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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

01 OCTOBER, 2014

Pioneering Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Art as a Mode of Knowing and Its Four Psychological Aspects

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“Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences.”

The question of what art is has been asked and answered at least since we dwelled in caves. Every era has produced a crop of memorable answers from its greatest minds. Oscar Wilde pointed to the “temperament of receptivity” as the secret of art, Leo Tolstoy championed its “emotional infectiousness,” Susan Sontag saw it as “a form of consciousness,” and Alain de Botton considers it therapy of the soul. But one of the most insightful and dimensional explorations of the function of art in human culture comes from legendary Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), whose influential and enduring contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory remain unparalleled.

In an essay titled “Art as a Mode of Knowing,” found in his altogether fantastic 1962 essay collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — which also gave us Bruner on “effective surprise” and the six essential conditions for creativity and myth, identity, and “creative wholeness” — Bruner considers the unique language of art and how it complements that of science. He outlines the four psychological aspects of the art experience — connectedness, which deals with the reward of grasping the essential ideas a work of art communicates; effort, which we exert to draw meaning from the ambiguity of art; conversion of impulse, which makes an object of beauty move us; and generality, which deals with the universal aspects of what we find beautiful and moving.

Bruner begins with connectedness, which thrives on our sense of “unfilled possibilities for experience”:

Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences. Perhaps these gaps are the products of reflection or at least its fruits… Science, by reducing the need for empiricism with its statement of general laws, fills these gaps only partly… The general scientific law, for all its beauty, leaves the interstices as yearningly empty as before.

Our effort to bridge these gaps, Bruner argues, is driven by two psychological processes — the creation of effective, economical symbols and the construction of categories of possibility, which we fill with our specific experiences as they unfold. The latter, he points out, is common to both art and science. He illustrates these categories of possibility with an example from the history of particle physics:

The neutrino is created as a fruitful fiction. And in time the neutrino is found.

But the parallel in art, Bruner notes, is often driven by metaphor rather than strict logic, which circles back to the first psychological mechanism of connectedness, the use of symbolism:

Metaphor joins dissimilar experiences by finding the image or the symbol that unites them at some deeper emotional level of meaning. Its effect depends upon its capacity for getting past the literal mode of connecting, and the unsuccessful metaphor is one that either fails in finding the image or gets caught in the meshes of literalness.

Metaphorical thinking, as psychologists have found in the half-century since Bruner’s writing, is central to the development of human imagination. And yet, Bruner cautions, not all metaphorical thinking is created equal in terms of serving this function of connectedness in the experience of art:

There is more to the metaphor of art than mere emotional connectedness. There is also the canon of economy that must operate, a canon that distinguishes the artfully metaphoric from that which is only floridly arty or simply “offbeat.”

The economy of metaphor, Bruner argues, helps mitigate the often paralyzing mismatch between what there is to be known and what we can possibly know — something our minds automatically address by narrowing our attention into an “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” and flattening dimensional identity groups into imprisoning stereotypes. Bruner writes:

There is, perhaps, one universal truth about all forms of human cognition: the ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man’s environment. To cope with this diversity, man’s perceptions, his memory, and his thought processes early become governed by strategies for protecting his limited capacities from the confusion of overloading. We tend to perceive things schematically, for example, rather than in detail, or we represent a class of diverse things by some sort of averaged “typical instance.” The corresponding principle of economy in art produces the compact image or symbol that, by its genesis, travels great distances to connect ostensible disparities.

Art by Sydney Pink from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

This world of metaphor, Bruner argues, reveals the “primitive similarity” between the modes of connecting in art and science:

The prescientific effort to construct a fruitful hypothesis may indeed be the place where the art of science, like all other art forms, operates by the law of economical metaphor. May it not be that without the myth of Sisyphus, forever pushing his rock up the hill, the concept of the asymptote in mathematics would be less readily grasped? What is Heraclitus’ account but a giant metaphor on instability? He gropes for a picture of the universe. And so it is at the beginnings of insight.

