The Great Myth of Personhood

The preceding sections have been intended to convey a few main points:

The first is that I am not in control of my thoughts, and no one else is either. In all the history of thinking, no one--not even Einstein--has ever declared that they knew how their brain put thoughts together

Given that I am not in control of my thinking or my decisions, it is obvious that I did not make myself--I was shaped by the responses of a particular biological organism to its environment. Therefore, the idea of myself as a self-controlling, self-determining entity cannot be maintained.

The idea that the self, the ego, the person are illusory is not new. It is a recurring theme in Stephen Mitchell's anthology, THE ENLIGHTENED MIND; a conclusion reached by esoteric elements in very nearly all major religions.

It is not my intention to try to convince anyone of the truth of this idea who does not already have leanings in this direction--I am not out to convert people who are antagonistic. It is a rather odd fact, however, that there is a long history of people who believed in the basic reality of this idea, who wanted to incorporate it and its implications into their lives, and who, in spite of this oftentimes strong desire, were stymied in their attempts to realize it on the fullest level. In my own grapplings with it there was a lot of waffling--I vacillated from being totally convinced to wondering how I could even consider it. Given the life that shaped me, I saw that a possible way out of the vacillation lay in the pursuit of rational, scientific support for an alternative to the concept of personhood.

What follows, then, are the fruits of that pursuit. They are intended as an aid to bolster what might otherwise be a shaky intuition; to strengthen the resolve of those embarked on a similar path.

flowers on edge of lake

Jenny Lake, Tetons, 1992

Perhaps the primary basis of personhood is that we are recognizable as individual entities. Even the simplest kinds of social creatures are able to recognize each other as individuals--who pecks who is important, even among chickens.

As social animals evolved that were more intelligent than chickens, their relationships with each other became more elaborate, and the details of identity became ever more intricate. Chimpanzees, for example, are able to recognize both their friends and their kin.

With the arrival of human beings and language, identification became really elaborate--we have names, titles, roles, labels, and all kinds of identifying paraphernalia.

Identification is a necessary part of social living, and in itself need not be a problem. The fact that we are separate, recognizable entities is not being called into question here. What is being called into question is whether we, as individuals, actually have the attributes we are commonly thought to have. Specifically, we are questioning whether persons have the control of their thoughts and actions that society attributes to them.

wooded hillside in spring

Spring Morning Under Control, California, 1992

We are taught from the time we are toddlers that we are responsible for our behavior, accountable for our actions. We are told we are good girls and boys when we void our bladders into the toilet, and we are advised that performing the same function with our clothes on is not acceptable behavior. We have to be taught how to be good citizens, and the teaching method inherently involves telling us that we are in control, not only of our bladders, but of our decisions.

Given that each of us is an identifiable unit, it seems obvious that there is something within each unit that makes the decisions that govern its behavior. If the unit labeled "Norm" decides to have toast instead of cereal for breakfast, the conventional way of describing the process is, "I decided to have toast." However, there is nothing in the unit that knows how that particular decision was made. It can be assumed that a lifetime of conditioning affected the way the unit's brain responded to a particular set of biological and environmental conditions--we can understand how the decision-making process works in general and in principal--but we will never know what particular combinations of neurochemicals and synapses tipped the balance in favor of toast on that particular occasion.

Although there is some point in the process where the balance tips one way or the other, there is no entity in the brain to which we can assign responsibility. This is true of each of our thoughts and decisions, whether trivial or profound--each appears in consciousness without our understanding how they were produced, and yet we associate emotions with them, based on our early conditioning, that would only be relevant if there was an entity, a self, or a person in the brain that was in control.

The idea that each person is responsible for the choices underlying their behavior, that each of us is in control--self-determined, self-willed--this idea is so ingrained in the fabric of our social order that it is taken for granted. It is like breathing: so much a part of every moment that we rarely notice it. It is worth taking a moment, then, to bring it out of the background into sharper focus.

grass seedheads in fennel

Grass and Fennel, California, 1987

"Be the proud owner of a new..." house, car, TV set, etc., etc. To be proud is equated with feeling good about yourself, and the underlying assumption is that you have made the kind of choices that enable you to buy the item in question. You have worked hard, studied hard, you have chosen to make the effort to persevere and achieve, and now, you have a right to be proud of your efforts--to be proud of the person you have chosen to be. You will be the envy of those who have not worked so hard, who have not been so deserving--you will be held up as a good example for the slackers and ne'er-do-wells.

