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But as troublesome as these findings are for the concept of free will, the discovery that all of our thoughts and actions are the result of purely physical processes also challenges the religious worldview in an even more direct way. As science uncovers more and more about how much of our experience can be explained by natural causes, it’s also finding that even transcendent religious experiences themselves – seemingly the most non-physical experiences of all – can in fact be explained in terms of electro-chemical activity in the brain. In other words, it’s not just that naturalistic explanations make religious beliefs unnecessary; they can even explain how those religious beliefs arise in the first place, for reasons other than their truth value.

It’s been found, for instance, that overstimulation of a person’s temporal lobe can cause religious experiences. When scientists used an electromagnetic device to stimulate subjects’ temporal lobes directly, many of those subjects reported feeling like they were in the presence of God (or angels, or some other supernatural entity), as Molly Edmonds explains:

[Michael] Persinger has gained attention for his work with the “God Helmet,” headgear so named because it may induce a person to feel the presence of God. The God Helmet includes electrodes that Persinger uses to alter the electromagnetic field at the temporal lobes. Persinger claims he can create a religious experience for anyone by disrupting the brain with regular electric pulses. This will cause the left temporal lobe to explain the activity in the right side of the brain as a sensed presence. The sensed presence could be anything from God to demons, and when not told what the experiment involved, about 80 percent of God Helmet wearers reported sensing something nearby.

Of course, these self-reports ought to be taken with a grain of salt; the intensity of the magnetic fields in these experiments was extremely low, so it’s not clear how much of the subjects’ response was actually due to the stimulation itself, and how much of it was just the subjects’ own suggestibility. Still, there are plenty of other cases in which subjects’ temporal lobes have been stimulated much more aggressively – not by careful scientists, but by natural causes – and in those cases, the data are much stronger; overstimulating the temporal lobe really does lead to heightened religious belief, not just during the episodes themselves, but also long-term. Ramachandran explains (starting at 4:16):

As Eagleman writes, this could explain many of the visions and revelations experienced by religious prophets throughout history:

If an epileptic seizure is focused in a particular sweet spot in the temporal lobe, a person won’t have motor seizures, but instead something more subtle. The effect is something like a cognitive seizure, marked by changes of personality, hyperreligiosity (an obsession with religion and a feeling of religious certainty), hypergraphia (extensive writing on a subject, usually about religion), the false sense of an external presence, and, often, the hearing of voices that are attributed to a god. Some fraction of history’s prophets, martyrs, and leaders appear to have had temporal lobe epilepsy. Consider Joan of Arc, the sixteen-year-old-girl who managed to turn the tide of the Hundred Years War because she believed (and convinced the French soldiers) that she was hearing voices from Saint Michael the archangel, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Margaret, and Saint Gabriel. As she described her experience, “When I was thirteen, I had a voice from God to help me to govern myself. The first time, I was terrified. The voice came to me about noon: it was summer, and I was in my father’s garden.” Later she reported, “Since God had commanded me to go, I must do it. And since God had commanded it, had I had a hundred fathers and a hundred mothers, and had I been a king’s daughter, I would have gone.” Although it’s impossible to retrospectively diagnose with certainty, her typical reports, increasing religiosity, and ongoing voices are certainly consistent with temporal lobe epilepsy. When brain activity is kindled in the right spot, people hear voices. If a physician prescribes an anti-epileptic medication, the seizures go away and the voices disappear. Our reality depends on what our biology is up to.

And Barbara Bradley Hagerty adds to this, pointing out that we actually have ample historical records showing that people who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy in ancient times were widely regarded as religious prophets:

Some 2,500 years ago, notes Orrin Devinsky, who directs the epilepsy center at New York University, Hippocrates wrote one of the very first texts we have on epilepsy – and he named it “On the Sacred Disease.”

The disease was considered sacred because the ancients thought that sufferers were possessed by demons, or blessed with divine messages and visions. Devinsky says neurologists suspect some of the religious giants were epileptics themselves. Did Paul hear Jesus on the road to Damascus, or was he experiencing an auditory hallucination? What about Joseph Smith and the two angels? Muhammad? Joan of Arc? And what about Moses and that burning bush?

“Assuming for now a more rational scientific view, he was having a visual hallucination and he heard God’s voice,” Devinsky observes.