He speaks to the power of intuition in science, something a number of notable scientists have championed as essential to creativity in scientific discovery. Bruner writes:

As Bertrand Russell comments, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” And until they are “discovered” in this more rigorous sense, one proceeds by intuition and metaphor, hoping to be led beyond to a new rigor. Until then, the economical combings of the scientist and the artist share far more than we are often prepared to admit.

Bruner moves on to the second pillar of the art experience, effort, which “consists in departing from the habitual and literal ways of looking, hearing, and understanding in order to resolve the ambiguity that is a feature of works of art.” He explains:

In a deeper sense, it is the effort to make a new connection between different perspectives.

Interestingly, the “the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things,” or what Einstein called “combinatory play” and Arthur Koestler termed “bisociation,” is a defining characteristic of creativity — but Bruner finds in it a symmetry between what it takes to create art and what it takes to enjoy it:

What one feels is the effort to connect. It is not only for the creation of a work of art that one should use the expression unitas multiplex [unity of diversity], but for the experience of knowing it as well.

We’re willing to undertake that effort in the first place, he argues, because it generates a certain momentum of self-refinement:

Perhaps the effort of beholding art is its own reward, or the reward is the achievement of unity of experience, which is to say that it develops on itself. Taste begets better taste. Listen to enough Dvorak and a taste for Beethoven or Wagner will develop.

The amount and nature of the effort, Bruner suggests, is where the distinction between art and entertainment — something David Foster Wallace memorably considered — lies. Playing off Graham Greene’s distinction between his “novels” and his “entertainments,” Bruner looks at the contrast between the beautiful and the merely decorative through the lens of this effort to connect:

Creating new unities is not all the work. There is also control and conversion of the impulses that are aroused in the experience of art, the exercises of restraint that permit the reader to maintain a distance from the hero of a novel and the play-goer to remain on his side of the proscenium arch. Here … the distinction between the decorative and the beautiful is useful. For the decorative achieves its restfulness by permitting us to remain uninvolved, untempted. Indeed, an essay remains to be written on the defense against beauty, about those who, in the face of the awesomeness of a Gothic cathedral, can remain unshaken and find what they behold merely pleasing.

Bruner turns to the third aspect of the art experience, conversion of impulse. Noting that any impulse can be turned into art, Bruner echoes both Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and Wilde’s of psychological “receptivity” as he considers how the conversion of that impulse bridges artist and beholder:

It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in each case that the impulse be held in check and converted from its original form. It is equally true that the successful beholding of a work of art involves a comparable act of containing impulses that have been aroused. It is not necessary that there be a concordance in the impulse of the creator and the beholder, and, for our purposes, the matter of communicating an impulse from creator to receiver is not at issue.

Two types of cognitive activity propel the actual conversion of the impulse:

One is at the center of awareness as desire: it is directed toward achieving an end and is specialized to the task of finding means. The other is at the fringes of awareness, a flow of rich and surprising fantasy, a tangled reticle of associations that gives fleeting glimpses of past occasions, of disappointments and triumphs, of pleasures and unpleasures.

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes from his most revealing interview. Click image for more.

The latter, Bruner points out, is the stuff of James Joyce’s famous stream-of-consciousness writing and it was precisely Joyce’s ability to communicate this “scarcely expressible fringe” that makes us celebrate him as a true master of literary art. Such elegant merging of streams fueled by diverse impulses, Bruner argues, is the key to the power of art as a mode of knowing the world and ourselves:

At this level, thinking is more symphonic than logical, one theme suggesting the next by a rule of letting parts stand for wholes. Where art achieves its genius is in providing an image or a symbol whereby the fusion can be comprehended and bound.

In short, the conversion of impulse into the experience of art comes from the creation of a stream of metaphoric activity and the restraining of any direct striving for ends. In essence, the connecting of experience is given its first impetus by the simultaneous presence of several such streams of fringe-association. It is the formal artifice of the work of art itself, the genius of its economical imagery, that makes possible the final fusing of these inner experiences. The process … requires work from the beholder. Beholding an art object in a manner that may be called knowing is not a passive act. But when the beholder stops beholding, when there is too much involvement with the figures in a canvas, there is an end to the conversion of impulse, distance is lost, and in place of the experience of art there is either a daydream or merely action.