The other side of the coin is that people are shamed for not making the right choices: "He takes no pride in his appearance; she has no shame," these are reprimands for those who, by their own "choice", refuse to live up to social standards.

To clarify the point that self-determination is the issue, here, consider that people are rarely reprimanded for circumstances beyond their control. They may be teased or discriminated against for being female, or Irish, or short, but rarely are they scolded for attributes they did not choose. You almost never hear anyone say, "The very nerve of him, being so tall!"

We are judged, ranked, and honored for the wisdom of our choices. We are taught that we will be happy if we make the right ones, and miserable if we make the wrong ones, and since we experience the joy and sadness as belonging to us, we accept the identity of ourselves as decision-maker, even though we don't have any control over the decision-making process.

The issue of control is often debated in court, and the worry often crops up that if we are not considered responsible for our actions, people will run amok, raping and pillaging. However, even if the idea of personal responsibility should suddenly disappear, we will not allow people to go around killing each other. Those who have not learned how to behave will be reeducated or locked up. Even though our behavior may be the product of the convergence of all the forces in the universe, it is the individual unit that acts and must be held responsible--we cannot put the universe in jail.

Given that most people on this planet believe that they are in control of the decisions they make, how could they be mistaken? Could very nearly everyone be wrong? It is not inconceivable if you consider that most of us once thought the earth was flat.

The particular mistake of interest, here, involves each of our brain's misunderstanding of how it works, and it may seem curious that this organ of ours that has the job of understanding things doesn't understand itself. How could the brain be deceived about what goes on inside it? This may take some explaining.

hot springs

Yellowstone Hot Spring, 1992

My basic assumption--not original--is that there is something real "out there" beyond our brains. There is a whole universe out there, and all living things have evolved in response to that universe. No organism's survival has ever depended on its knowing everything about the universe--we only need to know our little corner of it well enough to get by. Most organisms don't, in fact, "know" anything--they just do what they have evolved to do and it works, at least in the niche they've evolved to fit. If conditions change more than their biological equipment can handle, they become extinct.

The brain's job is to get us through life far enough so that we can raise children to an age that their brains can take over the job of getting them through life far enough to raise children--ad infinitum. That is how we got here, and that is how the brain, and all the other parts of us, evolved--it was a way of getting the job done that worked.

In order to get us through life, the brain has to give us enough information about the world to find our way around and get our needs met. It has to process a lot of sensory information--touch, taste, hearing, vision, smell--and based on that information it has to decide what to do next, then do it. It is busy all the time, even when we sleep, and one of the little tricks it uses to get its job done is consciousness.

Given all that is going on simultaneously inside the brain--all the information being processed, all the possibilities being considered--there has to be some way of spotlighting what is most important at any one moment. As you are reading this, you are probably only dimly aware of your body--unless something starts hurting. You may be totally unconscious of your big toe until you get a sudden pain there, at which point the brain's spotlight--consciousness-- will move from its language processing area (since you were reading), to its toe-feeling area, and at the same time, neuronal circuits involved with responding to emergencies will be activated.

Which particular area of activity in the brain rises to the level of consciousness at any one moment is determined by a system of priorities. We come with a built-in set of priorities that is modified and elaborated on by our interaction with the world and with each other. Babies respond immediately to pain and hunger without any education at all. By the time we are adults, our priority systems have become incredibly more complicated, and the ways in which we respond to the basics of pain and hunger have been modified considerably. A pain in the toe that might awaken us from a sound sleep may hardly be noticed if it is caused by a beautiful but clumsy dance partner.

The priorities we end up with are a product of everything that has ever happened to us. Each new experience is interpreted in terms of all that has gone before and entered into the matrix of things to be considered when the next experience comes along. For the most part this process of interpretation and integration goes on without our being conscious of it. We don't need to be conscious of it, and in fact, if we were conscious of everything that was going on in our brains we would be overwhelmed with information.

