains were scanned with arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) before and after their respective four-day group interventions.

The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and by 44 percent for the emotional aspect of pain. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.

“The MRI scans showed for the first time that mindfulness meditation produced patterns of brain activity that are different than those produced by the placebo cream,” Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).

Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation. The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9 percent) and pain unpleasantness (24 percent). The study findings suggest that placebo meditation may have reduced pain through a relaxation effect that was associated with slower breathing.

“This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation,” Zeidan said.

“Based on our findings, we believe that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting. However, given that the present study examined healthy, pain-free volunteers, we cannot generalize our findings to chronic pain patients at this time.”

###

This work was supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, R21-AT007247, F32-AT006949 and K99-AT008238; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NS239426; the Mind and Life Institute Francisco J. Varela Award; and the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine.

Co-authors are: Nichole M. Emerson, B.S., Suzan R. Farris, B.S., John G. McHaffie, Ph.D., and Youngkyoo Jung, Ph.D., of Wake Forest Baptist; Jenna N. Ray, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

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How meditation can reshape our brains

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s amazing brain scans show meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress.

Sara’s team at Harvard University uses neuroimaging techniques to study neurological, cognitive and emotional changes associated with the practice of meditation and yoga. They also incorporate measures of peripheral physiology (breathing, heart beat) in order to understand how meditation practice influences the brain-body interaction.

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