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Marilynne Robinson on the Humanities, the Limits of Neuroscience, and the Usefulness of the Soul as a Sensemaking Mechanism for Reality

“A great deal depends, perhaps our humanity depends, on our sensing and acknowledging that quality in our kind we call the soul.”

Marilynne Robinson on the Humanities, the Limits of Neuroscience, and the Usefulness of the Soul as a Sensemaking Mechanism for Reality

“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul,” Willa Cather wrote as she turned her life around to become a writer. But what is the soul, really, and dare we talk of saving it? Over the past century, the effort to salvage the soul from its religious connotations and reclaim it as a useful humanistic concept in a secular context has only rendered it a polarizing term of equal parts aversion and allure. The more we enlist our tools of inquiry in solving the perennial puzzles of consciousness and the self, the more disquieted we are by how the soul continues to feed us mystery as we hunger for knowledge and certainty.

Virginia Woolf captured this paradoxical pull perfectly when she observed: “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet look we do, pointing our keenest probes in its direction, hoping to localize it and dissect its nature. We fail and stumble and try again, our powers and our limitations locked in an abiding tango.

No one has examined this strange and profoundly human dance more insightfully and beautifully than Pulitzer-winning writer Marilynne Robinson in The Givenness of Things: Essays (public library).

Marilynne Robinson by Danny Wilcox Frazier

In the opening essay, titled “Humanism,” Robinson laments how the “joyless urgency” of our time has dehumanized the spirit by sidelining the humanities. She points to a counterintuitive remedy:

The antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science. This may seem an improbable stance from which to defend the humanities, and I do not wish to undervalue contemporary art or literature or music or philosophy. But it is difficult to recognize the genius of a period until it has passed. Milton, Bach, Mozart all suffered long periods of eclipse, beginning before their lives had ended. Our politics may appear in the light of history to have been filled with triumphs of statecraft, unlikely as this seems to us now. Science, on the other hand, can assert credible achievements and insights, however tentative, in present time.

But science, Robinson cautions, is susceptible to the same delusion of omniscience that has traditionally bedeviled religious dogma. Half a century after Henry Beston’s exquisite meditation on the limits of science, Robinson calls out one particularly prominent area where our voraciousness for knowledge is blinding us to the many dimensions of the unknowable:

Neuroscience has, as its primary resource, technology that captures images of processes within the living brain. Fear lights up a certain area, therefore fear is a function of that area, which developed for the purposes of maintaining homeostasis. It prepares the organism to fight or flee. Well and good. But fear is rarely without context. People can be terrified of spiders, dentists, the Last Judgment, germs, the need to speak in public, thirteen, extraterrestrials, mathematics, hoodies, the discovery of a fraud in their past. All of these fears are the creatures of circumstance, of the history and state of health of a specific brain. They identify threat, interpreting an environment in highly individual terms. They, not threat in the abstract, trigger alarm, and they are the products of parts of the brain that do not light up under technological scrutiny and would elude interpretation if they did. If they are not taken into account, the mere evidence of an excitation has little descriptive and no predictive value. A fearful person might take a pill, faint, or commit mayhem. The assumptions behind the notion that the nature of fear and the impulses it triggers could be made legible or generalizable for the purposes of imaging would have to exclude complexity—the factor that introduces individuality with all its attendant mysteries…

This all appears to be a straightforward instance of scientists taking as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report. These methods are as much a matter of vocabulary as of technology, though the two interact and reinforce each other.

[…]

On scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given. The physical as we have come to know it frays away into dark matter, antimatter, and by implication on beyond them and beyond our present powers of inference.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

For the agonistic humanists among us, who side with Bertrand Russell and believe in the human spirit but see the immortal soul as an escapist illusion stemming from our chronic dread of our own impermanence, Robinson’s defense of the soul as a useful concept for understanding reality is of particular interest:

The real assertion being made in all this (neuroscience is remarkable among sciences for its tendency to bypass hypothesis and even theory and to go directly to assertion) is that there is no soul. Only the soul is ever claimed to be nonphysical, therefore immortal, therefore sacred and sanctifying as an aspect of human being. It is the self but stands apart from the self. It suffers injuries of a moral kind, when the self it is and is not lies or steals or murders, but it is untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it. Obviously this intuition—it is much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word “belief” — cannot be dispelled by proving the soul’s physicality, from which it is aloof by definition. And on these same grounds its nonphysicality is no proof of its nonexistence…

I find the soul a valuable concept, a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.

