psychology and meditation

Marketing McMindfulness

wildmind meditation newsDouglas Todd, The Vancouver Sun: You suspect a trend has peaked when someone attaches to it the prefix, “Mc.” And it sticks. And that’s what has happened to the psycho-spiritual popularity of mindfulness, which has been a buzz word in liberal North American circles and psychology for at least a decade.

As the columns below attest, it’s not that mindfulness is a bad thing. It’s really just one technique for practising contemplation and meditation — of paying attention. And that’s been around forever — and not only in Buddhism, as many North American practitioners of mindfulness so often assertively suggest.

Contemplation has been …

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The dark knight of the soul

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Tomas Rocha, The Atlantic: For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why.

Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the …

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Bringing accountability to your practice

An older girl helping a younger girl with her reading.

I’m just getting over a bad habit relating to meditation that’s plagued me for over thirty years.

It was reading a blog post on developing good writing habits that helped me. The idea came from Brett Cooper who, like me, found that he tended to write in fits and starts, with long periods of non-writing, followed by spurts of intense production.

Two ideas came to his rescue. The first was that he realized he needed to establish “a small, non-threatening daily writing habit,” and that a goal of 100 words a day was innocuous enough to be doable.

The second idea was the realization that he needed accountability. Left to our own devices, it can be all too easy to let ourselves off too easily. So he found a friend who agreed to be his “100 words accountability partner.” The partner doesn’t have to comment on the writing or even read it. She just has to give Brett a hard time if she doesn’t receive at least 100 words of writing each day.

As it happens I had my writers’ group meeting the day after reading Brett’s article, and so I proposed that I undertook the same two practices. So two of the people in my group agreed to be my accountability partner, and I theirs. Now each of us is emailing the other two at least 100 words a day.

It’s worked great. 100 words is such a non-intimidating target that I find it easy to sit down to write, and I inevitably end up writing well over 100 words. At this rate I’ll be adding a chapter to my novel every two weeks or so. And this is after several months of producing nothing. It’s a big turn-around.

Now, when it comes to meditation, I’ve been meditating daily for a long time. I’ve hardly missed a day in the last two years or so. But my sits have at times become very short — sometimes just five or ten sleepy minutes at the end of the day. And although it’s better to do five or ten sleepy minutes than to do nothing, that’s far from ideal. Five minutes was supposed to be an emergency provision for those days when I genuinely didn’t have time for a longer sit, but it threatened to become my default. It’s as if I hit 100 words and then stopped in mid-sentence.

The bit that was missing from my meditation practice was accountability. This is where my long-standing bad meditation habit comes in; I’ve always resisted accountability.

I’ve often resisted meditating with others, or following set schedules, or even using apps like the Insight Timer, which announces to other app users how much meditation you’ve done. I think the reason I’ve resisted these things is that I’ve wanted to be sure that my desire to meditate was coming from me, and not from a desire to fit in, or to gain acceptance from others, or to show off. And while it’s good to want to meditate because it’s what I really want to do, I think that habit has long outlived its usefulness. It’s led to what’s almost a kind of secretiveness about how much meditation I’m doing, and that’s not good. Bad habits flourish in the dark.

So I decided that as well as my commitment to daily meditation practice (with an emergency fall-back position of five minutes a day) I needed a commitment to sharing what I do, so that I hold myself accountable. So on Wildmind’s community on Google+, I’ve been sharing how long I’ve been sitting, and what I’ve been doing.

This has already made a difference. When I meditate in the evening, which is often the first opportunity I have to meditate, I’m sitting earlier rather than later, when I’m often tired. I’m sitting for longer. And I’m being more mindful of the effort I make in my practice.

And the great thing is that I still have the feeling that I’m doing all this for me, not to please other people, so that fear has gone. I’m glad to have left that old habit in the past, where it belongs.

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Gratitude promotes patience

Woman pressing hands together in gesture of thanks.

I wasn’t surprised today to learn that a new study has found a connection between gratitude and patience. After all, if you value what you have, which is what gratitude accomplishes for us, then there’s less emotional need to go seeking something else.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School, looked specifically at financial impatience. Financial impatience is a well-known phenomenon where larger rewards in the future are considered less important than smaller rewards in the present.

Participants in the study chose between receiving a larger sum in the future, or a smaller sum now. The researchers used real money so that the participants would experience real motivation (and real impatience).

Before they made their choice, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups where they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel grateful, or happy, or neutral.