With this, Bruner arrives at the final psychological aspect of beholding art, generality, returning to those lonely gaps in our experience and revisiting the parallels and contrasts between art and science as sensemaking mechanisms:

Any idea, any construct or metaphor, has its range of convenience or its “fit” to experience, and this is one feature that art and science as modes of knowing share deeply… Our techniques for finding out about the range of convenience of ideas in science are rather straightforward, though it requires much ingenuity at times to devise operational techniques for verification. There is no direct analogue of verification in the experience of art. In its place, there is a “shock of recognition,” a recognition of the fittingness of an object or a poem to fill the gaps in our own experience. In this sense, and it is a limited sense, we may say that art is not a universal mode of communication, for each man who beholds a picture or reads a poem will bring to the experience a matrix of life that is uniquely his own.

Chauvet cave drawings from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

And yet there is a deeper, more immutable universality to the experience of art — a work of art, Bruner argues, is scarcely “a function entirely of time, place, and condition,” for if this were the case, such ancient masterworks as the cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux or Altamira would leave us cold, failing to produce the “shock of recognition” that they still do. Bruner speaks to this universality:

There are features of the human condition that change only within narrow limits whether one be a cave dweller, a don in medieval Oxford, or a Left Bank expatriate of the 1920s: love, birth, hate, death, passion, and decorum persist as problems without unique solution.

Can it ever be said, then, that life imitates art? If so, then art is the furthest reach of communication. There are perhaps two ways that are somewhat more than trivial. One is the effect of art in freeing us from the forms of instrumental knowing that comprise the center of our awareness; from the tendency to say that this figure here represents Christ, that over there is an apple; apples are good for eating, Christ for worshipping or admiring. When we see the possibility of connecting in internal experience, we strive to recreate it and to live it.

But life imitates art in another, arguably even more important sense:

The experience of art nourishes itself, so that having sensed connectedness one is impelled to seek more of it.

Bruner concludes by returning to the yin-yang of art and science:

The intent of the scientist is to create rational structures and general laws that, in the mathematical sense, predict the observations one would be forced to make if one were without the general laws… Governed by principles of strict logical implication… prediction becomes more and more complete, leading eventually to the derivation of possible observations that one might not have made but for the existence of the general theory. Surely, then, science increases the unity of our experience of nature. That is the hallmark of the way of knowing called science.

Art as a form of knowing does not and cannot strive for such a form of unification. In its most refined form, the myth of Sisyphus is not the concept of the mathematical asymptote. The elegant rationality of science and the metaphoric nonrationality of art operate with deeply different grammars: perhaps they even represent a profound complementarity. For, in the experience of art, we connect by a grammar of metaphor, one that defies the rational methods of the linguist and the psychologist. There has been progress in interpreting the metaphoric transformation of dreams, rendering the latent meaning from the manifest content, progress to which Freud contributed so greatly. Yet to interpret a dream as “a wish to be loved by one’s rejecting mother” or to interpret Marlow’s pursuit of Kurtz at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a man pursuing a bride, neither of these exercises, however revealing, catches fully the nature of metaphor. What is lost in such translations is the very fullness of the connection produced by the experience of art itself.

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is remarkably insightful and wide-ranging in its entirety, exploring such aspects of the human quest for knowledge as the act of discovery, the notion of fate, the role of identity in creativity, and more. Complement this particular excerpt with a contemporary look at the seven psychological functions of art.

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29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Sam Harris on the Paradox of Meditation and How to Stretch Our Capacity for Everyday Self-Transcendence

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“Positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

Montaigne believed that meditation is the finest exercise of one’s mind and David Lynch uses it as an anchor of his creative integrity. Over the centuries, the ancient Eastern practice has had a variety of exports and permutations in the West, but at no point has it been more vital to our sanity and psychoemotional survival than amidst our current epidemic of hurrying and cult of productivity. It is remarkable how much we, as a culture, invest in the fitness of the body and how little, by and large, in the fitness of the spirit and the psyche — which is essentially what meditation provides.

