Episode 48: Interview with Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Neurodharma and Buddha’s Brain

Dr. Rick Hanson author of Buddha's Brain and Neurodharma

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Dr. Rick Hanson is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and the New York Times best-selling author of Buddha’s Brain, Hardwiring Happiness, and his latest book, Neurodharma.

I had a chance to talk with Dr. Rick Hanson a couple months ago and we’ve been saving this episode to start out this new year’s interview series. In our conversation, Dr. Hanson shared powerful insights from neuroscience on how to practically embrace the positive in our lives and grow our extraordinary potential for inner happiness without denying any of our pain. 

While speaking authoritatively on contemplative neuroscience, Dr. Hanson also humbly compared our current knowledge of the brain to physics as it was 300 years ago, and he gave some tantalizing thoughts on where neuroscience might go in the coming years. 

Dr. Hanson surprised me by citing the contentedness of a cat sleeping on the couch as possible evidence for the innate potential for good. And, in words that reflect on the frightening attack on democracy in our capital last week, Dr. Hanson forcefully rebuked political systems and rhetoric that erode people’s ability to discern the truth and to trust one another.

Scott Snibbe: Dr. Hansen, it’s a pleasure to have you here on the podcast.  We were scheduled to lead a retreat together at Vajrapani Institute before the pandemic hit and I was really disappointed that got canceled. So now we finally have a chance to talk. I also just want to mention how much I’m a fan of your book, Buddha’s Brain, which I would still say is best book I’ve ever seen on the intersection of neuroscience and contemplation. So thank you for that, and also your most recent book, Neurodharma, which is quite a deep dive into different stages of practice.  I also think that’s a wonderful book.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Thank you.

Scott Snibbe: You’ve agreed to lead a meditation for us, which we’ll talk about a little bit at the end of the episode and we’ll release as an episode following this. So we’re excited for that.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Great. Well, I’m very happy to be here. You got the word skeptic in and you’ve got the word enlightenment in, you’re good people. So I’m really happy to be here.

Scott Snibbe: I’d love to start out with a question about the mind. Can you tell us what the definition of the mind is, from both the neuroscientific and the Buddhist perspective?

Dr. Rick Hanson: I will start first, let’s say with neuroscience and psychology. Then maybe venture to the many Buddhisms that there are actually. From a psychology standpoint, we start with our own experiences. It seems undeniable that there is hearing, there is seeing, there is wanting, there is remembering, there’s thinking, suffering, enjoying, and so forth.

So there are experiences, there is phenomenology. And it also seems clear that there is materiality. There is stuff. There are rocks. There are water, sticks. There are cells, there are bones. So we have a body. And by the word mind broadly, that’s a term that’s been used routinely in psychology, certainly in a formal sense for well over a hundred years, it refers to the totality of our experiences, including then it tends to get stretched into underlying unconscious processes as well, as a form of mental activity outside the field of awareness.

The intersection with neuroscience has to do with the ways in which the function of the nervous system is to process information. That’s it’s evolved function. Information definitely is an aspect or feature of other systems in the body, such as the immune system, but the primary apparatus whereby information is received, processed, stored, transformed, and communicated, and there is learning through information processing. The primary vehicle of that is the nervous system.

The nervous system moves information around like the cardiovascular system moves blood around. So information by its very nature is intangible. It is not material. It exists, it’s an aspect of the natural ordinary Big Bang universe, but it is different from matter and energy stuff.

So we have these two aspects, mind and matter, very broadly defined. And so the way cognitive neuroscientists implicitly, and I would do it explicitly, define mind as all the information in a nervous system. This means that a squirrel has a mind. A cat has a mind. A cat, clearly has a mind of its own. Our daughter has a cat who clearly has a mind of his own.

And so, these are all natural. It’s evident as well that the nervous system is processing information. How do we move from that to our experiences?

That is the so-called “hard problem” in cognitive neuroscience. And I think there are a long ways away from resolving it. But I certainly approach it—and I think scientists approach it—as a natural phenomenon: that experiences, whether they are squirrels or natural phenomenon, there’s no need necessarily to resort to transcendental or supernatural X factors to account for the hearing, the seeing of a squirrel.

Then some, and this has been a strong theme throughout history, philosophy, religion, and so forth and arguably in Tibetan Buddhism, some would argue that for a full account, of the experiences of humans and perhaps those of squirrels, we must include supernatural and transcendental factors.

So I’m just kind of setting the table here. I’m happy to operate inside the natural frame of ordinary reality. I’m also happy to contemplate on and consider, albeit skeptically, transcendental and supernatural factors. But that’s essentially how mind is understood.

And I find it really quite straight forward and simple. We’re having a streaming of consciousness that’s rested in and enabled by a streaming of information that is resting in and enabled by a streaming of neurological processes that are rested in and enabled by a streaming of broader biological processes inside a particular body, which are rested in and enabled by a streaming of life altogether, which rests in, is enabled by, the whole natural, ordinary physical universe, which, who knows?, rests in and is streaming along in something ultimately absolute, perhaps divine.

Scott Snibbe: Wonderful. So even from a scientific view, and a psychological point of view, it sounds like an understanding of the mind is non-controversial: that there is some immaterial aspect to our mental experience.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah, information is not material. It exists. I created that frame because I’ve found that if we don’t establish a frame, it creates all kinds of controversies and confusions later on. So it’s like the foundation of a building, but that’s the last bit of philosophy I’m going to get into.

The basic idea is that all mental activity involves neural activity. And this means that we can skillfully engage mental activity that enlists neural activity deliberately to produce lasting changes to neural structure and function that are the basis of lasting positive growth and healing and awakening even in us individuals.

Scott Snibbe: Could you elaborate a little more on the relationship between the mind and the brain? What I love about your writing and the way that you talk is a much subtler understanding of the interconnection of mind and brain, but there’s certainly people you can find out there who will say the mind is the brain.

Dr. Rick Hanson: The brain is physical. The mind is not physical. I think there’s a philosophical stance called dual aspect monism. In other words, we have these clearly categorically different things: an idea, where is an idea located? It’s immaterial. Where is information located?