The neutral and happy groups showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, but those feeling grateful showed more patience. For example, grateful people required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition.

What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. The more grateful a participant felt after the writing exercise, the more likely they were to wait for the delayed reward.

Normally we think of the ability to delay gratification as a function of “willpower,” but in my view willpower is overrated. When I discovered how to get myself to meditate every day — something I’d struggled with for years — the solution had nothing to do with willpower. Instead, it was to do with how I saw myself. Similarly, this study had nothing to do with willpower.

To me it’s intuitively obvious that in a moment where we’re experiencing gratitude, and therefore value what we already have, we feel less need to have more, and so we’re prepared to wait for a benefit to arrive rather than grasp after it. Gratitude makes the present moment a rich experience, and so we have a reduced need to enrich ourselves right now.

The researchers point out that the implications of the study are profound, and that it could open the way to new therapeutic techniques to address human suffering.

Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration, said “Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”

Therapeutic techniques that borrowed from Buddhist practices started by tapping into teachings on mindfulness. But over time, mindfulness was seen not to be enough and so teachings on lovingkindness (metta) were increasingly incorporated. The current hot thing is compassion. It’ll be interesting to watch the addition of gratitude and appreciation (which in Buddhism are closely associated with the practice of mudita, or joyful appreciation) to therapists’ tool kits.

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Meditation as medicine?

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Business2Community.com: For centuries, people have meditated to gain deeper insight and wisdom about themselves and their lives. More recently, researchers have studied meditation to gain insight about its effect on psychological wellbeing. Can it help ease pain, depression, or anxiety? Does it relieve stress, improve mood and concentration, or short-circuit substance abuse? What is its effect on sleep and weight?

To find out exactly what meditation can and cannot do, Madhav Goya, M.D., M.P.H, assistant professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, conducted a review of the study literature to date. Dr. Goyal …

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The Mind, the Brain, and God – Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, we discussed the meaning of the words: mind; brain and God, and looked at the interdependence between the mind and the brain.

In this last part of the discussion we’ll examine the neural correlates and morality and summarize the discussion.

Do Neural Correlates Mean There’s No Soul?

The last sentence in the article on the NPR site really caught my eye: “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, [the scholar said], it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.”

First, to repeat the point made in the previous blog post, it’s simplistic to claim that morality has a “mechanical explanation”– in other words, that morality boils down to “just” the operations of the material (= mechanical) brain – simply because there are neural correlates to moral experience and action.

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Second, to the heart of the matter, the closing sentence refers to the view, held by different religions and philosophies, that the fundamental source of morality – and by extension, human goodness, compassion, altruism, kindness, etc. – is transcendental, such as a proposed soul, divine spark, or Mind of God. In the culture wars of the last few decades, studies on the neural substrates of the loftier realms of experience and behavior (including the one discussed here, on moral judgment) have been taken as evidence by some that we don’t need transcendental factors to account for those aspects of a human life – and by extension, that such transcendental factors do not exist: in other words, that “people do not have or need a soul.” Let’s try to unpack this.

Human psychology alone – without reference to transcendental factors – can fully account for morality, or it cannot. (And as we’ve seen, that psychology is inextricably intertwined with our neurology.) Separately, either there are transcendental factors or there are not. If we do not make the assumption that morality is based on God, then evidence that morality requires only a mind and brain is not evidence against the existence of God.

You see a similar fallacy in the cultural conflicts over the implications of biological evolution. If one believes that “God created Man,” then evidence that modern humans gradually evolved from hominid and primate ancestors sounds like an argument against the existence or importance of God. Those who think that evolution would somehow eliminate God consider evidence for it to be a kind of blasphemy, so some school boards have tried to slip creationism into science textbooks.

Yes, the evolutionary account of life on this planet does undermine the story of God the Creator in the book of Genesis, but that’s just one portrayal of the nature of God. Setting aside that particular portrayal leaves plenty of other ways that God could work in the world. Evidence that God did not create Man is not evidence that there is no God: in principle, God could exist and not have created Man. In other words, a reasonable person could believe both that evolution has unfolded without being guided by the hand of God and that God exists – and similarly believe that morality does not require God and that God exists. It is a category error, and a deeply unscientific one, to think that evidence for the neuropsychological substrates of morality is evidence against a soul (or against other transcendental factors).