It could have been God; it could have been a seizure. But one thing Devinsky does believe is “whatever happened back there in Sinai, Moses’ experience was mediated by his temporal lobe.”

Speculating on Moses’s mental state, of course, is more of a hypothetical exercise than anything – since, after all, Moses probably wasn’t a real historical figure. But Hagerty’s mention of Paul – the founder of the Christian Church himself – is more interesting, because Paul’s miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus might actually be the best example of all of an apparent epileptic episode. As Edmonds writes:

Paul’s story is interesting not just to biblical scholars, but to neuroscientists as well. Some scientists claim that the account of this conversion, found in the book of Acts, contains enough evidence to diagnose Paul with temporal lobe epilepsy. The flash of light, the voices and the fall to the ground are the evidence of a seizure, according to these neuroscientists, with the blindness a result of the postictal state that follows a seizure. […] While most doctors agree that it’s impossible to diagnose epilepsy definitively in someone who lived so long ago, Paul would join some other religious figures reputed to have brain disorders, including Moses and St. Teresa of Avila.

Again, this whole question of whether these religious prophets were actually just experiencing overstimulated temporal lobes is a highly speculative one (especially considering that we can’t even know for sure if they ever had “religious experiences” in the first place, or if they were just claiming to have had them). But the neurological phenomenon of temporal lobe overstimulation is genuine, regardless of whether figures like Joan of Arc and Paul actually experienced it themselves – and so is the scientific research linking it to heightened religiosity.

What’s more, temporal lobe stimulation isn’t even the only thing that can cause people to become more religious for purely biological reasons. For another example, here’s Robert Sapolsky:

In 1936, [Paul Radin] wrote a book containing an idea that, if taken to its logical conclusion, should undo some of the most cherished underpinnings of Judeo-Christian thought.

Radin’s speculations indirectly cast light on the question of why schizophrenia exists. This is not necessarily an obvious question to ask. Schizophrenia is one of the most catastrophic ways in which the mind can go awry. It is worth reviewing the features of the disease in order to appreciate Radin’s insight and its potential consequences. This is also useful to help counteract an odd misuse of the word “schizophrenia” by the media and by nonexperts. The erroneous view is of schizophrenia as a disease of sudden, unpredictable lurches between emotional extremes – “God, what a schizophrenic day I’m having. First my car wouldn’t start this morning and I got to work really late. But then I landed this account I’ve been angling for, for months. Then, at lunch I had this really upsetting argument with a friend. What a schizy day.”

In contrast to this incorrect picture, schizophrenia is a disease of disordered thought. The marvel of it is that the cognitive tumult is not just random, but has surprisingly consistent patterns from one sufferer to the next.

Above all else, schizophrenics show “loose associations.” Most of us might relate an incident in a way where there is an obvious logical progression from one step to the next. Schizophrenics, in contrast, produce a storm of non sequiturs or make leaps that, while having a certain strained connectiveness, are not the ones anyone else would make: “So I guess I’ve been a real disappointment to my parents. After all they did for me to get a good education, you know what I’ve wound up doing? I’m a caddie. A caddie. And no one wants caddies these days. Everyone wants the Japanese cars.”

Schizophrenics also have problems with levels of abstraction. Most of us can hear a story and intuit readily whether it is meant to be a factual, literal relating of events, or a parable, meant to be taken symbolically. We intuit whether the point of a particular story is the trees or the forest. Schizophrenics lack that intuition, and their bias is to perceive things on the far more literal, detailed level. “Concreteness” is the term for it and it manifests itself endlessly:

THERAPIST: Hello, Mr. Smith, what’s on your mind today?
PATIENT: My skull.


THERAPIST: Tell me, what do apples, bananas, and oranges have in common?
PATIENT: They all are multisyllabic words.
THERAPIST: Anything else?
PATIENT: They all contain letters that form closed loops..

For schizophrenics, it’s not a matter of trees and forests. Instead, it’s habitually seeing only the bark.

Schizophrenics are also prone toward delusions, inserting themselves into situations, making claims that cannot be so, and seemingly believing them. (“Heard of the Great Wall of China? Yes? My idea. The emperor came to me at night with a map and I said, ‘Here’s where it goes.’”) Related to this are the hallucinations, predominantly auditory, that are defining features of the disease. And related to this is the tendency in many schizophrenics toward a florid, permeating paranoia. (“What do apples, bananas, and oranges have in common?” “They’re all wired for sound.”)

