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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 06, 2017

The Modern Hijacking of Dopamine: Supernormal vs. Ancestral Stimuli

By Mark Sisson
65 Comments

Reflection at eyeglasses of man: looking at a websiteScientists recently discovered a major difference between humans and apes. It’s not the body hair, or the prehensile feet, or the propensity to fling poop with less-than-perfect accuracy. It’s actually the TH gene, one that directs the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Humans express the TH gene in the striatum, a part of the brain involved in movement, and in the neocortex, which conducts higher-order thinking. Chimps and other apes do not.

Why is this so important?

Most people think of dopamine as the pleasure neurotransmitter. Dopamine is a major regulator of the reward pathway, which involves pleasure, but it doesn’t directly influence the sensory or mental experience of pleasure. Dopamine is a wanting chemical. It compels us to seek, to do, to move. Ultimately, dopamine triggers reward pathways as a way to motivate the organism to do the things that improve fitness, survival, and genetic proliferation. That it’s most active in the parts of the human brain that control movement and higher order thinking illustrates this fact nicely.

When you “win,” you get a hit of dopamine. The hit of dopamine is intended to perpetuate the action that got you the victory. It’s supposed to keep you pushing forward to greater wins and greater rewards. Dopamine itself is not the reward. Dopamine is the nudge that pushes you through the pain, misery, and hardship required to achieve something great and monumental. Consider getting stronger in the gym, faster on the track, more skilled on the field; dopamine raises the fatigue threshold during exercise. Not just starting your business, but having it succeed. Getting the promotion. All these accomplishments require hard work and pain. Dopamine helps you grin and bear it.

Without a healthy dopamine response, we won’t accomplish or even do much. In Parkinson’s disease, the neurons in the striatum responsible for dopamine production are degraded. This retards movement and motor control. In depression, dopamine function is often dysfunctional, leading to a distinct lack of motivation (to exercise, socialize, get out of bed). These are extreme examples. What about the rest of us?

Consider what dopamine is designed to do: achieve and progress through hard work and persistence. That humans express it in those specific regions of the brain and less intelligent apes do not suggests it may have made the difference between hanging around in the jungle nibbling leaves and digging for grubs and making complex tools and building advanced civilizations.

Now consider what kind of dopamine triggers we experience nowadays.

Porn. Getting an email in the inbox. Logging onto Facebook and seeing all those red numbers in the notifications. A text from a friend. Nothing too monumental, nothing too out of the ordinary. Right?

There are big problems with dopamine triggers common to modern life.

  1. They’re easy to come by. You don’t have to work for social media likes. You don’t have to wine and dine or even get to know the pornography actor. You just click a few buttons and type a few keys and the “win” is deposited in your lap.
  2. They don’t give real rewards. A “like” isn’t real. It doesn’t result in material, spiritual, or even emotional accomplishments. It’s just a wisp that dissipates into the past the second you regard it. They’re empty wins.

What does this do to us?

One consequence is dopamine desensitization. Internet addicts (a real thing, yes) express fewer dopamine receptors than non-addicts. They effectively have “dopamine resistance,” meaning their body needs higher levels of dopamine to feel anything. The easiest way to produce more dopamine is to indulge in more of the same thing that led to your desensitization. So, the Internet addict spends more time mindlessly browsing the web, the porn addict searches for increasingly depraved flavors of pornography. This only deepens the problem.

Constant small hits are probably worse than infrequent large hits of dopamine. That’s why smoking is more addictive than cocaine. Nicotine and cocaine both give similar dopamine hits to the reward center of the brain, but you can smoke more often and maintain the elevated levels longer with tobacco than you can with cocaine.

Another consequence is that we get locked into the dopamine cycle. After all, there’s no limit. We can post a baby picture and be reasonably confident that within the hour we’ll have twenty new notifications. We can bounce texts back and forth between friends, every response a small win. And here’s the sneakiest part: We don’t know when those notifications or responses will come, so we get the extra dopamine boost of anticipating the unknown

What can we do?

Work for your dopamine and make your dopamine work for you. That means favoring difficult dopamine triggers that provide real lasting benefits. Limit convenience.