By attempting to localize the nonphysical in the physical, Robinson argues, neuroscience makes a false claim to freedom from bias — in reality, its tools of inquiry and perception greatly shape the results perceived. (As Krista Tippett aptly put it, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.”)

Robinson writes:

There could be no more naive anthropocentricity than is reflected in the certainty and insistence that what we can know about the nature of things at this moment makes us capable of definitive judgments about much of anything…

This kind of criticism is conventionally made of religion. I am not attempting some sort of rhetorical tae kwon do, to turn the attack against the attacker. My point is simply that neuroscience, at least in its dominant forms, greatly overreaches the implications of its evidence and is tendentious.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

She contrasts this with more humanistic views of the mind and its locus of genius:

If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be of a self or a soul. He left a formidable body of evidence that he was both brilliant and singular, but it has fallen under the rubric of Renaissance drama and is somehow not germane, perhaps because this places the mind so squarely at the center of the humanities. From the neuroscientific point of view, this only obscures the question. After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts and the humane disciplines. I am sure there are any number of neuroscientists who know and love Mozart better than I do, and who find his music uplifting. The inconsistency is for them to explain.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s memorable assertion that asking unanswerable questions is what makes us human, Robinson adds:

Science may never find a way to confirm or reject the idea of multiple universes, or arrive at a satisfactory definition of time or gravity. We know things in the ways we encounter them. Our encounters, and our methods and assumptions, are determined by our senses, our techniques, our intuitions.. To have arrived at this point is not a failure of science but a spectacular achievement.

That said, it might be time to pause and reflect. Holding to the old faith that everything is in principle knowable or comprehensible by us is a little like assuming that every human structure or artifact must be based on yards, feet, and inches. The notion that the universe is constructed, or we are evolved, so that reality must finally answer in every case to the questions we bring to it, is entirely as anthropocentric as the notion that the universe was designed to make us possible.

[…]

The impulse toward generalization that would claim to make the brain solvable should on these grounds be rejected, certainly until we have some grasp of the deeper sources of this complexity and order, the causal factors that lie behind this infinitesimal nuancing. The brain is certainly more profoundly individuated than its form or condition can reveal.

Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works

In another essay, titled “Experience,” Robinson revisits the usefulness of the soul as a sensemaking mechanism:

The concept “soul” allows us to acknowledge the richness and variety of the experience of the self.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Sy Montgomery’s bewitching inquiry into the consciousness of the octopus, Robinson considers our limited anthropocentric definitions of reality:

[Starfish] were thought to have no eyes. Then it was discovered that they were all eyes, that their bodies were entirely covered with visual receptors, and that the simple-looking creature somehow integrates a mass of sensation. A more considered understanding of the soul, as an experience that I think we do share, would put an end to these mystifications about its physical locus.

[…]

What we experience as physical reality is profoundly untypical of physical reality. Human experience is the central factor here. We can know that we are part and parcel of the universe at large, that great storm of energy. From the soles of our feet to our worst idea, from a Beethoven sonata to Yankee Stadium, nothing can be accounted for in any other terms…

I have called it a storm, but there is a profound order or predictability in the whole fabric of it. Whatever atoms are, certain of their properties and combinations can be described. There are other constancies, which we call laws and forces. I take the Jamesian view, that what we know about anything is determined by the way we encounter it, and therefore we should never assume that our knowledge of anything is more than partial. If this principle applies to reality at the smallest scales that are so far accessible to us, it most emphatically applies to the stratum of reality that we consider familiar.