In this light, one does not need to resist evidence for evolution, or for the neuropsychology of morality or spiritual experiences. This point has significant social implications, because the resistance to scientific findings out of a fear that they somehow challenge faith has dramatically lowered scientific literacy in America. For example, in the 2008, biannual survey by the National Science Board of scientific understanding, only 45% of respondents agreed that, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Th is percentage is much lower than in Japan (78%) , Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). Similarly, only 33% of those surveyed agreed that, “The universe began with a big explosion.”

Summing Up

To be clear: I am not asserting that there is or is not God; nor am I asserting that, if God exists, he/she/it/none-of-the-above plays a role in mind, consciousness, or morality. I am asserting that attempts to draw inferences from neuropsychology about God’s existence or role in human affairs are usually a waste of time. At most such inferences can refute a particular theory about God’s role in life – such as God is necessary for human morality, or for the existence of our species altogether. But that leaves all sorts of other theories about God that are not yet disproved – as well as the fundamental matter that God is by definition categorically outside the realm of proofs or disproofs within the material universe.

God may or may not exist. You have to find your own beliefs in that regard – and brain science will not help you.

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The Mind, the Brain and God – Part II

In Part I we discussed the meaning of the words mind, brain and God and saw how the mind and the brain are interdependent.

In this segment we’ll go into the popular arguments for and against God and further into the link between the mind and the brain.

Proofs and Disproofs

Lately, numerous authors have tried to rebut beliefs in God (e.g., The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins), while others have tried to rebut the rebuttals (e.g., Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case against God). The intensity of these debates is often startling; people commonly talk past each other, arguing at different levels; and the “evidence” marshaled for one view or another is often hollow. (A delightful exception is the dialogue between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris.)

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For example, it’s an error to conflate religion and God. Whether religions are wonderful or horrible or both is not evidence for or against the existence of God. Critiques of religion (e.g., the Crusades, fundamentalism) are not disproofs of God. It’s also an error to think that biological evolution is evidence for the nonexistence of God. Just because a creation story developed thousands of years ago turns out to be inaccurate does not mean that God does not exist. Evolution does not need to be attacked in order to have faith in God.

Then there are so-called proofs of the existence of God within the material universe (e.g., burning bushes, miracles, visions, psychic phenomena). But that “evidence” must be experienced via the brain and mind. Therefore, in principle, that experience could simply be produced by the mind/brain alone, without divine intervention. (You could assert that God is known by some transcendental faculty outside of materiality, but then you’d still have to explain how the knowing achieved by that transcendental faculty is communicated to the material brain, so you are back to the original problem, that the ordinary brain could be making up information purportedly derived from a transcendental source.) So you can’t prove the existence of the transcendental through material evidence.

On the other hand, since any God by definition extends beyond the frame of materiality, nothing in the material universe can disprove its existence. You could endlessly rebut apparent evidence for the existence of God, but those rebuttals can not in themselves demonstrate that God is a fiction. At most, they can only eliminate a piece of apparent evidence, but in terms of ultimate conclusions, so what? As scientists say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Further, a God outside the frame of materiality (particularly a playful one) could amuse herself by fostering rebuttals of seeming evidence for her existence in order to bug some people and test the faith of others: who knows? Most anything could be possible for a transcendental being, ground, something-or-other.

Bottom-line: You can’t prove or disprove the existence of God. So the fundamentally scientific attitude is to acknowledge the possibility of God, and then move on to working within the frame of science, which is plenty fertile as is, without resorting to God.

Let’s explore an illustration of how these issues often play out in the media.

Is the Mind “Just” the Brain?

Recently a friend sent me an article on the National Public Radio (NPR) website, titled “Study Narrows Gap between Mind and Brain,” about some new research. The investigators had found that suppressing neural activity in a part of the brain (on the right side, near where the temporal and parietal lobes come together) changed the way that subjects made moral judgments: they became less able to take the intentions of others into account.

The study itself is interesting, and takes its place in a growing body of research on the neuropsychology of moral reasoning and behavior. But the article about it on the NPR site contains comments from a scholar from a leading university that are worth examining. He is initially quoted as saying: “Moral judgment is just a brain process.” Hmm. What does the “just” mean? He could have said something like, “Moral judgment involves processes in the brain,” but instead he seemed to assert that the psychological subtleties of ethics, altruism, hypocrisy, and integrity, are just epiphenomena of the brain. Whether this is exactly what he meant or not, let’s consider this idea in its own right: that our thoughts and feelings, longings and fears, and subtle moral or spiritual intimations are “just” the movements of the meat, to put it bluntly,between the ears. This is a common notion these days, but there are numerous problems with it.