Now the substrate that represents that information is material: whether it’s the transformation of electromagnetic waves or physical squiggles or marks in a clay tablet, 5,000 years ago, let’s say in Babylon. It’s widely accepted that flows of experience entail, require, are embedded in, underlying physical processes.

The problem is a lot of people think that that incorrectly means that experience is somehow reduced to the meat. And then all kinds of weird, distracting questions having to do with free will and determinism get thrown into the mix.

But clearly a way into this, I think has to do with understanding different kinds of causes or what enables things. So, as far as we know, mind requires matter, in the meaning of that that I’m using: information embedded in a biological creature with a nervous system.

Now, just because a worm with 302 neurons, that’s the length of a millimeter—that’s the creature with the smallest nervous system that’s known to science. Just because it’s doing information processing, and in that sense has mental activity doesn’t mean that it has conscious experiences, awareness. It might well be a zombie.

I don’t think the goldfish in the pond in my backyard are zombies. They’re responsive. They’re alert. They sleep. They wake squirrels are not zombies. You’re not a zombie. I’m not a zombie. There is awareness.   

My point here that I’m trying to make is to appreciate the ways in which the flows of experience, which involve in my view, most fundamentally, and are manifestations of flows of information; those flows of experience, those flows of information have causal power of their own.

So in that sense, the mind is not reduced to the meat. In other words, like in this conversation, you’re tossing me informational softballs. I’m responding to them; the ways  that we use language sequentially, it has a causal flow; thinking about what you’re saying. I’m trying to respond to it in various ways.

Those flows of information and experience enlist underlying flows of neural activity that can represent any information in the association cortices of the brain. And this is actually really useful.

So if I were to highlight, if I could Scott, a couple of key points here.

One, experiences are natural phenomena. Bingo. The mind body process has dual aspects of it that are categorically distinct and yet are a single integrated process unfolding. The body-mind processes, to use the central metaphor from Neurodharma, my book, “eddies in the stream” and integrated mind, body nama and rupa, in Sanskrit, eddies in the stream. That’s a key point.

And the aspect of that integrated mind body process that is the mind has causal force of its own. It arises interdependently. It doesn’t have self existence. It’s empty and shunyata in the technical sense while being existent with causal force.

Scott Snibbe: It’s just so nice the way you describe that. Because it seems wholly acceptable to a scientific, skeptical person, but preserves the subtlety and the experiential reality of the mind and of information.

One last question on this topic. You’re also a dedicated Buddhist practitioner. Does your own personal view of the mind as an experienced Buddhist practitioner, diverge from the current scientific consensus? If you feel comfortable answering this question.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Well, consensus…

Scott Snibbe: Yes. Scientific consensus is almost a joke, right?

Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah, the way I would put it myself is that a person can take the insights in the Buddhist traditions broadly. I think Theravada is most readily understood, probably Zen as well, I think readily understood entirely within the natural frame.

So one can go a very long way with the Buddha’s insights into unconditioned, the unconditioned.

 There are no articles in Pali. There’s no the or a, so it’s not “the.” If you say the unconditioned nouns, it makes it a noun. Unconditionality I think is a better way to put it. In Pali nouns are essentially gerunds. So it’s not so much a dog, you know, it’s dogging. Anyway, it’s very process oriented.

Scott Snibbe: That’s why you were saying “selfing.”

Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah, yeah, exactly right.

The point I’m trying to make here is that one can go very far as people like Stephen Batchelor, Leigh Brasington, Christina Feldman, Andy Olendzki. You can go really far without moving outside of ordinary reality. In other words, without referring to anything transcendental or supernatural.

My own view personally is that, first, the Buddha was referring to something beyond ordinary reality when he spoke of unconditioned in various ways. And, more fundamentally whether the Buddha was right about that, which is a secondary question. I think there actually is a transcendental, I think there actually are supernatural factors that truly are meaningfully distinct from the ordinary Big Bang universe. I don’t assert that dogmatically to persuade somebody, but that’s my own view.

And so science stops there. Science stops at what cannot be verified through experiments, hypotheses, formations that can be falsified as it were. You know that.

And so a fundamental description of the mind that’s embedded in the Pali Canon is thoroughly consistent with our modern neuropsychological understanding. And where I think you find transcendental and especially supernatural factors spoken to as if they’re existent and not merely metaphorical, like in Tibetan Buddhism, and in Pure Land Buddhism; then I think science just throws up its hands and a truly scientific attitude says, “Don’t know. There be dragons there!”

Scott Snibbe: This brings me to a wonderful point in Buddha’s Brain where you described science’s understanding of the brain as similar to where physics was at the time of Galileo. You said it might take a similar stretch of time, like 200 to 300 years, to get to the same place with brain science, of where geniuses like Einstein and and Bohr took us with physics.

What you just said, the humility of where we are, with a scientific understanding of the mind. Could you talk a little about where brain science is today with respect to the mind and where you might imagine it going in a hundred years, 200 years?

Dr. Rick Hanson: What’s interesting is, when you read neuroscience studies, which I do routinely, they have a quality that I I’ve come to think of as fractal. You burrow into a detail. And when you burrow into that detail, which is, let’s say one percent of the larger topic you’re engaging. When you burrow into that detail, you realize that within that detail are a hundred separate things, each of which has one percent.

And you burrow into one of them. And then it’s just one percent of the one percent. And yet it too has another one hundred. I’m making these numbers up, but you get the idea. It has that quality to it. So, I think that we, on the one hand, have very good understanding in terms of neuropsychology of, I would say, macro level processes.

There is enough now that we can use well. Scientists will keep burrowing into the details, but there is enough that we can use well. And maybe we’ll talk about some examples of that. Particularly since the use of  these understandings, these insights, are consistent with the wisdom traditions around the world.

So there’s a lot of common sense that underlies it. The more you understand what’s beneath the macro level, the more you realize how little we know.

And another metaphor might be in terms of technology. It’s a little bit like biology was a hundred years or so after the invention of the microscope, which is to say around nearly 300 years ago. That’s roughly also I think where we are in terms of developing a complete understanding of the mind body process.

And particularly working through the hard problem: How does information processing embedded in a physical matrix or substrate, how does that become the experiences of simple animals like crabs who experience a bit of pain; shrimp or crawfish which have the underlying  neurological  machinery that’s quite comparable to our own for anxiety. You know, do they feel fear? I think we’re several hundred years away from that full, complete understanding.