Add to that some of the other features of the disease less related to thought – an inappropriate flattening of emotions, an aching social isolation, a tendency toward horrifying acts of self-mutilation and suicidalism – and you have one of the great medical tragedies to befall a person.

One might ask why should schizophrenia exist in culture after culture on this planet, as it does. The disorder has a genetic component (and by this I mean the modern view of human behavioral genetics – not that there is a gene that inevitably causes schizophrenia, but that there are genes that make the individual more sensitive to schizophrenogenic triggers in the environment). The disorder runs in families. Studies of adopted individuals showed that the trait is more common among the genetic, biological pedigree, rather than through the nongenetic, adoptive one. And currently, molecular biologists search for the actual genes, the precise DNA sequences, relevant to the disease.

Thus, if there is a genetic component to the disease, no matter how small, when one asks, Why should schizophrenia exist? one is actually asking, Why should the gene(s) involved in schizophrenia have evolved and been maintained by natural selection in the human gene pool?

Evolution, we were all taught in ninth-grade biology, is the process by which genetic traits are passed on over time and become more common only if they are advantageous. Once, long ago, when giraffes had the short necks of most mammals, one had a somewhat longer neck for a genetically based reason. And that giraffe could reach leaves higher up in the tree, was fruitful, and multiplied… and now it is that giraffe’s long-necked descendants who stroll around the savannah. Evolution, we were taught, works something along those lines. So what’s the evolutionary advantage to schizophrenic genes? Schizophrenics are “unfit” in strict evolutionary terms, which is to say that they have a lower reproductive rate, and thus pass on fewer copies of their genes, than do healthy individuals. Then why is this disorder being maintained in the population?

The answer probably lies in a facet of genetics that we all also learned in ninth grade. Sometimes, genetic traits can come in different degrees of severity, and while the full-blown version of such a trait may be disadvantageous, the moderately “penetrant” version that occurs in a relative may carry a big advantage. And if the magnitude and frequency of the advantageous form outweighs the deleterious, the trait will be selected for in the population. The classic example is sickle-cell anemia affecting people of African descent. In its extreme form, it is a lethal hematologic disorder, while in its less penetrant form, it protects against malaria. There is evidence for a similar pattern in Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews. In its full-blown form, it is a fatal neurological disaster. In its milder form, some data suggest, it confers protection against tuberculosis. There’s also the suggestion that the gene for cystic fibrosis protects against cholera.

Schizophrenia probably shows this pattern. What would be the mild, advantageous version of schizophrenia? As was mentioned in the first piece in this volume, this form is now called “schizotypal” personality disorder. Schizotypals are not the dysfunctional isolates that schizophrenics are. They just tend toward solitary hobbies and professions, are uncomfortable in social situations involving unfamiliar people, are aloof, with few close friends. They are the fire tower rangers, the lighthouse keepers, the film projectionists alone each night in their booths. Moreover, schizotypals are not floridly delusional, hallucinating like schizophrenics. Their disordered thoughts and behaviors are far subtler, in that they have a tendency toward what is termed the “metamagical.” They may have an extremely strong interest in science fiction and fantasy, or in some New Age paranormal belief such as ESP or levitation. They often report odd perceptual experiences – sensing spirits in a room, seeing illusions. Or, as a foreshadowing of the tumult to come, they may have a profound faith in very literal, very concrete interpretations of religious dogma – it really is possible for Jesus to have walked on water, the Patriarchs truly lived for nine hundred years, the creation of the world in seven days is reporting of precise fact rather than a parable. Schizotypal personality disorder was first recognized in precisely the population where you would expect it – among close relatives of schizophrenics, among those individuals who share a certain percentage of genes with schizophrenics.

It is important to recognize that none of these traits count as all-out mentally ill in the conventional sense used by most in society, in which “crazy” is most usually akin to the shattering psychosis of schizophrenia. Perfectly respectable businessmen may sneak off to their Star Trek conventions, an erstwhile actress may publish a best-selling account of her previous lives, a First Lady may consult astrologers and still be taken seriously in the fashion pages.

