ADVANCES IN NEUROSCIENCE AND THE VALUE OF THE ARTS:
HOW SCIENCE BUILDS THE TOWER OF ART
ST. STEPHEN’S COLLEGE
St. Stephen’s College, June 2020
In this paper I discuss advances in neuroscience, theories of art therapy grounded in the Art Hive model, psychotherapy theories, and lastly, I offer a personal reflection of the symbolism of an art project I made with my five-year-old daughter. The paper explores the connections between art-making and a right-brain relational approach to building connection with a distressed child in contrast to a left-brained linguistic and logical method. As part of this discussion, I offer insights into body language, a humble attitude, the value of play and the powerful healing potential of creativity. I suggest further exploration on the value of engaging in art-making with individuals whose brains have undergone serious trauma and the role powerful influence of the arts on building strong societies.
Keywords: children, art therapy, art hive, neuroscience, creativity
Neuroscience is catching up to what artists and creators have known for ages: arts access powerful ways of knowing reality, lift up the world and offer us insights into areas that were previously unconscious. The science is confirming that when we engage in an intuitive, body centered, non-verbal manner with people we can get farther in connecting with them than if we just talk to them. Offering art-making in a non-direct way can cause reintegration of brain circuitry, increase good feelings and enable deeper relational connections between individuals. In this paper I will explore an art piece I created with my five-year-old daughter, Sarika (see Appendix), by examining the neuroscience, Art Hive theory and diving into the symbolism of the art-making. My intention for this piece was to achieve a stronger and supportive connection with Sarika and to help regulate her emotional state using knowledge I learned from cognitive neuroscience and art therapy theories. By adopting a right-brain relational approach, building connection through body language and art-making, adopting a humble attitude and trusting the Creative Spirit, I was able to help Sarika calm down and arrive at a deeper appreciation of the strength of our relationship and the necessity of art and play to build a strong bond. I will start by providing a description of the events and next offer my analysis grounded first in theories of neuroscience and then in art therapy theories, lastly, I will provide a symbolic interpretation of the art process and product.
On July 31, 2020 around 4pm, my husband, Ryan, and our four kids came home. I had not seen them for several days. Sarika, the youngest, was feeling very sad. She would not say “hi” to me, was reserved, would not come in the house – unusual behaviour for her as she is normally very outgoing, delighted to see me and quick to take direction and suggestion. She screamed at me to go away when I tried to talk to her. She was sad about a horse. “Horsey horsey” she cried. Ryan carried her into the house, and we had some tea and muffins for which she calmed down. After we finished our snack, she ran to her pony-sized toy horse in the living room, climbed on and continued her wailing, “horsey horsey”. Her older sisters were leaving to go to their stepmom’s house. She would not hug them, or say bye, she only wailed louder– this is atypical behaviour as normally she is very affectionate with them. When her sisters left, I considered what to do about Sarika. I sat next to her for a bit and said some compassionate things to try to calm her down. But I knew that her brain had become disconnected and she was set in a groove that would run its course in about 20 minutes. I could just leave her to wail. But I wanted to help her. I saw the moon sand bin and wondered if that might work to get her out of her wailing neuropathway. I pulled it out and set it up on the floor near her. I did not say anything to her. I did not look at her. I pulled off the lid and started to dig my hands into the moon sand. Immediately, she climbed off the horse, stopped her wailing, wiped her tears, and with some fragility still, suggested that we build the tower we were talking about building a different time. I enthusiastically agreed. So, she joined me, and we built together. We talked about our plans for building, first we would make all the moon sand into balls, and we would pile them on one side of the bin. We made slides for the balls as we were building and pretended to eat them. I felt my hands digging into the soft moon sand and heard my son playing Beyblades in the background. I asked Sarika about the horse and learned the story of what happened. (She had seen a horse on a rest stop while driving back to Edmonton and had not wanted to leave it). As we played, her sadness vanished, but she was still a little tender. We built and moulded for close to an hour, we shared stories and thoughts, she chattered to me about Paw Patrol and dogs, by the end we had built our tower and then the play shifted to wanting to add a dog bowl, or make oats etc. My back had started complaining after only 20 minutes of sitting on the floor, Sarika was back to being her happy self, so when we finished our project, I excused myself.