Consciousness did not evolve as a means of understanding ourselves, and yet, it is the only real-time access we have to what goes on in our brains. If we think of our brains as computers, then consciousness is analogous to the monitor in that what appears there is what is relevant at the moment, and it is presented in a format that is useful for interaction with other (human) computers. The actual computation does not take place in the monitor, however, it takes place on the motherboard, and it takes place in a form--electronic equivalents of "o's" and "1's"--that would be incomprehensible if they were displayed on the monitor as they occur.

In a similar way, the brain does its work through the interaction of several billion neurons, which communicate through the interplay of nearly one hundred neurotransmitters and other chemicals--we have yet to identify all of them. Only the end products off these incredibly complex interactions are raised to the level of consciousness--the mental computations that led to them remain in the background. For us to try to understand how our brain works based on what appears in consciousness is like a computer trying to understand how it works based on what appears on its monitor. Such limited access makes trying to understand our inner workings through introspection alone a daunting challenge.

Although some incredible insights have been gained through introspection without the use of any technology, the advent of science and world-wide communication has brought new perspectives to our understanding of ourselves.

stream-sculpted stones

Umpqua River, Oregon, 1990

A great deal of what we now know about how the brain works was learned from people whose brains were injured in some limited way, and who were then no longer capable of performing certain functions. There have been people whose brains were damaged so that they could speak but could no longer write, or write but couldn't speak; who could read but couldn't understand the spoken word. While much of the damage was the result of trauma and it was obvious that some kind of damage had been done, the specific nature of the damage did not become known until the person tried to do something that they had formerly been able to do and found that they could no longer do it. We cannot, through introspection, determine which part of our brain has been damaged by stroke or trauma. The brain does not have a wiring diagram of itself; it doesn't inherently know how it works.

It turns out that the brain is compartmentalized into specialized areas, somewhat similar to the way the body's internal organs are specialized. Within the areas devoted primarily to vision, hearing, motor control, etc., there are further specialized networks and sub-networks, so that the brain is really more like a large committee of cooperating/competing specialists than a fully integrated unit. There is no central authority, and which network or sub-network is in control of the system depends on a combination of internal and external events and conditions.

We can get some insight into how the brain operates by considering the workings of a TV news network: Hundreds of specialists are involved in support tasks, each one making decisions in her field of expertise, cooperating in the grand enterprise. At the same time there is competition among the staff to decide which stories are most important--which ones deserve headline status, which ones don't rate being aired at all, and everything in between. Broadcast time is limited, and only one story can be told at a time.

Imagine a TV anchorman who is altogether unaware of the people supporting his performance. For him there are no editors, reporters, research assistants, camerawomen, caterers, engineers, janitors, etc. As far as he is concerned he simply sits and words appear before him which he speaks, thereby transmitting to all the world his face and his own self-created wisdom.

While it may be hard to imagine someone so isolated from reality, most of us have just this kind of relationship with our own brains: words appear in our minds and we say them, with no awareness of how they came to be there or how we externalize them for the discernment of others.

young buckeye shoots hanging in front of waterfall

Buckeye Falls, California, 1992

Like the studio around the apparently solitary newsman, our brains are a constant beehive of activity, with inputs coming in from all over the body to let us know if we are hungry, thirsty, tired, in need of visceral relief, hot or cold. All this basic maintenance processing goes on whether we are awake or asleep, yet in neither case are we conscious of any of it till a certain threshold is reached. If we are asleep when that occurs, we wake up to take care of whatever need is pressing. If we're already awake, we find ourselves thinking of food, or restrooms, or taking a nap. These momentary thoughts and urges we take for granted, rarely considering the prodigious neuronal activity preceding each one. Like urbanites blinded by the lights of the city, we experience only a minute fraction of what actually goes on, unaware of the stars stretching out to infinity.

The unsupervised brain is capable of much more than simply monitoring the plumbing. People who drive the same route to work every day may have been struck by a particularly notable manifestation of the brain's ability to execute elaborate behavioral sequences on its own. The daydreamers among us have found ourselves more than once turning into the driveway at home or work with only the vaguest recollection, if any, of having driven there. While we were singing, anticipating the evening's activities or the upcoming vacation, our brain was dutifully negotiating rush-hour traffic.

Our brains are capable of performing any number of intricate tasks without conscious supervision. Teeth get brushed, shoes get tied, words are spoken, steps taken, all without our giving a thought to the mechanics of what are, in fact, quite complicated maneuvers.