Woo your lady. Surprise your man. Don’t rely on porn.

Kill it in the gym. Sprint up hills. Lift heavy things. Carry something bulky, heavy, and awkward with you on a hike or walk around the block.

Inject novelty into your life. Explore the world. Walk through a completely new part of town. Hike out to that secret beach no one knows about but you. We process new experiences via the dopamine pathway.

Read a book, a long-form article, or even a good blog post over a five minute scan of your Twitter feed.

Avoid the self-improvement trap. It feels good to read a book (or chapter of a book) on self-improvement. You get jazzed up about all the changes you could make to your life, and for that moment, day, or week, you’re riding high on the wave of dopaminergic optimism. But then nothing happens. You don’t follow through. You don’t embody the changes you’ve been reading about.

Limit your access to easy dopamine triggers that require no work from you. It’s too much, too quickly, with too little effort.

Don’t drink a six pack every night while arguing with idiots on Twitter. Enjoy a glass or two of wine with a close friend after a long, delicious dinner full of rich conversation.

Don’t spend hours in Pinterest fantasy land, mentally inhabiting the cool DIY environments other users have actually created. Instead, get off the couch and make something yourself. Build a garden bed. Paint your room. Learn a new song on an instrument you play.

Use social media to segue into real dopamine triggers. If you use Facebook, follow-up by making plans to meet in meatspace. Your friend from college has “liked” every picture you ever posted of your new baby. Set-up a dinner party at your house so she can meet him face-to-face.

Okay, Sisson, this sounds good in theory, but won’t life be less enjoyable without the constant drip of dopamine?

No. It’ll be better. Way better.

You’ll be more productive and present. Dopamine is required for optimal focus and concentration. The much-desired flow state of “total absorption, optimal challenge, and non-self-conscious enjoyment” that enables deep work and peak performance operates along dopaminergic pathways.

You’ll derive greater enjoyment when you do trigger dopamine. On a biochemical level, you’ll be more sensitive to dopamine’s effects. On a psychological level, you’ll know that you’ve truly earned this dopamine and won’t have the guilt of having taken the easy way out hanging over your head.

This is a big problem. And it’s going to be extra hard to beat because our dopamine-addled brains will fight us every step of the way in our quest to restrict the addictive chemical. But trust me: It’s worth the effort. Just imagine the dopaminergic payoff you’ll bask in once you beat it.

Take stock of your dopamine triggers. Which ones are unhealthy? Which are healthy? How do you propose to reclaim more of an ancestral setting in this regard?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

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TAGS:  mental health

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65 Comments on "The Modern Hijacking of Dopamine: Supernormal vs. Ancestral Stimuli"

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Katie
2 months 17 days ago
Goodness, this is the truth. Those quick hits of social media dopamine are so short lived and empty when compared with a hike in the woods, preparing and enjoying a beautiful meal, a face to face conversation with a dear friend. I have concerns about my students, when they report staying up all night playing video games or when I observe them in the cafeteria, glued to their phones instead of socializing in person. It is just too easy to get (and become addicted to) that instant dopamine hit from modern technology. I have been incorporating many elements of the… Read more »
NaturalGirl
NaturalGirl
2 months 17 days ago

Good point. I limit my social media to less than an hour a day. Some days I don’t even bother with it. I love spending quality time with my loved ones and cherish all the beautiful moments of life without a phone or a computer.

Cody
Cody
2 months 17 days ago

In a nutshell: stop surfing the internet and get outside with some friends!

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
2 months 17 days ago

So my daily MDA fix is causing dopamine desensitization? 😉

tribal
tribal
2 months 16 days ago

lol – true – the irony…

Mitch
Mitch
2 months 17 days ago

Excellent, thank you.

Troels Rasmussen
Troels Rasmussen
2 months 17 days ago

Yes. Avoid the empty dopamine calories, make sure you’re dopamine-generating stimuli are dense in nutrients of effort, depth and/or accomplishment.

Andrea
Andrea
2 months 17 days ago

Excellent metaphor! It underscores the message of the article perfectly.