Who are the schizotypals? Not the lone schizotypal operating the film projector in a movie theater, sensing the presence of Elvis in the room. I mean who were the schizotypals in preindustrial societies, throughout 99 percent of our human history? Here is the key. In 1936, Radin was the first to advance the idea that many shamans, witch doctors, and medicine men (and women) are “half-crazy.”

It fits. The shamans, the forbidding, charismatic religious leaders in tribal life, the ones who sit and converse with the dead ancestors, who have solitary sojourns in the desert, whose huts sit separate from everyone else’s, who spend the night transformed into wolves or bears or hyenas, the ones who lead the trance dances and talk in tongues and bring word of the wishes of the gods.

It was Radin who first focused attention on the idea that, in Western societies, shamans would be viewed as a bit psychiatrically suspect. “Throughout the world of primitive man some form of emotional instability and well-marked sensitivity has always been predicated as the essential trait of the medicine-man and shaman.” He branded the shaman with a label that, based on my perusal of the psychiatric texts of his time, I suspect was invented – “neurotic-epileptogenic.” I think this terminology reflected an odd, tragic chapter in the psychiatry of his era, in which epilepsy was considered a psychiatric rather than neurologic disorder, and where the pre-seizure auras of the epileptic were often grouped with the auras and hallucinations of the schizophrenic.

Importantly, Radin focused on the notion not only of the shaman as “half-crazy,” but of his instabilities as the creative seeds of future religious convention. “[The shaman displays his possession by a spirit] by publicly reenacting his specific personal experience, that of a man suffering from a particular mental affliction. His projections, his hallucinations, his journey through space and time, thus became a dramatic ritual and served as the prototype for all future concepts of the religious road of perfection.” If you aspire to shape supernatural belief in your society for generations to come, some half-mad inspiration would help.

Radin’s ideas were soon echoed by others. Erwin Ackerknecht, a physician and naturalist, discussed the shaman as the “healed madman.” Jules Silverman, a psychotherapist, weighed in with a similar view and explicitly compared the symptoms of the schizophrenic with the traits of the shaman. In a rather pungent statement, the psychoanalyst George Devereux wrote: “[Primitive] religion and in general ‘quaint’ primitive areas are organized schizophrenia.” By the 1960s, the anthropologist Richard Shweder was even conducting empirical studies in the field, demonstrating that shamans have different cognitive styles than other members of their societies.

Probably the most insightful elaborations on Radin’s notion came in 1940 from Alfred Kroeber, one of the biggest guns in anthropology. “In some cultures one of the most respected and rewarded statuses known to the society is acquired only by experience of a condition which in our culture we could not label anything else than psychotic.”

Kroeber emphasized a number of points. While Radin had focused on the generative and creative potential of the psychiatric afflictions of the shaman, Kroeber was more impressed with the fact that these afflictions are nonetheless framed within a preexisting cultural framework. You do not merely report on your time as a wolf or burst out in glossolalic babbling in order to get licensed as a witch doctor. Rather, there are rules as to how shamans go about being psychiatrically unruly. Kroeber discussed how in endless cultures, young individuals are recognized by the established shamans as showing the first signs of the hallucinations and psychoses and are thereafter trained in the particular patterns of shamanistic experience in that culture. Thus, the schizotypal traits are channeled and standardized.

As a second point, Kroeber dwelled on the rewards of such psychosis. “To us a person that hears the dead speak or proclaims that he sometimes turns into a bear is socially abnormal, at best useless, and likely to be a burden or menace.” Shamans, instead, are anything but that. They are powerful, honored, feared, sought after. Shamanism is a highly rewarded state. It is true that in many traditional societies, such shamanism is associated with a reclusiveness, a social withdrawal often linked to celibacy. But in at least as many cultures, shamans and their kin are rewarded not just materially and with respect, but reproductively as well. Sure, you don’t want everyone to be a shaman. This was stated well by a Winnebago tribesman who turned to Radin during a particularly frothy shamanistic ceremony and said, “Well, it’s good that some of us are that way some of the time, but it would be disastrous if all of us were that way all of the time.” However, having the occasional shaman is highly valued by traditional societies, and these shamans are typically powerful, respected members. Insofar as shamanism and its attendant hallucinations, metamagical thought, and psychiatric instability reflect some genetic component, these are not unfit traits being winnowed from the gene pool.