In their acclaimed book, The Whole Brained Child, (2012) Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson offer the analogy of our mind as being like a “river of well-being” (p.11); when we are feeling good and stable it is as if we are floating in a canoe down the middle of a river, both sides of our brain are connected, but, sometimes we can veer to close to one bank or the other; if we become too left-brained we go to the left bank, this brings rigid thinking and inflexibility; whereas if we become too right-brained we move to the right bank, which brings chaos and unpredictability. Naturally, both extremes can be frightening. When I observed Sarika wailing about a horse I reasoned that she was too close to the bank of rigidity; she would not budge from the back of her toy horse, nor talk to anyone, she only persisted in one pattern- of vocalizing “horsey horsey”. Sarika was denying her emotions, not responding to questions about how she was feeling. Her voice and body language showed despair, hopelessness and sadness, through the tears, wails, slumped shoulders and cries, but when asked how she was feeling she remained rigid and simply called out “horsey”. At times, she switched like lightening to the right-brain of chaos and would lash out at us verbally for trying to help her; she became out of control and unpredictable.
There was a great deal of disintegration happening in her brain, in addition to her left and right brain being disintegrated, her amygdala had hijacked her higher thinking capacities. The amygdala’s role is to “quickly process emotions, especially anger and fear” (Siegel & Bryson 2012, p. 42). These are emotions associated with our survival. Higher order thinking, which enables us adults to (hopefully) reason our way out of stressful situations, does not fully develop until we are in our mid-twenties (Siegel & Bryson, 2012). Sarika had perceived leaving the horse a life threatening and her amygdala had taken over; she had become stuck in a neuropathway of anger and rigidity without any way to escape from it because of her developmental stage. My goal was to move her back to the centre of the river of well-being and reconnect both halves of her brain because “[i]ntegrating the left brain with the right helps to keep children from floating too close to one bank or the other” (Siegel & Bryson, 2012 p. 21).
One might question why I did not let Sarika bring herself back to a regulated state. Afterall, in about 20 minutes of crying, the storm would pass, and she would resettle. It is true that she would have passed through it eventually with time, but my concern was that left alone, this would strengthen patterns of rigidity in her brain. The quality of our early experiences shapes our brains and indicates what experiences we will seek out later in life; they shape our vulnerabilities and our strengths (Sroufe, Coffino & Carlson, 2009). I wanted to find a way to strengthen pathways of connection so that Sarika would seek out connection in her life. There are two main motivations for this, one from research and the other from personal experience. I will present the research first.
Dr. Gabor Maté’s influential book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2018), provides a starting point with insights into this question. Dr. Maté (2018) explains the correlation between pain and addiction; the more pain in one’s life, the higher the chance of addiction occurring. He describes advances in neuroscience which reveal that the environment of the child is the primary agent in shaping the child’s personality and brain development and further, that the child’s brain development has the greatest impact on addiction (Maté, 2018). In contrast to other mammals, 90% of human brain development occurs after birth, we are born wired for new wiring and it is our environmental experiences which strengthen some connections and eliminate others, as all the neural connections compete with each other to grow; it is in these early childhood years that all the potentialities of connections exist in the brain, which will ultimately shape it to make healthier, or unhealthier choices later in life (Maté, 2018). I was aware of this brain science when I saw Sarika in pain and I knew I had an opportunity for an intervention- to wire her neurons in healthier ways. Had I left her to pass through her tantrum alone, her brain would have strengthened connections between emotional pain and isolation.
My basic knowledge of neuroscience fosters in me a vigilance to guard against establishing neuro connections of isolation and pain, as this is the pathway which, in extreme cases, leads to addiction. Of greater importance to me, however, is that my children are capable and high-functioning members of society, who are able to contribute to humanity’s material, emotional, mental and spiritual advancement, thereby contributing to the betterment of the world. In order for my vision to manifest, I recognize the necessity of creating strong connections of support and emotional connection. The opposite of a painful childhood is a securely attached childhood. The role of nurturing adults in the early years creates optimum neural development in the child’s emotional centres in the brain and the importance of consistent emotional nurturing cannot be overstated (Maté, 2018).