We may well consider it a great convenience, if we consider it at all, that our brain is so capable of taking these routine kinds of chores upon itself, but while the system has worked well enough to provide for our survival as a species to this point, it is not without problems. Not the least of these is that the system leads to the "anchorman-in-space" phenomena--the impression we have of being the sole arbiter and controller of processes that are so complex as to be inscrutable--the impression that the brain is controlled by an entity inside it.

The feeling that we are a person, that there is someone in control, is a product of the kind of abstract thinking made possible by language. Only humans are capable of entertaining the concept of the self, and most of the brains on this planet get along fine without it. Most creatures get through life without ever having a single verbal thought in their heads, without knowing a single thing in the sense that humans do.

Consider the lioness, sleeping in the sun on the grassy veldt. She gorged herself on antelope a couple of days ago, but now she is starting to get hungry. Her awareness of her hunger is non-verbal; she doesn't say to herself, "Gee, the idea of eating some warm zebra is starting to sound really good to me." She simply wakes from her slumber, stretches, licks herself here and there, then gets up and strolls over to a couple of her friends and nudges them awake. Several decisions have been made in the lioness's brain--to wake up, to stretch, to lick, to get up--all without anything like thinking or knowing in the human sense going on. She "decides" without verbally thinking about her decisions.

The difference between us and the lioness is that our decisions are accompanied by verbal thought. Our hunger is the same as the hunger of the lioness--it arises from conditions in the body, monitored by the brain. When we are hungry, however, we can do more than nudge our friends; we can say, "Hey, how does pizza sound to you?" We have language.

Not only can we communicate in greater detail than any animal that came before us, we can conceptualize and think about the past, the future, the geographically distant, and ourselves, all thanks to the marvelous tool of language. Despite its great utility and the broadening of horizons it has made possible, language has not expanded the portal through which it appears in the brain--consciousness. Although language gives us the tools with which to think about incredibly complex processes and entities, the narrow window of consciousness only grants a limited experience of these things.

We have already noted how, as you're reading this, you are probably only vaguely aware of your body. Our body, that most immediate of all our experiences, can only be clearly perceived in tiny fragments. Close your eyes sometime when you're eating and notice the amazing things your mouth does with your food--swirling tastes and textures; a hurricane, crashing waves and avalanches of sensation--and where was the rest of you while you were watching your tongue do its dance? Where were your feet? Where was your left little toe?

We never experience our whole body at once in detail. The alternatives seem to be between a vague, amorphous sensation that there is something there, to detailed perceptions of its parts. The idea that we have a body is constructed by the brain from observation of all the parts individually, accumulated over time. If you could eliminate memory, just for fun, (and you can), so that you were only aware of what you experience moment by moment, you would only be aware of bits of sensation floating in space--one second there would be part of a hand, another second a foot, with no connection between them. You would not even know what they were if you couldn't connect them to past experience.

This information about the way your brain works is not something you have to take on faith. All you have to do is pick any two distinguishable parts of your body and try to feel the sensations coming from both of them at once--its a simple matter of observation to discover that you cannot.

We cannot experience our bodies as a whole, all at once, even in memory. We can only remember the bits and pieces. And yet, we have some sort of idea that these bits and pieces are an integrated whole--and that is my point: the body as a whole is an idea cobbled together in the mind--we can think of it as a whole, our decisions are based on its reality as a whole, but we cannot experience it as a whole.

There is a relevant analogy one finds in the literature of Zen: "spring comes on the tips of a hundred blades of grass". Spring is a way of talking about a number of separate events--green grass, flowers, warm breezes-- which we associate in memory with a certain time of year, but while the events themselves can be experienced in the sensations of the moment, "spring" is an abstraction that only exists in the mind. It is constructed by the brain using memory, in the same way that "body" is.


West Tetons, 1992

Concepts like "body" and "spring" are useful, as are most of the words we use to talk about ourselves and our world. Language is a useful tool, and we would not be what we are without it, but we use it from such an early age and so continuously that we reify its categories--we turn something that is a useful abstraction into something that is real. On the level of sensation "spring" is not real--only the red of the roses is real.