Scott Snibbe: The honesty of saying that is, is very powerful.  

Dr. Rick Hanson:  My kind of weird hope is that at some point a bunch of august scientists, Nobel prize winners 300 or so years from now, space shuttles zooming around, will stand on the steps of the lighthouse and say, We have learned everything there is to learn within natural reality about this physical mind, body process and mysteries remain.

Scott Snibbe: That brings us to the more practical questions. And you’ve written so much about this. Could we start by talking about what positive and negative mental states do to our mind and body from the neuroscientific perspective, maybe even what positive and negative mental states are?

Dr. Rick Hanson: There’s a lot at the macro level here about that. So let’s just take stress, the experience of stress. First, I want to make a key distinction. Stressors do not equal stress.

As people become more resilient and they develop things like equanimity, inner shock absorbers, challenges can occur. But internally there need not be that experience of stress, which typically involves extremes of parasympathetic or sympathetic activation in terms of the autonomic nervous system.

For those not so familiar with this lingo, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is the original primary aspect of autonomic control that’s calming and centering. But an extreme of it moves into the freeze response.

We also have the more recent branch, the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved with activation revving up and can tip into the fight flight response.

The crux then of stress is the combination of extreme activations of these systems accompanied by negative emotion. Negative is just a term. It’s not that they’re bad. It’s just a term. Typically fear, anger, sorrow, or feelings of inadequacy, shame. Those are the four major negative emotion bounds as understood certainly in Western psychology.

So that’s stress. And when organisms when animals, whether it’s us or cats, experienced stress, typically with releases of cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones; that is designed by mother nature to be a brief episode. As Robert Sapolsky put it, most episodes of stress in the wild end quickly one way or another. Right? You’re chasing the food, you get it, the food is fleeing from you. It flees, or it doesn’t. Either way, the episode ends one way or another.

But chronic stress and traumatic stress is actually deleterious to the body and the mind in all kinds of ways that have been well-studied at this point.

So that’s an example. Suffering wears us down. Suffering is not good for us. Suffering is an aspect of life. There is suffering. It’s not the entirety of life. But it wears us down. I grew up in LA, and certainly some people are caught up in pushing away any and all negative experiences.

But in my experience there are many, many more people—for every one of them there are probably 19 other people—who over-marinate in and succumb to and are passive and inert in their relationship to emotionally negative experiences that they could actually do something about, through practice.

It doesn’t mean suppressing them. We practice with mindfulness. We practice with insight. We practice with turning toward other beneficial things that are true. You know, deal with the bad, turn to the good, take in the good. Those three statements summarize a lot of practice there.

And neurologically, there’s tremendous evidence that emotionally positive experiences of various kinds pull us out of stressful episodes. They reduce the bad. And also emotionally positive experiences do a variety of things like motivate us toward the good. That’s useful right there.

They also are calming and soothing. One little example of that, I think is that the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala, has oxytocin receptors on it. Oxytocin’s a neurochemical whose activity increases as our sense of heartfelt positive relatedness increases.

“Deal with the bad, turn to the good, take in the good. Those three statements summarize a lot of practice. Neurologically, there’s tremendous evidence that emotionally positive experiences pull us out of stressful episodes.”

—Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this Scott, hanging out with your here in this very friendly way. I’m just imagining we have a cup of tea between us, even though we’re doing this virtually. It’s nice! And so, okay, there’s more oxytocin activity, probably. Guys have oxytocin too. I think I am cis-gender male. But between us we have oxytocin, as well.

And in the amygdala oxytocin activity at those receptor sites has an inhibitory effect. It’s calming. It dials down the alarm bell. It says this, “Okay, sweetie, you can chill out.”

Now that’s one example of ways in which emotionally positive experiences can be beneficial for us. People like Barbara Fredrickson, who was very bold and courageous early in her career. it could have ended her career to study positive emotions as she has documented again and again.

And, you know, happiness is skillful means.

Scott Snibbe: The perils of studying positive emotions.

Dr. Rick Hanson: I know, really?

Scott Snibbe: Science is interesting that way. The culture of science, that is. One of your most famous statements, certainly that I really resonate with is that you say how our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. I like, I use these two trademarks.

Dr. Rick Hanson: I know. I get a percent every time I use them.

Scott Snibbe: And even though most of our experiences are probably neutral or positive for almost everybody on earth, help us understand that. Can you explain, this phenomenon of our minds and how to counteract it?

Dr. Rick Hanson: This is one of those macro level insights from brain science that’s highly documented. There are minor exceptions to it, which I can speak to, but the broad thrust of it is that we have a brain that evolved to do five things. 

First, scan for bad news: out in the world, in the physical body, and in the mind. It’s very interesting to appreciate the ways in which we tend to have this scanning process that, as with other aspects of the negativity bias it’s called, can be heightened both by temperament and life experiences.

So we tend to scan for bad news.

Number two, we over-focus upon it. When there’s that one frown on your partner’s face, that’s the one thing you really see. That one word of criticism from your boss, that’s the one thing you fastened upon, right? We over-focus upon it. That’s why positive emotions broaden our field of view, perceptually. We take more information into account. There’s a lot of research about that.

So, we look for bad news. Number two, we over-focus on it. Number three, we overreact to it. People react more to pain than to pleasure of equal intensities. We react more to loss than to gain: Daniel Kaneman’s work on behavioral economics, loss aversion.

With negative interactions, interpersonally we tend to get more agitated about it. I can say that as a guy married 38 years. It’s still true for me.

Fourth, we over-remember it. Negative experiences are fast-tracked. They’re privileged in terms of memory storage. They go right in. Bingo! whether it’s an episode, so we have that kind of memory, it’s called episodic or explicit memory; or more implicit: the accumulating residues, you know, of moments of of fear, of helplessness, of hurt, gradually sinking into us.

While meanwhile, positive experiences unless they’re million-dollar moments don’t have that bias. They tend to wash on through. So there’s a quantity effect for positive experiences in the lives of most people. But there’s definitely a quality effect for negative ones.

So those are four things that the brain is designed to do. And then there’s a fifth, the brain is designed to be sensitized by the negative in ways that are much more powerful than its capacity to be sensitized by the positive.