Ronda
Ronda
2 months 17 days ago

An awful lot of info about porn

Will
Will
2 months 17 days ago

Because porn has become a huge problem. Ruining my generation. Five states in the US have passed resolutions to education, prevent, research, change policy on pornography, which they have described as a “public health crisis” and “epidemic”. UK is banning porn, I believe.

Andrea
Andrea
2 months 17 days ago

You are absolutely correct, Will.

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
2 months 17 days ago

I think we have to be careful about imposing on people’s rights. Watching porn regularly for hours on end is obviously harmful, as are so many things in life. However, if a couple in the privacy of their bedroom on rare occasion want to watch something they are both comfortable with just as a change of pace, so be it. Alcohol is the cause of an estimated 25K auto deaths in the US annually and ruins so many lives, should we prohibit it? We tried that once, it did not turn out so well.

Claire Graham Kellerman
2 months 17 days ago
In light of the wave of friend’s confessions and expression’s of sexually being bypassed when saying “No:” with all the flood of “me, too’s” and in noticing the decline of my family over decades of porn, drugs, heroin and finally, 2 deaths from both: yes, heart attack, pants down, computer on, sitting in his office chair, porn on, and the underlying unfelt pain numbed by porn and psych-meds x 80/day-pills finally killed my sick, adoptive father, at age 64, a year ago — to be real — and the rise of porn as a profound destructive reality in my family’s… Read more »
Ellie
2 months 17 days ago

Sending healing vibes your way Claire. Thanks for sharing so openly about your tragedies and pain, I’m so sorry you and your family had to suffer through this. Hugs.

Claire Graham Kellerman
2 months 15 days ago

Thank you, Ellie. I am sharing what feels imperative, to light it up, and be the voice of my truth, so those who might feel they are alone, or wondering how to navigate the pain, and strangeness know how good it is to know we are not alone, there is hope, and this is all getting very real, on fire, actually, all over my birthplace, and childhood homelands of S.CA
It is intense to see and witness deep pain, and people hearing me from a place of acceptance, and caring has healed me. Thank you! Be safe. Love from Maui, aloha…

Angie
2 months 17 days ago

Oh, Claire! Yay for you, for having the balls to say, ‘The cycle stops here. I’m getting out.’ Health, healing and happiness to you.

Claire Graham Kellerman
2 months 15 days ago
I had the heart and courage to ask for help, share my vulnerability and eventually found humans with integrity, clarity & the strength to hear me, so I could face my pain, and allow truth to flow through me, instead of being stuck, frozen, trying to numb it away, and/or be paralyzed by the lack of true healthy, loving support. Thanks for being willing to hear me, and encourage my Spirit to shine, and keep breathing, letting life breathe through me, for today. It is hard right now. Honesty makes it all possible, for me. Much love to you, Angie.… Read more »
Andrea
Andrea
2 months 17 days ago

I am convinced that the reason so many otherwise “normal” men are being outed for their abuse of women is due to the internet porn culture they grew up with. Porn has been making the objectification of women “standard” and toxic. It has to stop. Many people have no idea how pervasive and sick it is.

Shary
Shary
2 months 16 days ago

Porn has been around for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. It’s just more readily and privately available on the internet. What is really sick is the fact that there are women who are willing to participate in this sort of thing. In many ways it’s worse than prostitution. No doubt it pays well, but what a total absence of respect for one’s personal being.

Tom
Tom
2 months 16 days ago

@Shary, I understand where you’re coming from there. I’d say the same for though both the women *and* the men involved. They’re both probably coming from the same place: dysfunctional families.
And FWIW, it’s not like I’m any ‘better’, I’m coming from the same place, and have my own (different) problems with life.

Claire Graham Kellerman
2 months 15 days ago

Thank you for saying, Tom.

Claire Graham Kellerman
2 months 15 days ago
…”total absence of respect for one’s personal being…” seems accurate and learned, like any sickness. A lack of identity, coupled with a very real healthy desire for loving connection, and being conditioned away from trusting oneself by cruelty, sick-family, trauma, &/or addiction. I watched the progression, decline and death of my sister –age 27–and can not imagine how she survived ten years on heroin, on the streets of Los Angeles, and was involved in sex trading for drugs and what she knew as “love.” I could not reach her. She just ran and ran, and fell apart. I do know… Read more »
Nocona
Nocona
2 months 17 days ago

Forget the flat straightaway sprints today. I’m doing the hills.