First, neural processes certainly do underlie mental processes. For example, as the study showed, normal right temporal-parietal function underlies reflections about the intentions of others in moral reasoning. But those neural activities are in the service of mental ones. That’s their point. We evolved neural structures and processes in order to further psychological adaptations that conferred reproductive advantages, which is the engine of biological evolution. Mind is not an epiphenomenon of brain: mind is the function of the brain, its reason for existence.

Second, mental processes pattern neural structure. Morality-related information – in other words, mental activity – has shaped the brain of each person since early childhood. As Dan Siegel puts it, the mind uses the brain to make the mind. In a basic sense, it would be just as accurate to say that “the brain is just the mind writ in neural tissues.”

Third, the neural substrates of conscious mental activity are continually changing in their physical details (e.g., neurons involved in a substrate, connections among them, and neurochemical flows). This means that the thought “2 + 2 = 4” on Monday maps to a different neural substrate than it does on Tuesday; in fact, that math fact would have a different substrate if you re-thought it only a few seconds later on Monday! Similarly, reflections on the Golden Rule on Monday will have a different neural substrate than on Tuesday. Consequently, it is the meaning of the thought that is fundamental, not its neural substrate. Taking this a step further, the ideas that two and two are four, or that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, can be represented in many sorts of physical substrates, including marks on a page, patterns of sound waves, and magnetic charges on a computer hard drive. Here, too, it is the information, the meaning, that is the key matter, and the physical substrate, whether brain or something else, recedes in significance.

Fourth, and most fundamentally, the mind and the brain co-dependently arise. It’s kind of
silly to make one causally senior to the other. Psychology shapes neurology shapes psychology shapes neurology, and so on. These two are distinct – immaterial information is not material neural tissues – but they are also interdependent and cannot be understood apart from each other. There is indeed a dualism between mind and matter, but they also form one coherent system. When people try to de-link mind and brain, and then argue that one rather than the other is primary – The mind is really just the brain at work! or The brain is really just the mind at work! – there is usually some sort of agenda going on: typically either an attempt to argue a strongly materialist, even atheist view, or to argue a fundamentalist spiritual view. But arguments about the primacy of either mind or brain are just not productive: all they produce is smoke and heat, but no light.

In the last part of this series we’ll discuss neural correlates and morality and summarize this discussion.

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Mindfulness meditation may improve decision making

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Anna Mikulak, Association for Psychological Science: One 15-minute focused-breathing meditation may help people make smarter choices, according to new research from researchers at INSEAD and The Wharton School. The findings are published in the February issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

People have trouble cutting their losses: They hold on to losing stocks too long, they stay in bad relationships, and they continue to eat large restaurant meals even when they’re full. This behavior, often described as “throwing good money after bad,” is driven by what behavioral scientists call the “sunk-cost bias”:

“Most people have trouble admitting they were wrong when their initial decisions lead to undesirable outcomes,” says researcher Andrew Hafenbrack, lead author on the new research and doctoral candidate at INSEAD. “They don’t want to feel wasteful or that their initial investment was a loss. Ironically, this kind of thinking often causes people to waste or lose more resources in an attempt to regain their initial investment or try to ‘break even.’”
Across a series of studies, Hafenbrack and co-authors found that mindfulness meditation, which cultivates awareness of the present moment and clears the mind of other thoughts, may help to counteract this deep-rooted bias.

“We found that a brief period of mindfulness meditation can encourage people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment, while ignoring some of the other concerns that typically exacerbate the ‘sunk cost bias,’” explains Hafenbrack.

In collaboration with Zoe Kinias, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, and Sigal Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Hafenbrack conducted four studies to test the idea that mindfulness meditation could improve decision-making by increasing resistance to the sunk-cost bias.

In one online study, American participants reported about how much they typically focus on the present moment, and also read 10 sunk-cost scenarios — such as whether to attend a music festival that had been paid for when illness and bad weather made enjoyment unlikely — and then reported how much they would let go of sunk costs in each of them. The results revealed that the more people typically focused on the present moment, the more they reported that they would ignore sunk costs.

To test whether mindfulness caused an increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias, the researchers conducted an additional three experiments. In each, participants listened to a 15-minute recording made by a professional mindfulness coach. For one group of participants, the recording led them through a focused-breathing meditation that repeatedly instructed them to focus on the sensations of breathing. The other group of participants listened to a recording that asked them to think of whatever comes to mind, a practice that is not a form of meditation. Participants then responded to sunk-cost scenario questions. In the final study, participants also answered questions about the time period on which they focused – that is present, past, or future – and the emotions they experienced.