Naturally, the most influential place for emotional nurturing to occur is in the family unit. The family is the basic building block of society, if you have securely attached families, you will have a healthy society (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 1982). It is this primary attachment which is responsible for the raising of a well-adjusted adult, capable of contributing to the advancement of our society. In our current cultural system, attachment between caregivers and children are in a state of distress (Neufeld & Maté, 2013). When Sarika was in a state of distress I was motivated to ease her distress, reintegrate her brain and foster attachment.
Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuroscientist, coined this clever rhyme about brain cells, “cells that fire together, wire together” (Maté, 2018, Keysers & Gazzola, 2014). As mentioned, in childhood the brain is undergoing a massive wiring project. Because I was a source of comfort to Sarika when she was in distress, her brain pathways will develop to see me as a safe and helpful person; to build on this idea, it is not only to me that she creates a stronger attachment, but to people too. Via strengthening her attachment to me, she also learns to trust people when she is in pain; she learns that community and connection can help.
My second reason for wanting to support Sarika is personal. Trusting community and family connections is different from what I learned as a child. I grew up with trauma in my home which led to poor attachment, addiction and mental health challenges in my youth and early adulthood. Years of therapy, lifestyle and medication have provided a stable brain in my adult life, however, due to my own background, I am acutely aware of the power of attachment and the strong influence of the mother and other primary caregivers – both for negative and positive effects.
When I examined my ancestors’ lives and learned about what traumas they experienced, the trauma of my own upbringing made more sense. Traumas of one generation can pass down three to four generations, even if the individuals are unaware of the original traumas (Wolynn, 2016). I believe that it is the task of an individual to heal the traumas of her ancestors and provide the strongest foundation for her offspring and future generations. So, although I have done much healing in my life and offer a more stable home for my children than my own childhood home, I am motivated to always be building these attachments with my children. Gabor Maté (2108) explains that “even milder disruptions in early childhood experience and brain development often result in “milder” forms of substance use or in non-drug, behavioural addictions” (p. 195). Building on this idea, the greater the emotional connection in childhood, the less likely for addiction of all types to occur.
At this point with Sarika, however, these theories were not going to help her. I needed to create a real connection with her. Our society values words and logic and trains us to work out our problems using these tools (Siegel & Bryson, 2012). When Sarika was upset the first thing I tried was to talk to her about it. This failed, resulting in no movement from her state of grief. Sigel and Bryson (2012) explain that we need to first establish connection with the right brain in order to gain access to the left brain and talk things out. In order to create a relationship with Sarika, I used a right-brain to right-brain relational approach. In order to communicate in this manner, I became hyper aware of my body language, facial expressions, movement and positioning in relation to Sarika. As the research explains, [t]he right brain … is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate, such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures” (Siegel & Bryson, 2012, p.16). I reprocessed the situation in terms of non-verbal signals and allowed myself to become the lesser in our dyad, to bring Sarika into a more capable role.
In order to better understand the mechanics of this it is useful to consider the role of power dynamics. Ottemiller and Awais (2016) suggest that balancing power is one of the roles of an Art Hive facilitator. As a parent working with my child, I was acutely aware of the power differential. Although impossible to balance entirely, I could strive to move further towards balance. As non-verbal communication is a critical component of parent child relations, I was aware of the powerful effect my body language could have on Sarika (Colegrove Havighurst 2017). Hence, I deliberately placed myself on the ground with my back slightly turned away from Sarika. Sarika was high above me, sitting on her life-sized pony. By placing myself on the ground and turning away, I was putting myself in a more vulnerable position; she could have hit or kicked me quite easily. In addition, by making myself vulnerable, I also communicated to her that I trusted her, and that she was a safe person for me, therefore, because I saw her as safe, this also helped her to see herself as safe.
This is an important point to explore, the idea of how through my own body movements I could affect Sarika’s image of herself. Guided by Feldenkrais teachings, the way that a person holds himself tells an Art Hive facilitator how he sees himself and expanding on this point, the manner in which an Art Hive facilitator holds herself in relation to the participant can affect how he holds himself and therefore sees himself (O. Peru, personal communication, July 27, 2020). I have a strong familiarity with using my own non-verbal signals from when I work with animals. In Sarika’s case, I very actively influenced her sense of who she was by placing myself in a vulnerable position next to her. The relationship between our behaviours, thoughts and feelings has been well documented; the way we hold our body affects how we feel, which, in turn, affects how we think and our thoughts affect how we hold our body (Williams, Teasdale, Segal & Kabat-Zin, 2007). I elevated Sarika physically and helped her see herself as capable which helped her feel more confident.