We experience sensations, and the brain puts them together into concepts we can think about, but sensations and thinking are different. Reading a menu is not the same as eating dinner. To quote the ancients, "Saying 'fire' doesn't burn the tongue."

I am trying to encourage you to question your assumptions about yourself, even something as seemingly concrete as your body. If you take the body as it is given by the common assumptions of language-bound human beings, you are unlikely to pay attention to what it is that you actually feel. You will take the body for granted as it is abstractly represented, not as it is experienced, and you will miss the wonder of knowing your own body firsthand.

If "body" as a component of personhood is an abstraction, how much more so is personhood itself--an abstraction built of abstractions. We can experience all the components of our body in a few minutes time by systematically paying attention to them--starting at one end and working our way to the other. To experience our personality in a similar way we would have to start at our earliest memory and, detail by detail--work our way up to the present. We are no more capable of experiencing who we are as a complete person than we are of experiencing our body as a whole. We cannot really comprehend who we are, although we have the impression that we are some one.

The reification of the concepts of language restrict all our experience--of our mind, our bodies, and the world. The names we have for things limit the kinds of things we can see, and as Shakespeare said through Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy."

Our conceptions of ourselves have been limited by society, language, and consciousness. We were social animals long before we were human animals--we evolved in the context of groups. The need in social living for cooperative, conforming members created the educational techniques that shaped us, that gave us the idea that we are self-controlled entities. Language gave us the ability to conceptualize ourselves in this way, and the narrow scope of consciousness prevented all but a few from seeing through the misconception to the reality underneath.

The limitation on our understanding to which the narrow window of consciousness contributes can be illustrated by the story about blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is:

One feels the elephant's leg and says, "An elephant is like a tree."

Another feels the side of the elephant and says, "An elephant is like a wall."

Another feels the elephant's tail and says, "An elephant is like a broom."

You get the idea.

sedementary slab

Elephant Wall, Montana de Oro, California, 1988

One point of the story is that if we try to understand very large entities from a very narrow perspective, we are likely to make mistakes. We have the advantage of memory over the blind men in the story in that we can recall our separate impressions and link them into a larger whole, and yet, there is a strong tendency to regard the reality of the moment as the whole elephant. This is especially true when we are dealing with emotions.

Feelings and emotions are associated with particular locations in the brain in the same way that vision, hearing, speaking, etc., are, and there have been people with injuries to these particular areas who have lost the ability to feel or emote while otherwise remaining relatively normal. People with certain kinds of stroke may have the feeling that one of their legs, for example, does not belong to them, even when it is pointed out to them that it is attached to a body which they otherwise identify as their own. Others have been deprived of excitement, fear, happiness--all the extremes of passion.

It would appear that emotions are necessary to our functioning "normally". If Joey does not feel guilt when he is reprimanded for forgetting to take out the garbage, if he does not feel gladness when he is told he is a good boy, his performance as a member of society may not be acceptable to his peers in later life. It is the association of feelings and emotions with our behavior, and with the reactions of other people to our behavior, that help to create the perception that we are a certain person, but do feelings make it so? Do feelings of guilt mean we are guilty? Does the "I" that feels guilt really have responsibility for the behavior that preceded the feeling?

The person each of us identifies as "I" is a collection of ideas and memories in a brain, and with just the right injury, in just the right place in the brain, each of us would cease to exist as a person--all the ideas and memories related to our identity would be wiped out, leaving a fairly functional human being that did not know who its parents or friends were, did not know what kind of music or food it liked, or what it enjoyed doing for entertainment. It might look the same, it might still be capable of thinking and feeling, but would it be the same person? When it was thinking, would the same person who existed before be thinking? A situation very much like this is encountered by those close to victims of Alzheimer's, and the refrain that, "This person is no longer my mother/ father/ husband/ wife," is common.

All the ideas about who we are exist as a fairly small part of the brain's total operation, and this collection of ideas is the brain's understanding of who it is. The brain uses these ideas to guide its decisions, but this collection of ideas does not control the brain. They are the product of learning and experience, but they are not necessarily true. The brain is not a unified whole. It is divided into specialized areas that have no comprehension of what their specialty is--they function without knowing what their function is.