As the stress hormone cortisol is released, it moves into the brain. And in the brain that hormone is related as well to feeling angry, not just stress. You know, stress, it sounds kind of narrow when we’re irritated, when we’re feeling pressured, when we’re racing to a meeting and we’re late, when we’re rehashing a conversation with our kid again, and again,  we’re stressed.

So cortisol is released. It goes up into the brain and in the brain, it sensitizes the amygdala, the alarm bell of the brain. Technically there are two of them, one on either side. And cortisol also gradually weakens and eventually kills neurons on a nearby part of the brain, the hippocampus, which puts things into perspective.

The hippocampus also inhibits the amygdala, calms it down. And the hippocampus signals the hypothalamus, Quit calling for stress hormones. We have enough already! So that creates a vicious cycle. Upsetting negative experiences today, even mild ones. But if they’re chronic, you know, if you’re in the pink zone, not just the full red zone, but the pink zone, most of the minutes of your day, at least in your background a sense of uneasiness and agitation and worry and alarm—hard not to be there right in this time of COVID.

Then what happens is that gradually our stressful upsetting experiences today make us a little more vulnerable, a little pricklier, a little more sensitized to negative experiences tomorrow. So we react just a little more to them tomorrow, which makes us even more vulnerable for the day after that, in a vicious cycle kind of way.

And then last of these five things I’ve mentioned, scanning for bad news over-focusing on it, overreacting to it, over-remembering it, and sensitizing to it, then generate a sixth aspect of the negativity bias, which is self-fulfilling prophecies in the world around us, in effect. Or we do things because we read people around us overly negatively.

We overreact to them. They overreact to us. Boom, boom, boom. Welcome to politics. Or family quarrels, that’s the negativity bias. Right?

And so for me, the takeaway is that it’s adaptive. It evolved for good reason back in the stone age, back in Jurassic park. All right. Um, if you’re in really stressful, horrible situations or working in them, like in a war zone, it’s useful, it’s adaptive. But for most people this bias creates lots of unnecessary suffering and interpersonal conflict.

So for me, the takeaway practically is that, when we’re having painful difficult experiences, use them and move on through them in fairly rapid and adaptive ways as best you can. Don’t marinate it them. Don’t indulge yourself there. Don’t sit on the frying pan and sizzle. Shift as soon as you can into a calmer, more centered state.

And then over time, train yourself, develop traits of calm, resilient wellbeing so that you can return to your home base more and more rapidly.

Scott Snibbe: You also write and talk about habits, that every time we have a thought, it’s not just a read event, it’s also a write event.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Very good, yeah.

Scott Snibbe: What practically can we do to counter that negativity bias? Because you start to get nervous, you know, reading your book thinking, Oh no! Every time you even get nervous.

Dr. Rick Hanson: You’re so screwed Scott. It’s over, man. No, no, no. Okay, great. This is a great conversation. You’re raising these huge topics and I keep trying to regulate my tendency to say everything. You know, a quick takeaway here is to kind of summarize: Like I said, deal with the bad.

Nothing in what I’m talking about is about positive thinking or looking on the bright side. No, we got to deal with the bad. We got to deal with challenges, including at the social justice systemic oppression level. Okay. Deal with the bad.

And, turn to the good. Recognize what is also true. Push against this tunnel vision tendency we have to overly isolate on the one tile in the 10 by 10 hundred-tile matrix of the mind in the moment that is blinking red. Don’t get overly sucked into that one red tile.

Deal with it. But widen your view again and again. And gradually trained to develop “trait open-mindedness,” “trait wide view” as it were, of mind. Develop these as traits so that we increasingly are able to overcome this habit that’s biologically grounded in evolution of negativity.

And then, take in the good. So deal with the bad, turn to the good. You know, recognized what’s also true.

The negativity bias is a form of ignorance. I’m using that word in a loose way, delusion, because I’m a psychologist. And I think about what are true delusions, you know what I mean? But I’m using that term loosely here.

And I think that’s where, for people who care a lot about clear seeing, where they’re at. The root of the word for science and Buddhism is the same. It’s “to know,” it’s clear seeing. Ignorance is the root of all suffering most fundamentally, most broadly, right?

So if we care about clear seeing, we want to stand against the negativity bias in our brain.

And so we turn to the good, and then we take in the good.

This is where positive neuroplasticity comes in. This is where learning comes in. We want to learn in the broadest sense; especially social, emotional somatic, motivational, spiritual learning. We want to learn from our beneficial experiences.

So like right here, let’s be real here. This is the first interview I’ve done in about a week. And I said to my wife before we started, “Yeah, honey, I think I’m a little rusty. So I think I was a little rusty, but I’m gradually finding my pace.

I’m deliberately letting in the reassurance of this. I’m letting in your sweet affirming face: you know, the kindness, the Bodhicitta in your face, the fruit of a lot of practice. I’m taking it in here; which involves a matter of just seconds because the brain is super fast. But as the saying has it neurons that fire together wire together. That’s from the work of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb. I did not coin that phrase.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Donald Hebb, 1949

So we have a chance again, and again, many times a day, half a breath at a time; longer if you like. Stay with the experience. Keep those neurons firing together. Try to feel it in your body. Because that will also increase the registration of that experience as a lasting change in neural structure and function.

All learning involves a physical change in the hardware. Otherwise, there’s no learning, by definition, right? If we want to move from states to traits, we have to change the brain in the process.

And you can help your brain change for the better by staying with an experience for a breath or longer, feeling it in your body, and focusing on what feels rewarding about it. There are other things you can do. This is probably one of my primary IPs, the development of self-directed neuroplasticity. What are the mental factors we can actually engage to steep in our healing curve, our growth curve, our learning curve?

It’s remarkable how little attention has been paid to that particular question, whether in mainstream psychology or even in the spiritual tradition, it’s that contemplative tradition. There’s very little attention paid to the actual internal process of heightening cultivation, heightening bhavanas. So you become in the language of behaviorism a one-trial learner. You become the rat who, the first time you taste the cheese, you never forget where that tunnel is.

How can we help ourselves? Whether it’s interacting with our wife or our partner or an insight on the cushion, or a shedding of an unnecessary worry that’s afflictive, how can we help that really land? So that we’re stably changed thereafter.