In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library), neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris argued that cultivating the art of presence is our greatest gateway to true happiness. After his extensive, decades-long empirical romp through the world’s major religious traditions and humanity’s most potent psychedelic substances, Harris returns again and again to meditation as the holy grail of self-transcendence, the single most promising practice for slicing through the illusion of the ego to reveal what Jack Kerouac so memorably called “the Golden Eternity.”

Harris writes:

Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

We know that the self is a social construct and the dissolution of its illusion, Harris argues, is the most valuable gift of meditation:

The conventional sense of self is an illusion [and] spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

[…]

The feeling that we call “I” seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will. And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.

Such abolition may seem unnerving in the context of personal identity, something to which we are invariably attached, but as soon as we begin to understand just how mutable that identity is, dissolving the self illusion becomes not a punishing negation of free will but a promise of freedom. Harris writes:

The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment — the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists — perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein — you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found — and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.

And yet, and yet, this is where the essential paradox of meditation arises — if meditation is about cultivating the capacity to accept the present moment exactly as it is, then the notion of a meditation practice or of mindfulness training, which implies progress toward a future goal, seems at odds with the very concept of such pure presence. Harris captures this elegantly:

We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved. But here lies one of the central paradoxes of spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present. As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self — and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.

The solution to the paradox, Harris suggests, is in approaching mindfulness not as a compulsively productive practice of self-improvement — there is the “self” creeping up again — but as a state of active presence with everyday life:

The ultimate wisdom of enlightenment, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.

He cautions against treating meditation as another to-do item:

Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize.

Reflecting on his training with the Burmese spiritual master Sayadaw U Pandita, who teaches meditation as an “explicitly goal-oriented” practice — mindfulness is approached not as freedom from the self illusion in the present moment but as a means of attaining the “cessation” of that illusion in the future — Harris writes:

[This approach] encourages confusion at the outset regarding the nature of the problem one is trying to solve. It is true, however, that striving toward the distant goal of enlightenment (as well as the nearer goal of cessation) can lead one to practice with an intensity that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. I never made more effort than I did when practicing under U Pandita. But most of this effort arose from the very illusion of bondage to the self that I was seeking to overcome. The model of this practice is that one must climb the mountain so that freedom can be found at the top. But the self is already an illusion, and that truth can be glimpsed directly, at the mountain’s base or anywhere else along the path. One can then return to this insight, again and again, as one’s sole method of meditation — thereby arriving at the goal in each moment of actual practice.

Despite the paradoxes of the practice, however, Harris considers it our most promising access point to a fulfilling spiritual life:

It is very difficult to imagine someone’s not being able to see her reflection in a window even after years of looking — but that is what happens when a person begins most forms of spiritual practice. Most techniques of meditation are, in essence, elaborate ways for looking through the window in the hope that if one only sees the world in greater detail, an image of one’s true face will eventually appear. Imagine a teaching like this: If you just focus on the trees swaying outside the window without distraction, you will see your true face. Undoubtedly, such an instruction would be an obstacle to seeing what could otherwise be seen directly. Almost everything that has been said or written about spiritual practice, even most of the teachings one finds in Buddhism, directs a person’s gaze to the world beyond the glass, thereby confusing matters from the very beginning.

But one must start somewhere. And the truth is that most people are simply too distracted by their thoughts to have the selflessness of consciousness pointed out directly. And even if they are ready to glimpse it, they are unlikely to understand its significance.

Harris reframes the paradox with an admonition and an assurance:

Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity. However, it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy — while covertly hoping that they will go away — and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness. Only the latter gesture opens the door to wisdom and lasting change. The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.

[…]

Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations — changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world — but it also allows a person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.