David
David
2 months 17 days ago
I’ve often wondered about caffeine and its affect on the dopamine pathway. I’ve heard, but don’t know with total certainty, that it does, Does it increase dopamine production in the short term or just cell sensitivity (or some other mechanism?). And then have a resulting desensitizing result with long term use? Ancestral life would not have had access to this substance in the way we do. So it doesn’t seem likely our brains are apt to dealing with it fully. We all know a caffeine addict right? Maybe we should be concerned about preserving out dopamine sensitivity in regards to… Read more »
Rob H
Rob H
2 months 17 days ago
I too am very interested to hear Mark’s thoughts re the effect of coffee on dopamine. I drink a strong real ground coffee about once or twice a week and boy does it give me a real hit of intense motivation. Especially good when I drink it on an empty stomach first thing in the morning or before starting a physically demanding/ mentally demanding task (for example I used it strategically to help get over my fear of needles so I could start donating blood). But if I ‘abuse’ it and drink it any more frequently than that, then this… Read more »
David
David
2 months 16 days ago

Hi Rob. I have a similar experience with tea. I drink it far more frequently than coffee and get an alertness, but not a jacked experience like coffee. I also read, again from perhaps unsubstantiated reports, that coffee contains compounds in addition to the caffeine that raise cortisol. Even decaf coffee was found to have the affect.

ningyo_hime
ningyo_hime
2 months 15 days ago

David- in addition to caffeine tea also contains substances that modify the effect of caffeine, giving you less of an instant hit.

Tess
Tess
2 months 17 days ago

Good question re caffeine!
I’d also like to know if sugar (by sugar I mean all so called “healthy/ paleo” options like maple syrup & honey) works on the dopamine pathway too?

rafael
rafael
2 months 15 days ago

Following…

Kate
Kate
2 months 17 days ago

That’s such a brilliant post, Mark; thank you so much!
As for “Enjoy a glass or two of wine with a close friend after a long, delicious dinner full of rich conversation.” Well, I would if I could. But as I can’t, tomorrow I’m going to take myself out for lunch.

Robert
Robert
2 months 17 days ago

This is one of your best posts yet. Preach!

Lynda
Lynda
2 months 17 days ago

I am in the process of reading Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig,, which is totally about the subject of dopamine and serotonin. I expect Mark has just finished reading it. The book explains how addiction, is about not having enough and needing more and happiness is about having enough.

2Rae
2Rae
2 months 17 days ago
This reminds me of the many children who show up EVERYWHERE with their tablet/phone/etc and not even experiencing the grocery store, the restaurant, the outside, the people – Big sigh. I limit my son’s time on any screen time, they have to use some of those devices just to get by at school because so much of their school work is electronic. However, he is in a better mood when he can experience life without it, although you’d think we are ripping his arms and legs off and beating him with them by the sounds he makes…….. I know of… Read more »
Layla M
2 months 17 days ago
Mark, please cite your source for the statement “Dopamine itself is not the reward.” Dopamine is the final expression in the “reward cascade” that involves a fine balance of serotonin, endorphins, and GABA, among lesser known chemicals and co-factors. All addictive substances and behaviors stimulate this cascade and fire dopamine. Dopamine’s effect is what every addict is after, and they are willing to destroy themselves to feel it again and again. Dopamine IS the reward, because it gives the feeling of pleasure from finally getting something wanted. That the high of accomplishment happens in a heroin addict nodding out in… Read more »
Tyrone McGrath
Tyrone McGrath
2 months 17 days ago
From my understanding, dopamine is the motivation neurotransmitter and serotonin is the satiation neurotransmitter, this is of course an oversimplification. So yes it is pleasurable but it’s purpose is not to satiate but to motivate. Dopamine itself is definitely the reward for drug addicts however this just demonstrates that theyre obtaining their dopamine in a dysfunctional and counteritnutitve manner. They should be getting that dopamine hit from moving towards a determined goal but instead get it in a needle,pipe and/or pill. So yes dopamine IS the reward for drug addicts, but this indicative of dopaminergic dysfuntion and not an example… Read more »
Will
Will
2 months 17 days ago

As a healed porn addict, and a mastery-seeking man, I believe this is one of the best articles on the Internet.