That’s it, right? That’s the super power of superpowers: learning. The one that grows the rest of them.

Scott Snibbe: Wonderful. And I think that’s very practical: deal with the bad, turn to the good.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Take in the good. Don’t forget to take in the good. In psychology, there’s a lot of emphasis on turn to the good. But then they’ve stopped there. I don’t understand it at all. Why not focus on how to take it in so it becomes a part of you. Or, more exactly, you become it.

You Tibetan Buddhists know about Milarepa. You’re right. He had this description of his life of practice toward the end. He said, In the beginning, nothing came; in the middle, nothing stayed; in the end, nothing left.

That’s the process. How do we help ourselves move from that second to the third stage?

You know, in the second stage we can have experienced, but they don’t stick. By the third stage we’re cooked.

Scott Snibbe: And all learning is like that. That’s the thing. If anyone has had that experience of— I remember when I was studying computer science, you know, into an advanced lecture and understanding two words out of thousands. You know, with dedication and some efforts, I think we advance in any dimension.

I have a question for you. This isn’t universal to all forms of Buddhism, but in some, and certainly in some aspects of the Buddhism I’m familiar with, Tibetan Buddhism, there’s an understanding of Buddha Nature. There are many ways of understanding that.

But one way of understanding it is that our deepest nature is good, kind, loving, compassionate. And that disturbing states of mind like anger, fear, and craving are shallower. Even though they might dominate at times, they’re shallower in terms of the levels of our consciousness. Now, how does that relate to the Velcro Teflon understanding of our brains? Does brain science support this view of a kind of innate goodness to people at all?

Dr. Rick Hanson: I explored that fundamental controversy about our nature. Are we saints or sinners innately? In the frame of evolutionary neurobiology in my book, Hard Wiring Happiness. The reason I’m establishing that is to say that, in a biological sense, with creatures whose nervous systems are complicated enough, which is to say humans, who are having very rich experiences. Let’s say other primates, certainly mammals are having an emotionally rich inner life.

The resting state when we’re undisturbed, when there’s a sense of enoughness in the meeting of our needs, where primary needs for safety, satisfaction and connection broadly—this is a fundamental idea in biology and psychology. When a creature’s needs feel met enough, the creature, including the human creature defaults to its natural resting state, its equilibrium condition in which the body can repair itself; it conserves resources; it can refuel itself; it can recover from bursts of stress. And especially in animals, mammals upward, let’s say in terms of evolution, its mind is colored with a basic sense of wellbeing.

And if you think of that wellbeing in three elements related to the meeting of those three needs: safety, a sense of peacefulness, satisfaction, a sense of contentment, and connection: in the creature’s way, a sense of love. That is our biological resting state. When animals have an enoughness in the meeting of their fundamental needs as they experienced it. When they experienced that enoughness, they returned to that resting state because, due to very hardcore biological evolutionary processes, this helps animals pass on genes that pass on genes.

So in a purely biological sense, our resting state is indeed characterized by peacefulness, contentment, and love.

“In a purely biological sense, our resting state is indeed characterized by peacefulness, contentment, and love.”

—Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Now we also have the capacity to be disturbed from that resting state to meet an adaptive challenge. The saber tooth tiger jumps out of the bushes. Your kid runs into the street in front of the bus.

I live in California, we’re dealing with fires right now. You get a warning on your phone that says you might have to leave in 10 minutes, be prepared to leave in 10 minutes if you have to.

Okay. We’re tough creatures. We’re the top of the food chain, for a reason. We move then into the red zone, in which we don’t feel in our core that there’s an enoughness in the meeting of our needs.

In terms of safety, our mind is characterized by a sense of fear, anger, and maybe helplessness, immobilization. In terms of unmet needs for satisfaction, the mind is colored by greed. I could add hatred for the first one to use a traditional term for safety; aversion, greed, grasping in terms of satisfaction; disappointment, frustration, loss, depression.

And then, in terms of unmet needs, for connection, the mind can be colored by a sense of loneliness, inadequacy, or hatred, or, you know, ill will toward others, vengeance, resentment, and so forth.

So we have the capacity to go into the red zone. So in effect, we have two natures. We have the reactive mode, the red zone fight flight freeze characterized by fear, frustration, and hurt. heartache, ill will.

On the other hand, we have another kind of nature that’s our deeper, truer nature. Because the resting state of a dynamic system most characterizes it. The resting state of our biology is characterized by peace, contentment, and love.

Scott Snibbe: That’s very beautiful. A cat curled up on the couch, that’s our Buddha nature.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Bob Sapolsky put it in his book title, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. I just gave you straight neuroscience, evolutionary neurobiology. And it’s great to appreciate that that’s our truth. And to then realize, wow, okay. If we were to operationalize a lot of practice, it says clock more time in the green zone.

How to do that? How to actually clock more time in the green zone while dealing with a challenging world? Loss pain, old age, disease and death, politics, racial injustice. How do you stay in the green zone?

You look at the Dalai Lama. You look at Thich Nhat Hanh. You look at Nelson Mandela. These are people staying in the green zone as they deal with oppressive systems. How do you actually do that? There’s a lot of material about that. And the crux of it is basically, one develops psychological resources inside yourself so that you can cope with challenges without feeling invaded by them.

And second, when you do experience an enoughness of needs met, so you really authentically could rest in some sense of peacefulness, contentment, and love, bring a big spoon! Really take it in to gradually increase a resting state of resilient wellbeing inside oneself. That’s clearly a takeaway.

Now, more deeply, I do intuit that underneath what I experience as ordinary, natural, mainstream green-zoneness, it really does feel like there’s something even deeper. And that is where I wonder, Wow, is that a portal into something transcendental? Because it truly feels transpersonal. You know, that level of just a lovingness, a kindness, a sweetness, a desire to help, a longing for the good. It’s hard for me to account for that, those qualities of experience that we have, in narrow evolutionary terms.

I can’t think of how they would confer reproductive advantages; particularly the green zone as I’ve described it, including at the level of zebras, I can see how that would confer reproductive advantages that would then be passed on in evolutionary terms. But this sense of transpersonal profundity. Wow, I just don’t see how that could be baked into us through evolution.