In a conversation with Tim Ferriss on the altogether excellent The Tim Ferriss Show, Harris argues that the mindfulness meditation cultivates — a quality of mind that allows you to pay attention to whatever arises without being lost in thought — is the most useful way to explore the phenomenon of self-transcendence “without believing anything on insufficient evidence.” He adds:

The human nervous system is plastic in a very important way — which means your experience of the world can be radically transformed. You are tending who you were yesterday by virtue of various habit patterns and physiological homeostasis and other things that are keeping you very recognizable to yourself, but it’s possible to have a very different experience… It’s possible to do it through a deliberate form of training, like meditation, and I think it’s crucial to do — because we all want to be as happy and as fulfilled and as free of pointless suffering as can possibly be. And all of our suffering, and all of our unhappiness, is a product of how our minds are in every moment. So if there’s a way to use the mind itself to improve one’s capacity for moment-to-moment wellbeing — which I’m convinced there is — then this should be potentially of interest to everybody.

Milton, it turns out, was not only philosophically but also neuropsychologically right when he penned his famous verse: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

If you are looking for a good place to start with meditation, or would like slow-burning fuel for your existing practice, I highly recommend Tara Brach, who has truly transformed my life — her teachings and guided meditations are available as a reliably excellent free podcast, and her four-part primer on meditation is indispensable for beginners. (If you are moved and enriched by her generously offered free teachings, consider making a donation — Brach’s work, like my own, is supported by direct patronage, and I am a proud monthly donor.)

Harris has also written about how to begin a meditation practice himself.

Waking Up, which you can sample further here, is a superb read in its entirety, quite possibly the best thing written on this ecosystem of spiritual subjects since Alan Watts’s treatise on the taboo against knowing who you really are.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Art of Timing: Alan Watts on the Perils of Hurrying and the Pleasures of Presence

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“For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing.”

Among the things that made British philosopher Alan Watts not only the pioneer of Zen teachings in the West but also an enduring sage of the ages was his ability to call out our culture’s chronic tendency to confuse things of substance with their simulacra. Watts had a singular way of dispersing our illusory convictions about such pairings, whether he addressed belief vs. faith or money vs. wealth or productivity vs. presence or ego vs. true self or stimulation vs. wisdom or profit vs. purpose.

In one particularly poignant passage in his altogether soul-expanding 1970 anthology Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality (public library), Watts considers another such infinitely important duality — the notions of hurrying and timing.

Echoing Seneca’s ideas about busyness and Bertrand Russell’s famous lament“What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — Watts considers how we cheat ourselves of the joys of the present moment by grasping after the potential rewards of the future:

Just exactly what is the “good” to which we aspire through doing and eating things that are supposed to be good for us? This question is strictly taboo, for if it were seriously investigated the whole economy and social order would fall apart and have to be reorganized. It would be like the donkey finding out that the carrot dangled before him, to make him run, is hitched by a stick to his own collar. For the good to which we aspire exists only and always in the future. Because we cannot relate to the sensuous and material present we are most happy when good things are expected to happen, not when they are happening. We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come. We are therefore a civilization which suffers from chronic disappointment — a formidable swarm of spoiled children smashing their toys.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s thoughts on rhythm, Watts speaks to our one saving grace in countering the momentum of this headfirst rush toward disappointment:

There is indeed such a thing as “timing” — the art of mastering rhythm — but timing and hurrying are … mutually exclusive.

Much of our perilous hurrying, Watts argues, comes from the tyranny of the clock — a paradoxical pathology all the more anguishing given how relative and elastic time actually is. Watts writes:

Clock time is merely a method of measurement held in common by all civilized societies, and has the same kind of reality (or unreality) as the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude. The equator is useless for stringing a rolled roast. To judge by the clock, the present moment is nothing but a hairline which, ideally, should have no width at all — except that it would then be invisible. If you are bewitched by the clock you will therefore have no present. “Now” will be no more than the geometrical point at which the future becomes the past. But if you sense and feel the world materially, you will discover that there never is, or was, or will be anything except the present.

Presence, of course, is essential to our ability to experience the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow, something Watts captures unambiguously:

For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.

Does It Matter? is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Watts on how to live with presence, Sam Harris on cultivating mindful living, and Frank Partnoy on the art of waiting, then revisit Annie Dillard’s ever-timely reminder that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

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