Once initial trust was established, I needed to create attunement. Attunement is the characteristic of being “in tune” to another creature, mindful of the dynamic nature of the relationship (Griffith and Griffith, 2003). Siegel and Bryson (2012) describe a therapist attuning to a girl who has withdrawn to a rigid way of thinking, much like my situation with Sarika.
“I allowed myself to feel what she was feeling, then tried to communicate from my right brain to her right brain. Using my facial expressions and posture, I let her know that I was really tuning into her emotions. That attunement helped her “feel felt” - to know that she was not alone, that I was interested in what she was feeling inside, not only what she was doing on the outside. Then, once we had established this sense of connection between us, words came more naturally for both of us, and we could begin to get to the bottom of what was going on inside her” (p. 19).
When Sarika climbed off her horse and joined me in art-making, I attuned to her; I matched my tone of voice and body movements to her, I let her take the lead in deciding what we would be building so that she felt like she had more control in her life again, we spoke about topics which she brought up and her tone of voice and body language relaxed. Through our mutual art-making, my interest in her world, my body language and voice I let her know that I was attuned to her. Once this sense of connection and trust was established between us, it became easier to use words and I could ask her about her feelings and learn what had happened with the horse. I was able to do this because I understood how art-making, body language and tone of voice can create a right-brain to right-brain connection and reconnect the brain when it is out of balance.
When Sarika told me the story of what happened with the horse she was able to reprocess the experience and use both side of her brain, her left brain used language to make sense of what had happened and her right brain offered the emotional side of how she was feeling. In the moment, however, she had been flooded and had not had the opportunity to integrate her brain so the experience remained highly volatile. Once I was able to establish trust and connection with the right brain, I could redirect to the left and talk about what happened, offering logic, advice and explanation; once we connect right-to-right we can proceed to connect left to left (Siegel & Bryson, 2011). Through attunement I was able to help Sarika calm down and relate to her experiences to me using words, which she was previously incapable of doing.
Dr. Alan Schore, (2017) an acclaimed neuroscientist and attachment researcher, explains that the key to effective therapy is to listen with our right-brain,
“an experienced therapist also listens and interacts at another, more subjective level, one that implicitly processes moment-to-moment, social-emotional information at levels below awareness. Beneath the conscious verbal conversation of two left brains is the unconscious nonverbal protoconversation of two right brains” (p. 128).
When I was building in the moonsand with Sarika, through my attunement to her, I was listening with my whole body to her being. I was feeling what she was feeling and on a very visceral level reaching out to her, creating an environment of trust, understanding, love and support. Dr. Schore (2017) continues that through this attunement a therapist “can act as a regulator of the patient’s physiology” (p. 128). This support the Feldenkrais model which states that the experienced Feldenkrais practitioner can affect how another feels through their own body movements (O. Peru, personal communication, July 27, 2020).
Further, fMRI brain scans on attuned pairs shows that brain signals synchronize in pairs with a strong bond (Schore, 2017). Because of the attunement and connection, I was able to create with Sarika, I affected her internal brain functioning. Through my own monitoring of my internal state, I was able to smooth her fears and transmit my own curiosity about her internal world; I was able to communicate trust and safety to her, thus she was able to share with me, in words, the experiences which led to her state of grief about the horse.
The moonsand art-making offered a perfect tool for building the connection between Sarika and I. As Siegel and Bryson (2012) explain, “[c]hildren are more apt to share and talk while building something” (p. 28) and Dr. Schore (2017) confirms that playing and art-making together nurtures “complex aspects of the right brain” (p. 130). Norris and Rodwell (2017) assert that playing together is the best way to foster healthy emotional regulation from parent to child. Thus, when Sarika and I began to play, build, explore and create together, we accessed a complex system of brain psychology which allowed a deeper and more meaningful relationship to transpire between us. It would have been more difficult to create attunement with Sarika without any art making, but when we began to build together and work alongside each other, we naturally created conditions which fostered attunement.