Vince
Vince
2 months 17 days ago

This was a great post–at least the parts I had the attention span to read.

Elizabeth Resnick
2 months 17 days ago
Oh wow, this is soooo good! As someone who relies on social media to grow a business, there’s a lot to think about here. It is really easy to get caught up in the likes and comments, but fades very quickly. Just as this post suggests, it’s really important to get outside in the fresh air and interact with real people. For me, the good dopamine triggers are anything that pushes me outside of my comfort zone a bit, whether it’s physical or mental. Indoor rock climbing is a good one (outdoor would probably be even better) because it’s physical… Read more »
Ian
Ian
2 months 17 days ago

I had to give up Twitter because it was making me feel lousy by the end of the day. Little hits and laughs and then exhaustion and a lot of wasted time. Great article!

RMM
RMM
2 months 17 days ago

posting this to my FB feed right away….oh wait….

Noni
Noni
2 months 17 days ago

Mark it’s seems your ask mark forum is turned into ask me nothing forum… I love your input on why after getting a filling in the dentist with 3hrs I’m down with flu symptoms fever, sore throat, headache and all the other lovely stuff. I read itmay bebecause the drill exposes dormant bacteria but am not 109% that’s the while storey is my immune just compromised

lol
lol
2 months 17 days ago

get out with some FRIENDS?? but what if those friends don’t like what you say, how you think, how you look??? This is why FACEBOOK REALITY is a much more pleasant and communicative one.

Ellie
2 months 17 days ago

Pure, cutting edge brilliance here. As a holistic health coach that specializes in food addiction you’re TOTALLY speaking my language. Thanks Mark!

Carol Ann Newsome
2 months 17 days ago

I write mysteries. Most successful authors have a strong social media presence but with TBI, I don’t have the mental energy for it. Instead I focus on connecting with readers through my monthly newsletter. I’ve been cutting back on game apps and social media. Your article makes so much sense to me and gives me resolve to cut back even more.

Andrew
Andrew
2 months 17 days ago

What a great blog post. Thank you for this. I work in Drug and Alcohol rehab so I can understand this very much so. Also hearing about other forms of dopamine release is so true. Thanks for this.

Pete Dynes
2 months 17 days ago

No surprise that this topic has popped up, Mark. You have an intuitive habit of posting about material that I am studying – insulin, ketosis, bio markers of health. I had just read some of Robert Lustigs work on the differences between happiness and pleasure. And they are different physiologically. Unfortunately we all chase the quick reward and the dopamine hit, thinking we will find happiness. Not knowing that happiness is not in these addictive places. I guess a follow up blog on these differences is in the pipeline. Great work, Mark.

Gypsyrozbud
2 months 17 days ago
Right On!!! My husband and I just returned home after 3 months cycling trip through Europe. Every day I woke up totally stoked! We averaged about 50 km/ day depending on weather and various historical/architectural/cultural sites we wanted to see or experience. I was actually quite surprised that I was able to cycle 2500 km? I now realize it was the dopamine pushing me along…so cool! This winter we will plan our trip for next year…we had such a fabulous time! BTW, we are both in our 60’s and managed to stay mostly Primal….except in France where I could not… Read more »
Brian
Brian
2 months 17 days ago

This is the very mechanism by which porn lowers testosterone. As dopamine is released, dopamine receptors become desensitized, Prolactin skyrockets, and Prolactin opposes Testosterone.

So even though people can haggle all they want whether or not Porn reduces Testosterone, in the end it does, and it’s done via prolactin which is an after effect of dopamine receptor resistance.

Patti Parker
2 months 17 days ago

Excellent article, Mark. One of your best.