Proper acknowledgement of these limitations and of the inherent partiality of our knowledge, Robinson suggests, welcomes the notion of the soul as a haven for the unknown and possibly unknowable, so essential to the very fabric of being:

A great deal depends, perhaps our humanity depends, on our sensing and acknowledging that quality in our kind we call the soul.

The Givenness of Things is a sublime read in its seventeen-essay totality, exploring everything from fear to memory to grace. Complement it with Robinson on what storytelling can learn from science, then revisit Simone Weil on the most fertile form of thought and Parker Palmer on how to stop hiding our souls.

BP

Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.”

Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others,” the great seventeenth-century French physicist, philosopher, and inventor Blaise Pascal wrote as he contemplated the art of changing minds. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) provided supreme practical proof of Pascal’s insight as he forever changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth. And he did so with immense rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the intricate art of crippling potential criticism of one’s ideas by taking charge of all conceivable counterarguments.

Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of preempting criticism, is what New Yorker contributor and essayist extraordinaire Adam Gopnik explores in a portion of the altogether magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library) — a slim but in many ways enormous book, for it tackles some of the most abiding and unanswerable enormities of existence.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterwork On the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.

With an eye to philosopher Daniel Dennett’s four rules for arguing intelligently and criticizing with kindness, Gopnik considers the essential principle at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical brilliance, which illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.

Darwin’s singular genius was the marriage of visionary ideas and supreme mastery of argument. But it was the latter, Gopnik argues, that lent Darwin’s ideas their victorious competitive advantage in the natural selection propelling cultural evolution:

All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life. This is where we get it all wrong if we think that Wallace might have made evolution as well as Darwin; he could have written the words, but he could not have answered the objections. He might have offered a theory of natural selection, but he could never (as he knew) have written On the Origin of Species. For The Origin is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked, and of examples answering those still faceless opponents.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar
Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

But this clever rhetorical framework was both a stylistic strategy and a reflection of Darwin’s lifelong battle with anxiety:

Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone — believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet… The tone reflects his real state. He was worried about the objections, he did spend long days worrying about eyes and wings and missing fossils, and he found a way to articulate both the anxiety and the answers to it. Darwin tells us himself that he forced on himself the habit, whenever he came across a fact that might be inconvenient for his thesis, of copying it down and paying attention to it, and that this, more than anything else, gave him his ability to anticipate critics and answer them.

[…]

In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.

Darwin not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moved beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument. He makes the negative case as urgent as the positive claims… What’s striking is that Darwin anticipates arguments against his theory that no one had yet made… It’s a really amazing piece of intellectual empathy, and of beating one’s opponents to the punch.

Gopnik’s account of what set Darwin apart calls to mind a lecture Michael Faraday delivered five years before the publication of The Origin, in which the trailblazing scientist called for the mental discipline of contradicting one’s own ideas — a hallmark of reason, of which Darwin’s prose made a high art. Gopnik writes:

Although scientific theories imply their falsifications, they rarely list them. Darwin’s does.

[This] supplies an inner voice, a sound of rational anxiety, a recognition of fallibility and of seriousness that gives his great book an oddly unbullying tone despite being a thrusting, far from tentative or timid argument.

The habit of sympathetic summary, of reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately and even, if possible, with greater force than its own believers might be able to summon, remains since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee, of what we call seriousness. Darwin’s special virtue in this enterprise is that he had to summarize, sympathetically, views contrary to his own that did not yet exist except in his own imagination. His special shrewdness lay in making as large an emotional meal of the objections in advance as could be made; he preempted his critics by introjecting their criticisms. He saw what people might say, turned it into what they ought to say, and then answered.

Angels and Ages is an immeasurably stimulating read in its totality, exploring questions of time, loss, belief, reason, and other enduring perplexities of the human experience through the bifocal lens of two very different geniuses born within a few hours of each other on a chilly February day in 1809. Complement this particular portion with Amin Maalouf on how to disagree and Pascal on the art of persuasion, then revisit this graphic biography of Darwin and his disarming list of the pros and cons of marriage.