Each emotion exists in its own area with its own combination of neurons and neurotransmitters. My first physical experience of the independent existence of emotions occurred once when my second wife and I were sitting on a beach in Oregon. We had eaten some pretty powerful acid, and we were talking about something sad--I forget what--but I remember the feeling of sadness was overwhelming. We were both crying with tears running down our cheeks--so very sad. And then one of us said something--I forget what--and the next instant we were laughing hysterically. Nothing had ever been so funny.

The contrast between those two emotional states, and the rapidity with with which we made the transition between them, made a lasting impression. I learned something about the brain that is true whether it is drugged or drug-free.

Our emotions are tiny parts of the elephant that is our brain. When we are in the midst of sadness, we think that the elephant is sadness. When we are in the midst of joy, we think that the elephant is joy. The brain contains both these emotions, and every gradation of feeling imaginable. Everything you have ever felt is available in some part of your brain. All it takes for you to experience an emotion is for consciousness to make a return trip to the particular crossroads of neurons and neurotransmitters that define that emotion.

Emotions have no doubt been useful in some phase of life on this planet. I'm sure a clever evolutionist could come up with a plausible story about why they evolved, with testable hypotheses and all the trappings of science. (Perhaps someone I don't know of already has.) They have played a major role in the drama of human life--in fact, there would be no "drama" without them. We need not, however, be victimized by them.

There is a saying in AA: "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." Sooner or later all of us will stumble against one of life's sharp edges--pain is inevitable. But if we have learned to see the vastness from which our momentary conscious experience is drawn, we will not mistake the part for the whole. We will not see this moment's pain or joy as the definition of who we are, and we may partake of them as it suits us.

Happiness itself exists in the activation of a particular part of the brain--there is a place in our head where happiness lives. It has been in the interest of society that its members believe that arriving at the home of happiness is contingent on certain behaviors--good, responsible citizens are happy citizens. The group may regard with suspicion the idea that a human being can be happy whether rich or poor, whether employed, homeless, loved or not--that indeed, happiness is not contingent on anything outside one's own head.

Society need not worry, because this constant, inner happiness is contingent, too--on giving up the idea of being a separate entity, ego, person.

In thinking of ourselves as persons, we have no choice but to think that what appears in consciousness defines us, taking all the credit and blame for everything that appears there although, in fact, we don't have a clue about how our thinking is done. Its a rather anxiety provoking situation to be in, to be taking credit for things you don't really understand--knowing you may be blamed if it isn't right--and that is why almost everyone on this planet is fearful, anxious, and needy. Trying to keep track of who you are and how you fit in and what you should do next is like trying to carve a statue in smoke and keep it recognizable--its a full-time job, and you need help and encouragement from everyone to keep at it and to stifle the fear that you aren't doing it right.

All we have to do to lose our anxiety is to recognize the truth of our situation--that we are not in control. When we stop being attached to our reactions and emotions, when we come to see them objectively, they cease being the weighty factors in decision-making that they otherwise are. We stop identifying with our decisions as belonging to us, and we realize that they belong to the universe.

The words you are reading are the product of all the forces in the universe, and their effects on you are the product of all the forces in the universe, and when you realize that none of it belongs to anyone, that it all belongs to this great incredible whole, then that realization is a product of all the forces in the universe, and it influences further interactions with the universe as it unfolds in your immediate vicinity. Your brain still weighs decisions, it still says, "What do we do now?" but you see this process from a broader perspective. Instead of saying, "What do I want to do?" You are more likely to say, "Which way does the universe seem to be leading?" It is impossible to consider the ins and outs of every possible path, to make a so-called "rational" decision, and giving up the idea that the decision is mine takes a lot of the pressure off.

It is, perhaps, easier to grasp the flaws in the concept of personhood intellectually than to understand how to proceed in daily life without them. The thought patterns of a lifetime are difficult to change, especially when one has no clear idea of the alternatives.

Beyond the realm of personhood we are in strange territory, and in the next installment we will try to illuminate it somewhat. We are not without guides, but the folks who have preceded us are a peculiar lot, given to paradoxical questions like, "What is the sound of one hand clapping," and "What was your face before you were born?" Let us hope that the progress we have made since these questions were first asked can help to make their underlying truth more accessible, because the promise of that truth is freedom, wonder, and unlimited joy.

top of teton mountain range

Tetons at 10,000 Feet, 1992

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(The End of The Great Myth of Personhood)

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