Gord Willms
2 months 17 days ago

And all the people cried: AMEN!

TheMadRoot
TheMadRoot
2 months 17 days ago
Scary real info. Thanks for highlighting this without reserve Mark. It’s all in the underlying mechanism, it does not matter what the need or addiction is and you explain it beautifully. Dopamine resistance, working along with insulin resistance can also really wreak havoc and they actually work together. For some add the reality of our body to being able to develop am incredible tolerance to many toxins that also affect dopamine production and you have a recipe for disaster. Ease and availability of countless things has fooled our genes and psyche and many of us are going downhill for it,… Read more »
Timothy
2 months 17 days ago
Ours is easily the most supernormally stimulating culture humans have ever experienced! The porn angle bears further introspection. What is porn but simulating the life of a voyeur? All around the viewer, other humans are scoring. Only the viewer never scores. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride! What does this do to a man’s psychology? Nothing could more effectively locate him at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy. Our hard-earned conclusion is that months, years, decades of involuntary celibacy are a more natural, salutary and masculinizing state for a man than any amount of voyeurism. Hunger is a physically harmless… Read more »
Richard Blanke
2 months 17 days ago

Thoughts on listening to music and it’s relationship to dopamine? I have tried to limit my internet browsing while on the train to reading articles or e-books and listening to more Spotify.

Angie
2 months 17 days ago
The whole Social thing is challenging. I’m a (PHC!) blogger, and the message out there in the blogosphere is that we have to be present on Social – daily, continuously, in all formats, across all platforms. And I’m not. And I’m not sure what to do about it, because a) I should up my game but b) I love my Primal life, which is very much about taking time off to walk in nature, or visit a gallery, do a bit of crafting and catch up with the girlfriends. As well as carrying baskets of wood from the shed, now… Read more »
Janet
Janet
2 months 17 days ago
I have the COMT SNP — which means the enzyme that will clear dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline could be compromised. In me (also my kids and husband who also have the SNP) this appears to be true. I can appear to be all worked up over something when I really don’t think I am. I also can hyper-focus on goals, and I get totally engrossed in books. I used to be an over the top sugar addict, and even now when I sit down to a meal, I get so excited I just want to gobble it down without chewing.… Read more »
Donna Munro
Donna Munro
2 months 16 days ago

How did ypu learn about your SNP?

Starmice
Starmice
2 months 16 days ago

Great article! Was just reading about this very subject in a book called The Willpower Instinct, and it talks about how dopamine works and how marketers have highjacked it to sell us more stuff. When I go to Vegas for conferences it’s sickening how they’ve capitalized on everyone’s addictions – booze! sex! gambling! smoking! People don’t even stand a chance. I’ve had my own struggles with addictive substances like alcohol and social media and am trying to learn as much as possible about how my brain works. Thanks for sharing this info.

wildgrok
wildgrok
2 months 16 days ago

I am vaccinated against all of these dopamine generators
Facebook
LinkedIn
Pinterest
Instagram
Twitter
And many more
The only one I have is the email
I don’t count the MDA and similar in the list 🙂

gerbeRN
gerbeRN
2 months 15 days ago

Vaccinated…. bwahahahahahaha!
Me too, but I never looked at it that way. I’m stealing that one 🙂

tribal
tribal
2 months 16 days ago

This is a great article – need to link it on Reddit, so I can score social points.

ningyo_hime
ningyo_hime
2 months 15 days ago

Been wondering about the introvert-extrovert issue here. Introverts are said to be more sensitive to the effects of dopamine-needing less. Too much causes that uncomfortable feeling of over-stimulation which is something I strive to avoid every day of my life(doesn’t help that I’m HSP as well). Maybe introverts are more likely to actively regulate dopamine levels? Or, OTOH, perhaps dopamine ‘addiction’ is more common in extroverts?
Just thinking out loud here…

Joel
Joel
2 months 14 days ago

Great post Mark. Love it.

P Hughes
P Hughes
2 months 12 days ago

So wish you had gone a step further to connect the dots of dopamine and Restless Legs Syndrome…

Stilian
Stilian
2 months 4 days ago

Amazing article!

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