An important ingredient in nurturing attunement is humility. To quote the Universal House of Justice (2018), I needed to bring myself into a “humble posture of learning” (para. 3) in order to accompany Sarika on her inner journey. I had to guard against a patronizing or superior attitude. Sarika needed to be the leader on our voyage together. As Brandt (2008) explains, we who are art facilitators cannot enter the scenario with,
“a rigid adherence to some predetermined vision or outcome but rather a deep commitment to accompany people in a process of exploring their own histories, identities, struggles and hopes - not knowing where it will lead. Such commitment is based on respect and humility” (p. 101)
Gobel-Parker (2010) also emphasizes the danger of creating a paternalistic environment when working with children; instead of seeing a child as someone needing to be led, children are seen as important holders of knowledge, capable of thriving and learning. When I pulled the moonsand bin close to me and sat on the floor near Sarika, I had no script in my mind. I could not make her play with me; I could not force her to tell me what was going on, or coerce her into trusting me. I showed her that I respected her space by allowing her the choice of joining me, or ignoring me. Through my humility Sarika felt empowered and was able to take the role of the protagonist in her own healing journey. Sarika became the holder of knowledge, teaching me about her goals and dreams.
Rachel Chainey, Art Hives National Coordinator, supports a humble attitude too; she teaches a “back door” approach to helping participants who are stuck to start to move creatively; she offers a “lead from behind” model of Art Hive facilitation where the facilitator moves someone into art-making in a non-direct way (R. Chainey, personal communication, July 29, 2020.). By placing myself with the moonsand within easy reach of Sarika, but providing no direction to her, I was “leading from behind” and going through the “back door”. Like the examples that Chainey provides, the Art Hive facilitator will always be engaged in her own art-making, as an Art Hive is primarily an art studio facility (R. Chainey, personal communication, July 29, 2020.). Leaning on this learning, I allowed Sarika to be in the presence of my own art-making in hopes of drawing her onto the creative path. Approaching Sarika in a non-direct way is precisely what the neuroscience confirms as being a relational, right-brain approach. I has tried to approach her directly, and was met with resistance, but because I went around “the back”, her conscious mind was not aroused and once we had established trust, I was able to talk to her about her feelings.
The way that my home environment is structured was of great assistance to me in building connection through creative play with Sarika. In a Reggio-Emilia educational approach the environment of the child is the “third most important teacher” (p. 148), and children have hundreds of ways of expressing themselves; the environment should support these hundreds of ways (Rudienė, Volkovickienė & Butvilas, 2016). “The physical space can be defined as a language, which speaks according to precise cultural conceptions and deep biological roots” (Rinaldi, 2013, p.29).
One of the many languages of my own my home is art-making. My home is set up to encourage spontaneous art-making. According to the Reggio-Emmila theory, my role, as the educator of my child, is to create an environment which supports her in a wholistic way, allowing expression of all her hundreds of languages (Rinaldi, 2013). We have a cabinet of art resources encompassing materials such as: markers, paints, paper, scissors, glue, tape, feathers, sculpting clay, wire, beading, foam, collage, rocks, moonsand and more, anything that can be used to create! It is natural for me to reach for art materials to help distressed children and when Sarika was upset, it was easy to find inspiration in the home environment to access sensory methods of knowing and relate to her in a non-verbal, right-brain manner.
When we engage creatively, we heal ourselves, and by extension, the world. It is becoming increasingly obvious how we are all connected; science is confirming what many spiritual traditions have taught over the ages, that we are all one (Cann, 2010). To be human is to be creative; it is creativity which defines our humanity (Gates, 2017). Creativity connects us to our deepest levels of self, leads us on a powerful inner voyage, helps us uncover new meanings and grows our spirits (Telfer, 2018). By offering Sarika a creative avenue for expression, I was offering her a path of self-knowledge and spirituality. Creativity soothes us and calms us, it feeds our souls (Allen, 2005). Our recent advances in neuroscience confirm this; when we are creative powerful chemical reactions are occurring in our brains; oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding in social relationships, is enhanced when we engage creatively, oxytocin calms the stress response mechanism of the brain and increases the reward processing circuits (Dreu, Baas, Roskes, Sligte, Ebstein, Chew, Tong, Jiang, Mayseless, Shamay-Tsoory, 2014). When we are creative, we are happier and more serene. When Sarika began to move creatively she was able to calm down, heal and process what had upset her.