There are spandrels right. There are qualities that we have that are not constructed by evolution. They’re like knock-ons. But there’s something so central and deep in us that when we tap into this transpersonal sense of goodness, it really makes you wonder about stuff that transcends the natural frame.

Scott Snibbe: Absolutely. And especially, I think for most of us, we learn that from some teacher, from being around someone like the Dalai Lama or other teachers. And then it’s also a little bit contagious. It does seem to rub off on us a little.

Dr. Rick Hanson: That’s right. That really is right. One last thing I’ll just share because of you and also your audience. I feel a little freer to turn up the intellectual jets a bit.

Scott Snibbe: Please.

Dr. Rick Hanson: I just want to offer a reflection on analytical approaches to the mind. This is in the Neurodharama book. This is, for me, a typical Buddhist reflection. I’m going to summarize it.

So you think about what is the nature of mind? So we have experiences. There is hearing, there is hearing, there is wanting. What is the nature of all experiences?

This was one of the Buddha’s most fundamental contributions. He was interested in and experiences. He said, Pay attention to experiences, especially causes; you know, what causes suffering, what causes happiness, what causes helpful experiences, what causes afflictive experiences. But even more deeply, have insight Vipassana into the nature of experiences; into their transience, their compoundedness, and they’re dependent arising, and thus their shunyata, their emptiness, the emptiness of all experiences.

And they’re and existent. I think there’s been some misunderstanding of Nagarjuna and others that have moved into a strictly idealist position that says, because experiences are empty, they don’t exist. No, they exist.

If the nature of the mind, and also the nature of matter, if you look at almost all material phenomena, they too have these three characteristics of impermanence, compoundedness, and dependent arising; and thus in the technical sense, they too are empty of absolute self existence. They’re empty of essence, empty of identity in a sense.

So we have mind and matter the body mind process, nama and rupa swirling along eddily, eddying along right? In the streaming of allness, reality, physical, universe all together. The nature is empty. So when we ask ourselves, What is our nature? Our nature is fullness emptiness. It’s a kind of radiant emptiness.

And that is another way of understanding our Buddha Nature, the nature of all. And if you look at people that are villanous, how could it be that all beings have Buddha nature? How could a villainous terrible person—

We’re watching an Australian TV series right now called A Place to Call Home. It’s really profound. It’s set right after World War II. One of the main characters is a Jewish Australian who was caught up in a concentration camp for two years. And the horrors of all that, you know, the Nazi horrors.

Well, they could have Buddha Nature in the sense that all beings have the nature of emptiness. And in that sense, that is our Buddha Nature. And to move from intellectual conceptual understanding of this to a felt sense: Be your nature; be your nature of emptiness; be emptiness, fullness, radiantly, with love. That’s being Buddha Nature.

Scott Snibbe: So, another way of understanding Buddha Nature, like you’re saying, is that understanding our interdependence, dependence on causes and changeability, which is in some sense much deeper than saying, “I’m good.” Because good still kind of reifies and solidifies in some sense.

The opposite of understanding yourself dependently is the self-centered attitude, right? Robert Thurman talks about this is a very funny way that I love. He makes this joke that says, Out of all people on earth, I’m just a little bit more important! I don’t know if you’ve ever heard him say that. But he describes that root delusion, the opposite of that wisdom understanding our dependent nature.

Dr. Rick Hanson: But you should be more important to you. Because that will enable you to be of service to others.

Scott Snibbe: So talk a little bit about that. Where’s the subtlety there? Because Buddhism does say that this—they call it self-cherishing or sometimes selfishness—What’s the difference between that harmful form of looking at the self and the beneficial form of looking at the self?

Dr. Rick Hanson: It’s a question that I’ve really burrowed into much like the question of what is our true nature, and so forth. what are our plural natures?

Because as a psychologist and someone who’s raised two kids and also someone who’s trained very much in developmental psychology, and worked with a lot of children, attachment theory is all about the healthy developmental stages of forming attachments. And if you have children, you want them to be attached to caregivers, right? Kids, let’s say back on the Serengeti Plains who were unattached to their caregivers, wandered off at night and got eaten. They did not pass on genes that passed on genes.

You know, parents who were not obsessed with their children were a little more likely to lose those kids and not pass on genes that pass on genes. So it’s adaptive to be attached in certain kinds of ways. Plus I’m a rock climber, I’m an aging rock climber.

I don’t do it that much anymore, but you know, boom! Hold onto that hold. There’s a place. Right. How do we think about that? It’s so interesting. Isn’t it? How do we think about that? In ways that are hopefully wise and lead onward to liberation, including full awakening for us in this life if that’s possible.

It’s summarized in this lovely— I wish I knew the name of the Southeast Asian teacher who said it, and it makes sense in writing. In writing, love yourself, comma, just don’t love your “self.”

And I think that summarizes it. And for me, this really goes to the distinction between the person and the self. We are each persons. You’re a person, I’m a person. I think cats are persons, but they’re maybe a slightly different kind of person than a human person.

Okay. So there are persons, there’s a mind body process that has its own individuality. You’re distinct from me. I’m distinct from you. We’re like two waves in the sea. You know, this wave is distinct from that wave. Okay, that’s fine. And yet, all along, as Jaimal Yogis puts it, all our waves are water.

Our nature is the same, right. We arise out of, and we disperse back into a common ground. Okay. So persons, no problem. Right? No problem.

But the narrow sense of me, I; the psychological self in the narrow sense of some kind of presumed entity inside who is unified, enduring, and fundamentally independent of experiences. These are the three constituting attributes of the presumed self, right?

Well, a lightly held sense of that self can be adaptive in certain conditions. For example, if someone is important to you, Scott, would you rather they said to you, “You know, in this interdependent mutually arising space between us, there is so much love and blah, blah, blah.” Or would you rather have them say, “I love you. I am committed to you. And I would walk through a burning building for you.” What do you want to hear?

When I’m rock climbing, if I can’t do something initially I mobilize a strong sense of self. I am going to beat this mother, you know? It’s adaptive. But more than a little bit of that gets us into a lot of trouble. So this to me is very consistent.

There’s no problem with being persons. Where there is a problem is with this whole process of self cherishing.