For more of Gopnik’s own genius, treat yourself to his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which brought this miraculously rewarding book to my attention and which is by far one of the most insightful interviews ever conducted, on both sides:

The price of human consciousness is the knowledge of mortality.

BP

9 Learnings from 9 Years of Brain Pickings

Reflections on the rewards of seeking out what magnifies your spirit.

On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as an email to my seven colleagues at one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college. Over the years that followed, the short weekly email became a tiny website updated every Friday, which became a tiny daily publication, which slowly grew, until this homegrown labor of love somehow ended up in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the seven original recipients somehow became several million readers. How and why this happened continues to mystify and humble me as I go on doing what I have always done: reading, thinking, and writing about enduring ideas that glean some semblance of insight — however small, however esoteric — into what it means to live a meaningful life.

In October of 2013, as Brain Pickings turned seven, I marked the occasion by looking back on the seven most important things I learned from the thousands of hours spent reading, writing, and living during those first seven years. (Seven is an excellent numeral — a prime, a calendric unit, the perfect number of dwarfs.) I shared those reflections not as any sort of universal advice on how a life is to be lived, but as centering truths that have emerged and recurred in the course of how this life has been lived; insights that might, just maybe, prove useful or assuring for others. (Kindred spirits have since adapted these learnings into a poster and a short film.)

Art by Maurice Sendak from his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading

As Brain Pickings turns nine, I continue to stand by these seven reflections, but the time has come to add two more. (Nine is also an excellent numeral — an exponential factorial, the number of Muses in Greek mythology, my favorite chapter in Alice in Wonderland.) Here are the original seven, as they appeared in 2013:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

And here are the two new additions:

  1. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.

In the spirit of reflection, here are my current nine favorite pieces from the first nine years of Brain Pickings:

  1. Musicked Down the Mountain: How Oliver Sacks Saved His Own Life by Literature and Song


  2. Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man


  3. Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves


  4. The Life of the Mind: Hannah Arendt on Thinking vs. Knowing and the Crucial Difference Between Truth and Meaning


  5. The Magic of Moss and What It Teaches Us About the Art of Attentiveness to Life at All Scales


  6. Why We Fall in Love: The Paradoxical Psychology of Romance and Why Frustration Is Necessary for Satisfaction


  7. Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Androgynous Mind


  8. A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility


  9. The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

For more on the origin story, the ethos, and the spirit that keeps it all going, here is my On Being conversation with the wonderful and generous Krista Tippett, for which I remain enormously grateful:

BP

Mary Oliver on Love and Its Necessary Wildness

In praise of the “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable.”

For more than half a century, beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) has been beckoning us to remember ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time, to contact both our creatureliness and our transcendence as we move through the shimmering world her poetry has mirrored back at us — an unremitting invitation to live with what she calls “a seizure of happiness.” Nowhere is this seizure more electrifying than in love — a subject Oliver’s poetry has tended to celebrate only obliquely, and one she addressed most directly in her piercing elegy for her soul mate.

But in her most recent collection, Felicity (public library), Oliver dedicates nearly half the poems to the scintillating seizure that is love. There is bittersweetness in her words — these are loves that have bloomed in the hindsight of eighty long, wide years. But there is also radiant redemption, reminding us — much as Patti Smith did in her sublime new memoir — that certain loves outlast loss.

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by her partner, Molly Malone Cook, from Our World by Mary Oliver.)

Here are four of my favorite love poems from the collection — please enjoy.

I KNOW SOMEONE

I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
against them.
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

I DID THINK, LET’S GO ABOUT THIS SLOWLY

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.

HOW DO I LOVE YOU?

How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by

demonstration? Like
this, and
like this and

    no more words now

NOT ANYONE WHO SAYS

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
  careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
unsuitable —
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.

Felicity is a luminous read in its slim and potent entirety. Complement it with Mary Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, what dogs teach us about the meaning of human life, and the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love.

If you haven’t already, feast your soul on the reclusive poet’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett and be sure to subscribe to this endlessly excellent show here.

BP

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