Lessons from the Art.
Although the creative process is healing in itself, the finished piece also has a message to share with its creator. As Pat Allen (2005) teaches us, the art piece has an intention for what it wishes to become; creativity itself is the teacher, healer and guide. In this art piece the process and the symbols have teachings to share. I will first describe the teachings of the process and next the symbols.
When Sarika joined me on the floor and dug her hands into the moonsand, the first thing she suggested was that we build a tower together. We could have played side by side, each of us working on her own creation, but Sarika send a powerful message of connection to me by asking to build a tower together. She answered my non-verbal invitation of building connection by asking to build together. She drew on our shared history and remembered that we had plans in place for building with moonsand. It had been at least several months since we had last played in the moonsand together, but she immediately remembered. To me this shows that Creativity wanted us to be aware of the strength of our bond and attachment. The Creative Spirit connected us together in our mutual building, but not only connected us in the present moment, connected us to our past, showing us the strength of our relationship.
There are five key symbols: the moonsand, the balls, slides, food and a tower. The choice of materials was guided by the Creative Spirit. My eyes fell upon the moonsand bin and I pulled it close, this choice was intuitive and creative. Moonsand is soft and easy, and life was being hard. The Creative Spirit knew that we needed a calming medium to work with and Sarika and I both felt very satisfied feeling the easy texture of the moonsand. A ball is a universally known toy, it symbolizes fun, play and high-spirits. By building balls together, we were sending messages of play to each other. Further to this, slides are another well-loved toy, by many types of mammals! We sent symbols of play along pathways designed for play. The Creative Spirit was emphasizing the playful bond between us. Next the balls became food; food provides sustenance and energy; it is what we need for our physical body to thrive. By pretending to eat the balls, (the symbols of play), the Creative Spirit was showing us how necessary and vital play is to our relationship. And once we had nourished our bodies and spirits with play, we completed the project with a tower. A tower is a symbol of strength and unity, it is used for seeing from a great distance and for alerting others, either of an attack or a call to prayer; a tower is a sign of upliftment. The fruits of our efforts yielded an impressive structure, built and nourished by creative play, reaching upwards - showing us the strength of what we can accomplish when we play and create together. Once more the Creative Spirit was guiding us, showing us the reality of our relationship as being a firm foundation of connection and play, a foundation on which we could build a tower.
An Art Hive is a place where we can “experiment with ideas through humble inquiry and arts-based research” (Timm-Bottos & Chainey, 2015, p. 4). In this paper I have provided evidence of how this type of approach in a mother-daughter relationship can shift a negative dynamic into a positive one, in a gentle and non-direct way. Using an arts-based intervention Sarika moved from being in a state of disintegration to a state of integration. She started out with chaos and rigidity and through engaging with art-making was able to “demonstrate the qualities we associate with someone who is mentally and emotionally healthy: she [was] flexible, adaptive, stable, and able to understand herself and the world around her” (Siegel & Bryson, 2012, p. 13).
Exploring the advances in neuroscience provides fascinating insights into what is happening in our brains when we are making art together, although it seems like we are not communicating, in fact there is much conversation happening; neurotransmitters are synchronizing and filling us with joy and we program our brains to connect and be calm with each other. The story with Sarika offers a small glimpse into the potential of what the effect of making art might be on more severe cases of brain damage. More research needs to be done in this area of neuroscience and Art Hives. What happens to the brain of an Art Hive participant who has PTSD, anxiety, addictions or other more extreme forms of brain disintegration?
Not only can the arts affect our brain chemistry to make us more bonded and happier, but the act of creating art leads us to a deeper knowledge of who we are, creativity makes the unconscious conscious and the arts allow us to access deeper levels of knowing reality. “Arts … uplift the world of being” (Bahá’u’lláh, 1988, p. 26). The tower we created shows this statement manifested, a tower is what we climb when we want to get higher and the neuroscience provides scientific evidence of this claim. Strong towers in families create strong societies and this paper shows that the arts are necessary for building strong societies. I am hopeful that with the new developments of cognitive neuroscience the arts will be increasingly elevated in society and understood to be necessary for the strength and upliftment of our world.
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