Kroeber encapsulated his idea of the acceptance and rewards of the traits of the shaman in the title of his essay, “Psychosis or Social Sanction.” That final word gave me a poignant twinge when considering its similar derivation as “sanctuary,” and the rarity with which the most modern of psychiatry can provide that for our mentally ill.

In the years since Radin and Kroeber, most anthropologists have distanced themselves from the strongest versions of their ideas. There is, in fact, next to no evidence in any culture that shamanism is “always predicated” on psychiatric instability, that such status is “acquired only by” psychosis. In most traditional cultures, the majority of shamans appear to be quite mentally healthy and are often orphans who had been raised by shamans as surrogate parents. It is probably these average-joe shamans, punching in the ol’ nine to five clock, who mostly ply their trade through the classic shamanistic image of “tricksterism” – sleight of hand, ventriloquism, a certain degree of manipulative showmanship. There is little evidence that they are wired to have different cognitive styles from everyone else, and there are virtually no anthropologists who are trying to find that out. The main point of Radin’s and Kroeber’s ideas is not that all shamans are “half-crazy,” but that if you are half-crazy in the right way, shamanism constitutes a uniquely protected and rewarding refuge.

Kroeber emphasized an additional and critical point in his writing on the subject. He made clear that even the most floridly addled of shamans are typically not what we would now classify as schizophrenic, at the extremes of psychotic dysfunction. He noted how even traditional societies have little use for someone who perpetually believes himself to be a tree and acts as such. As a by-product of some of my own research in East Africa, I have had the occasion to observe that traditional societies there are no less unnerved by and intolerant of schizophrenics than ours is. But these are not shamans, whose psychoses are more controlled. Shamans hear voices during times of crisis rather than all the time, or bellow in tongues during ceremonies rather than at the critical silent moment during a hunt. “In general, the psychopathologies that get rewarded among primitives are only the mild and transient ones,” Kroeber wrote. Years before the invention of the term “schizotypal,” Kroeber had linked shamans to that classification rather than to schizophrenia.

As Sapolsky stresses, this isn’t to say that all religious prophets – much less all religious believers in general – suffer from some kind of brain disorder; clearly the vast majority of believers are perfectly neurotypical. But it certainly seems plausible enough to think that at least a few of history’s most prominent religious prophets who thought they were hearing the voice of God were in fact just experiencing the effects of somewhat abnormal brain chemistry. The point here is just to show that it’s possible for people’s brains to produce apparent religious experiences even when nothing divine is actually occurring.

And in fact, moving outside the topic of brain disorders, we can find plenty of examples of people swearing that they’re having religious experiences even when they know that their brain chemistry is being altered by some outside substance (and even when they’ve deliberately introduced substances into their bodies for that exact purpose). There are entire religious sects, for instance, that revolve around taking psychedelic drugs as a means of inducing transcendent experiences on demand, and their adherents often interpret those experiences as coming from God (and merely being mediated by the drug) rather than coming solely from the drug itself. It’s practically a cliché for certain drug users to describe their experiences as “bringing them closer to God” or “revealing God’s true nature to them.” And in some cases, they’ve even reported experiencing hallucinations identical to the visions of the afterlife described by religious believers who’ve had near-death experiences – a white light, an overwhelming sense of love, a feeling of leaving their body, and so on. Here’s commenter 42staples, for instance, describing his experience on DMT:

I am an atheist and completely reject the idea of a deity. I would say I have never had a truly spiritual experience, until I tried DMT. When I took a hit from the device we had put together I immediately had to sit down. From this point there was an immediate detachment from reality so I decided to close my eyes as I like the visuals our minds can conjure up without any external stimuli.

On closing my eyes I could see a bright light in the distance which was beckoning me. I was drawn to it and so let myself ‘go towards the light.’ As I got closer I noticed silhouettes of people dancing and chanting, calling to me and welcoming me. I could not say who these people were, but what I could discern was these people loved me. I’m not sure if they said the words or not but the message I was receiving was, “It’s okay, join us. We’re so glad you’re finally here.” etc. These faceless outlines and I had an inexplicable bond and I felt very strong emotions for them, somewhat akin to close family bonds.