But here’s the last wrinkle to throw in. Interestingly, it is through internalizing healthy narcissistic supplies that we become less self-preoccupied; through internalizing healthy, appropriate experiences, depending on our own temperament. Some people naturally need more than others, temperamentally. I’m an introvert. I suspect you are as well.

And we may need less. Other people, they need more, they’re more sensitive interpersonally. Okay. Fine. It’s normal. It’s natural. 

In addition, sometimes we have had losses or traumas or injuries where they make us particularly healed through healthy narcissistic supplies of attunement: mirroring, cherishing, inclusion, liking, loving, praising, admiring, respecting. And it’s actually really important psychologically as social animals to internalize healthy narcissistic supplies and not push them away out of well-intended but misguided spiritual stance that says, not nor me. Not for me.

And so for me, it’s actually a really interesting process, particularly if you enter adulthood like I did with a big hole in your heart from a lack of healthy narcissistic supplies; as a kid, healthy social supplies.

And for various reasons it’s actually really interesting to explore the internalization of beneficial social supplies and really reaching for them and looking for them and taking them in and savoring them; in the service of non-clinging and non-attachment to them; and in the service of releasing the reified thingified sense of a me inside at all.

Scott Snibbe: Very nice. So, the flip side of that healthy sense of self then starts to turn to altruistic behavior. I wonder if you could talk a little about the scientific basis for that, for altruistic behavior. Why should we work for the benefit of anyone other than ourselves and our closest family and friends?

Dr. Rick Hanson: Well, underline a key point in the last little ref. I think well-intended but misguided tendencies have crept into a lot of spiritual worlds. And what I see is people repeatedly, let’s say, who are “person denying,” They are dismissive in their relationship to themselves as a person sometimes because they’ve internalized that mode of attaching from their own parents, that dismissive style of parenting. Or they grew up with their peers, maybe their peers were dismissive.

Maybe they were particularly bright and they were sort of dismissed by their peers. They always felt like an outsider. And then they applied that to themselves as one way or reason for applying that dismissiveness to themselves as persons. They’re not very compassionate with themselves. They’re not very sweet or supportive toward themselves, or tender hearted. And curiously that, lack of supportiveness toward themselves as a person tends to foster a certain kinds of egoity and a lack of ultimate release into The Infinite.

So I just want to underline that it’s really interesting to explore, much as we should treat others well as persons with a luscious bodhicittaness. How many people who are sincerely dedicated to bringing a juicy bodhicittaness to other beings, bring that same juicy sweet, tender, forgiving compassionate, sweetness to themselves?

Few are their number.

And that’s an opportunity of course, for us to develop. And for me as well. I’m rattling on here, but it’s work in progress for me too.

Scott Snibbe: Learning how to love yourself; in our tradition too, it’s seen as impossible to really benefit anyone else until you have a real genuine love; you know you really love yourself, you love being with yourself, you really forgive your faults.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So now the evolution of altruism biologically is enormously interesting because it’s so rare. Our genetically nearest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are not altruistic at all. Once in a while, they’ll share food. Maybe there’ll be a quid pro quo. They’re not very generous.

Do you know the ultimatum game? This is a  funny little example. Oh, it’s really kind of cool. Let’s do it right now and it will be kind of funny for people.

The experimenter says, Basically, you have two roles, two roles. I’m the proposer, okay? And there’s a hundred dollars at issue here. I propose a deal. And you decide whether we accept the deal. What you decide applies to both of us. Okay. So a hundred dollars is on the table. I propose that you and I split it 50-50. Do you accept the deal?

Scott Snibbe: Yeah.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Okay, great. So now I propose that I get 80 dollars and you get 20. What’s your decision?

Scott Snibbe: What happens if I refuse?

Dr. Rick Hanson: Neither of us gets any money.

Scott Snibbe: You know, II would accept that, but I think most people wouldn’t, they would want to punish you.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Exactly. You’re more like a chimpanzee. You’re more like Spock, you’re rational. You’re thinking, Well, the dude’s an asshole, but I’m looking at 20 bucks or nothing. I’ll take the 20 and curse him out. thedoor.

Scott Snibbe: My brother calls me Spock sometimes.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Ah, there you are now. And I too, might’ve made that choice. But there’s this, like you said, altruistic punishment, where you short yourself for the sake of the tribe.

 It’s really interesting, isn’t it? And then there are protocols that manipulate the brain in various ways. One of them is that if you use magnetic processes to knock out emotional processing, then people become more like a chimpanzee, more like Spock in the ultimatum game. They’re less willing to do altruistic punishment.

It’s very curious, isn’t it? That we evolved altruism. And one of the bases for it is that humans have social cognitive capacities. And we really develop them, especially as the brain evolved over the last 3 million years and tripled in volume. And we lived in hunter gatherer bands that became increasingly interdependent as they competed with other bands.

And childhood became extended. Mother-child bonding had to increase for her to protect that vulnerable child whose brain takes many, many years to fully develop unlike a chimpanzee’s brain. And then you have the whole tribe coming together with the whole village it takes to raise a child.

In that context, then, our capacities to punish freeloaders increased. Reputation became more knowable, became more communicable. And if you ripped me off today then I would not help you tomorrow. So it became in your best interest to respect my altruism today and repay me tomorrow.

If you think about it, the capacity to identify and punish freeloaders is an enabling condition for the evolution of this very rare quality in the animal kingdom of altruism. And the capacity related to that, to feel shame, to internalize the sense of, I did something bad here, maybe there’s something bad about me in the way I acted there.

That also fosters that capacity for shame, fosters the teamwork and the cooperative planning that promoted the survival of bands. Because evolution occurred at the group level as well, because bands tended to breed internally, right.

So if you think about altruism, this magnificent capacity that we have is grounded in our capacity alongside it for shame. And our motivation alongside it to punish liars and cheaters for the sake of the greater good.

Scott Snibbe: That’s amazing. And actually, I think it’s so much easier for people to accept. Because what you’ve just described is that the scientific basis of altruism is punishing freeloaders and feeling shame, which I think we’re all down with! Most people would say, “Yeah! We gotta do that.” And then to say that our greatest human quality comes out of what seem like negative emotions, actually, punitive. That’s quite profound and I certainly haven’t heard it expressed quite that way.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Exactly. It’s a standard account. It’s kind of buried in different places, but it’s really fascinating actually, to look at.