The results show that mindfulness meditation increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias in each of the three experiments.

“The debiasing effect of mindfulness meditation in sunk-cost situations was due to a two-step process,” said co-author Zoe Kinias. “First, meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion. The reduced negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.”

“This tool is very practical,” said co-author Sigal Barsade. “Our findings hold great promise for research on how mindfulness can influence emotions and behavior, and how employees can use it to feel and perform better.”

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Separating feelings and thoughts

Partly opened zipper

One of the participants in our current 28 Day meditation challenge reported that she was experiencing stress because of a new job.

New jobs can be very challenging and bring up a lot of self doubt. I remember that well.

She talked about “feelings of inadequacy and uselessness,” and I could instantly see a practice that would help her deal with the challenges of her new job. The practice is to distinguish between feelings and thoughts.

From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, inadequacy and uselessness are not feelings. Actual feelings that we might experience in a challenging new job include anxiety, or fear, or confusion. “I am inadequate” and “I am useless” are thoughts. They are interpretations based on our feelings.

“Inadequacy” and “uselessness” are stories that we develop in order to make sense of the feelings of anxiety, confusion, etc. that we’re experiencing. Buddhism calls this prapañca, or “proliferation.” Prapañca increases our suffering.

We’re always trying to come up with stories that “explain” what’s going on in our lives. Stories like “I am inadequate” or “I am useless” serve to intensify our fear and confusion because we’ve “explained” our feelings by creating a story in which there’s something wrong with us that makes us incapable of dealing with the job. But these so-called explanations of why the job’s stressful just make us feel even worse.

The practice here is to separate our feelings from our stories. So we can feel anxiety or confusion but not create stories around them. Or if stories arise automatically (“I can’t do this, I’m useless”) we can acknowledge them and recognize that they’re just stories, and not facts. We let go of the stories, and just return our attention to our present-moment experience.

And having chosen to let go of our stories, we’re free to have other responses to our feelings, like regarding our discomfort with compassion. We can acknowledge our difficult feelings and accept them as a normal part of the learning process; if you’re stretching yourself to take on new capabilities, then of course you’re going to be confused at times, and of course you’re going to feel uncomfortable. We can share with other people how we’re feeling so that we don’t feel ashamed and don’t have to pretend that we understand when in fact we don’t. (Honesty is less stress-inducing than dishonesty, in most cases.)

Separating feelings and thoughts in this way is a key part of Buddhist practice, and it’s a very powerful tool.

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Drop the “only”

People who are reporting on how they’re getting on with learning meditation often say they meditated, but it was “only” for 20 minutes or “only” for 15 minutes.

I’ve said similar things myself. But that word “only” bothers me. The word “only” is a great way of taking something you’ve done that’s good and making yourself feeling bad about it. Compare “I exercised three days this week” and “I only exercised three days this week.” Or “I gave $10 to charity” and “I only gave $10 to charity.”

You see how without the word “only” there’s a simple statement of fact, but it’s a statement that you can feel pleased about. And well you should. Exercising three times in a week (or even one time in a week) is great! Giving $10 to charity is great! And yes, meditating for 20 minutes or 15 minutes is great.

Add the word “only” and you feel bad, as if you’d done something wrong. It’s as if it’s bad to exercise, or to give money to charity, or to meditate. And if you feel bad about doing these things, how likely are you to want to continue with them?

When we’re saying we “only” did such-and-such an amount of meditation, we’re implicitly saying that there’s some amount (more than we did) that’s acceptable. And of course we didn’t reach that acceptable level.

Well, sure, meditating for 30 minutes, all other things being equal, is better than meditating for 15 minutes. But if we’re doing 30 minutes of meditation instead of 15 minutes, we’re not going from “bad” to good” but from “good” to better.”

Those 15 minutes (if that’s what you did) are way better than doing no meditation. And that’s what we need to remember. Any amount of meditation is a lot better than no meditation. So compare what you did with that, rather than some mythical amount of meditation that you didn’t do.

So I’d suggest that you watch out for that “only” and instead rejoice. Rejoice that you meditate at all. You’ll be far more likely to establish a solid meditation practice if you rejoice in doing 10 minutes than if you castigate yourself for only doing 20.

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