Meanwhile the intense ball of light swirled and took on every colour of the rainbow as it did. It was like a ball of fire. It provided a warmth. Not a physical warmth but an emotional warmth. Like safety, familiarity… love. When the intensity of the trip began to wear off I felt myself moving away from the light and the people waved goodbye. I didn’t want to leave.

Again, I am not a religious person, but this experience really opened my eyes and has helped me better understand my interpretation of the process of dying. This is the ‘near death experience’ I have heard about a hundred times. Tunnel. Light. Loved ones. It’s the story, right? It doesn’t end there. Out of the 10 or so people my friend gave DMT to all of them experienced a similar kind of trip. I’ve read a lot online after the experience and everyone says similar things. It’s fascinating.

It might not be a coincidence that DMT, aside from being used as a recreational drug, is also produced naturally in the brain, and is hypothesized by some to flood the brain in the moments right before death. If true, this would perfectly explain where religious visions of “the afterlife” might come from.

But such speculation about DMT might not even be necessary. As it turns out, visions like these can also come from something as simple as oxygen deprivation. McRaney explains:

For many years, the U.S. Air Force has trained pilots using a giant contraption called the Holloman centrifuge. The centrifuge is basically a fake cockpit attached to a giant shaft of metal with a tremendously powerful motor at its center. The center spins, rotating the shaft, and propels the cockpit round and round with a pilot inside. Imagine a string tied to a rock, and then imagine spinning that rock around lasso-style, and then imagine you are inside the rock. Pilots do this to feel the effects of g-forces, or gravity. In a high-performance fighter jet, pulling up and away from the Earth or turning hard at insane speeds applies g-forces to the body. When you accelerate in one direction, you feel the pull of Newton’s laws in the other. When you hit the accelerator in a car, for example, your head is forced to flop backward. In a jet, that force is much greater, and the blood in your arteries can’t get to your brain. The effect is like a chokehold, and pilots often pass out or become incoherent zombies. Either way, pulling too many g’s, as they say, can end in disaster.

The air force and agencies such as NASA use centrifuges to create massive g-forces in a controlled environment. This way, they can teach pilots techniques for keeping blood in their brains. Such techniques involve lots of grunting and straining, which would otherwise seem a bit embarrassing if, you know, they weren’t fighter pilots. At a certain point, pilots will black out and lose consciousness. As they go in and out of this state, they often report visions, hallucinations of the fantastic and the everyday, like dreams. James Whinnery, a medical doctor for the air force, has studied hundreds of these blackouts over the last thirty years, videotaping them and comparing their nuances, interviewing the pilots and recording their reports. Over time, he has found striking similarities to the same sorts of things reported by patients who lost consciousness on operating tables, in car crashes, and after returning from other nonbreathing states. The tunnel, the white light, friends and family coming to greet you, memories zooming around – the pilots experienced all this. In addition, the centrifuge was pretty good at creating out-of-body experiences. Pilots would float over themselves, or hover nearby, looking on as their heads lurched and waggled about. As Whinnery and other researchers have speculated, the near-death and out-of-body phenomena are both actually the subjective experience of a brain owner watching as his brain tries desperately to figure out what is happening and to orient itself amid its systems going haywire due to oxygen deprivation. Without the ability to map out its borders, the brain often places consciousness outside the head, in a field, swimming in a lake, fighting a dragon – whatever it can connect together as the walls crumble. What the deoxygenated pilots don’t experience is a smeared mess of random images and thoughts. Even as the brain is dying, it refuses to stop generating a narrative, the scaffolding upon which it weaves cause and effect, memory and experience, feeling and cognition. Narrative is so important to survival that it is literally the last thing you give up before becoming a sack of meat. It is the framework of your conscious experience. Without it, there would be nothing but noise. Better still, after the pilots regain consciousness they go through the same sort of explanatory routines as patients in emergency rooms who have technically died and returned to life. After the psychedelic wonder of a prolonged loss of oxygen, many people see that light and tunnel as the passage to the afterlife. The stories differ, depending on the belief system, but there is always a story.

Again, the lesson here is simple enough: When people have apparent divine experiences, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the source of those experiences is actually divine. What they’re feeling as “the presence of God” could just be the product of their own brain activity.

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