You know, to me one of the key points about modern life; why I think our politics has gone so bad for the last 10,000 years as human groups became larger after agriculture came in, and we moved into Game of Thrones for the last 10,000 years; is that what supports healthy decision-making; in other words, healthy politics at the band level, hunter-gatherer bands, typically 40. People mainly living together entwined with other bands, but also competing often violently with other bands.

What enables healthy politics are three factors: common truth, common welfare, common justice in a band. Reputation is known and freeloaders get punished. Bad leaders get punished. People walk away. Forget it, man! And their welfare is entwined together. Because if I go down that brings the band down. If you succeed, we’ve got more food tonight.

Those conditions, unfortunately, are no longer present innately in our politics because we’re at such scale. It’s not easy to have common truth, common welfare, and common justice.

That’s why I think it’s so important to really reestablish the two fundamental principles of any kind of healthy relationships: tell the truth and play fair. And to really punish. I’m a Buddhist guy. I’ve got bodhicitta. For the sake of the whole, we have to punish liars and cheaters because otherwise they don’t have incentives to stop.

“I think it’s so important to really reestablish the two fundamental principles of any kind of healthy relationships: Tell the truth and play fair. And to really punish. For the sake of the whole, we have to punish liars and cheaters because otherwise they don’t have incentives to stop.”

—Dr. Rick Hanson

Scott Snibbe: Well that’s for sure. It sounds easy to say, “Tell the truth and play fair.” But we don’t see that demonstrated at the highest levels of our civilization right now.

 Dr. Rick Hanson: That’s why I think people need to have the courage. Just like the courage to punish a freeloader who wants the 80 bucks and gives you only 20. No, I’ll lose the 20 to teach you a little lesson for the sake of the greater good. Let’s say in that way, I think we need to have the courage in the moral confidence to call out lying and bad faith.

There’s so much bad faith. There’s so much lying in social media now related to our politics. And there’s so much cheating. There’s so much hypocrisy. And it doesn’t get called out. What happens is people chase the content of the lie or they chase the instance of the cheating rather than immediately calling it at a higher level.

No, you’re a liar, you’re a cheater, you no longer have standing in the tribe. And I think we need to reassert that as a guiding principle, if we’re to have a hope of healthy politics again.

Scott Snibbe: But aren’t those lies the Velcro you talk about? They’re so tasty for our minds instinctually? Or no?

Dr. Rick Hanson: I really do think so. I think there’s ignorant stupidity and there’s motivated stupidity. And I think that, in my own view, the arguably greatest evil of all is to undermine people’s capacity to discern the truth and to trust, through gaslighting and other means, their capacity to trust what they see.

“In my own view, the arguably greatest evil of all is to undermine people’s capacity to discern the truth and to trust, through gaslighting and other means, their capacity to trust what they see.”

—Dr. Rick Hanson

You see that in abusive families. You know, “No grandpa, he’s not a molester. No, mom, she’s not drinking too much. No, big brother, he’s doing fine in school. He’s not growing dope in the attic. No, no.” Right? And then you grow up doubting your capacity as a kid to recognize what’s actually really, really true.

So I think that’s evil actually. And we should call it that and address it at a moral level.

Scott Snibbe: And this is the first principle of totalitarian regimes, deny the obvious.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah, There you are. Performatively even, to demonstrate their capacity to exert that kind of power.

Scott Snibbe: Because that asserts your power. If you deny something that is completely obvious, that shows how powerful you are.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Exactly. Right. Performative lying, performative cruelty. Just to establish the point that I can do it. Yeah.

Scott Snibbe: Well, luckily most of our discussion has been describing the antitodes to that kind of thinking. At least in our own minds we can work on those. And next week we’re going to have a meditation that you’ve led to help us practically do that. To close out could you just tell us a little bit about that meditation that you’re leading next week?

Dr. Rick Hanson: Sure. Recently I’ve just developed a simple meditation, Five Breaths. Basically, grounded in good brain science. And people can find the references to that in my book, Neurodharma.

I should add as well that I taught a retreat a couple of times now on the Neurodharma material over 10 days. And in the first instance of that, we videotaped it and turned it into a very accessible well-organized online program that has continuing education units for people who need them. And it’s always made available to people in significant financial need. People can check it out on my website. It’s a nice companion for the book, the online program. It’s very experiential.

But anyway, the Five Breaths are:

  1. First to breathe while filling your chest as a whole
  2. Breathe while feeling caring
  3. Beathing while feeling cared about
  4. Breathing while feeling peaceful
  5. Breathing while feeling content

And in that you’ll note those three aspects of our resting state, the green zone of peacefulness, contentment, and love. All three are in the mix there. And the parts that are about breathing while filling your chest as a whole speak to some recent neuroscience about recognizing things as a whole, whether it’s the room as a whole or your chest as a whole, or your body as a whole, or reality as a whole, or your mind as a whole. Widen your view, reduce, the neurological basis for selfing and mental time travel and bring you into the present through simply getting a sense of things as a gestalt, as a whole.

So that’s the meditation. And I do it over 10 minutes and it’s so sweet. And you could just do it one, two, three, four, five. That’s less than a minute for most people of breaths. Or you can extend it over longer periods of time. Those five kinds of breaths.

Scott Snibbe: Wonderful. Well, I’m looking forward to that and I think our listeners will really enjoy it.

Thank you so much, Dr. Hanson for joining us. This has been amazing. I think it’s a fantastic interview. I think our listeners are really going to enjoy it.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Thank you.

Thanks for joining us for this empowering and inspiring interview with Dr. Rick Hanson. In next week’s episode, we’ll share a guided meditation led by Dr. Hanson, that he created specially for our listeners. You can read more about Dr. Hanson, his books and courses on his website rickhanson.net. 

We’re currently conducting a listener survey to help improve our podcast. The survey is anonymous and takes only one minute to complete. Please go to our website at skepticspath.org right now, if you can, and fill it out to let us know what you’d like to see this year in our podcast, and where we can improve.

Thanks to my partner Stephen Butler for producing this episode, and creating this interview series, which we are expanding this year with some exciting guests. Stephen and I both wish you a safe, healthy, happy, and meaningful rest of your day.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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