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The Science Of Laughter

Giggles, chortles, twitters and full-on guffaws – we’ll look at the science of laughter. We need it!

Guffaw (lintmachine/Flickr)

Guffaw (lintmachine/Flickr)

To laugh is human.  It’s also chimpanzee.  Maybe that’s why we laugh.  A gift of evolution.  We giggle, we chortle, we belly laugh, we howl.  When we’re kids, we roll on the floor with laughter.  As adults we laugh for all kinds of reasons:  to schmooze, to rejoice, to flatter, to seduce.  To just let it rip, let it roll, at life’s absurdity.

Life’s humor.  Behind the guffaws, there is a science of laughter.  We’ve got a laughter guru with us today.  While you’ve been laughing, he’s been listening.  Learning.

This hour, On Point:  laughter, and the science of laughter.  What the yuks are all about.

-Tom Ashbrook


Robert Provine, Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he is Assistant Director of the Neuroscience Program. He’s the author of  Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

Sue Gillan, a Second City alumni and actor and director.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst.

From Tom’s Reading List

MSNBC “Laughter is part of the universal human vocabulary. All members of the human species understand it. Unlike English or French or Swahili, we don’t have to learn to speak it. We’re born with the capacity to laugh. ”

Video: YouTube Baby Laughing Sensation

This video of a baby laughing hysterically has been viewed more than 12 million times.

Video: Cracking the Code of Laughter

Check out this video of Robert Provine at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2010 talking about the latest in laugh research.

Video: I Love To Laugh

Here’s a video of the song I Love To Laugh, from the 1964 film Mary Poppins.


The Okeh Laughing Record by Otto Rathke

I Love to Laugh by Dick van Dyke, Ed Wynn, Julie Andrews

Make Em’ Laugh by Glee Cast Version

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  • http://twitter.com/TweeterSmart b smart

    its the best medicine! i OD on it everyday!

  • Sofia

    There is a whole branch of yoga, Hasyayoga, dedicated to laughing for no reason. The thinking is it loosens the body, reduces cortisol (“stress hormone”) levels, clears the mind of troubling thoughts, and generally creates positive energy. There are mass “laugh ins” where people get together on beaches or in parks simply to laugh. For no reason. It is hysterically funny to watch how the laughter becomes genuine, even though it starts out forced.

  • Hidan
  • Brett

    There’s a lot of sadness in the world, and it’s good to take stock in that. But, there is also much absurdity, for which laughter is the best approach, particularly when one gets bombarded with absurdity on a daily basis.

  • nj_v2

    Laughter, music, good ale, books…life essentials

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    I wonder if humans evolved the ability to laugh as a natural means of overcoming grief, fear, and stress. Laughter works better than any pill or substance at overcoming these states of mind and getting on with our lives.

    • Ellen Dibble

      This is why I choose America’s Funniest Home Videos rather than 60 Minutes… (I can’t imagine any insurance company managers being at all amused, but aside from that… Man falls from roof, dog tries to leap through glass over and over, chandelier falls on wedding party… ENDLESSLY)

  • Ellen Dibble

    A comment on the laughing baby video.  I have a grandniece 6 months old, and there’s a video of her at her mom’s page that is much better than the one here.   (No bias, of course.)   No I won’t say where the snip is; it may be “custom.”  But the “plot” is the same, and I remember the child psychology that goes into it.
        At about this age, the child is learning that things/people remain even when they disappear.  This learning takes place via the game of peekaboo, which you see here, and which also took place with my grandniece, and of course I’ve seen it, done it, etc.  Pretty much as long as you are willing to disappear and appear with a napkin or  towel, the baby will laugh pretty much like that (I’m not sure what happens if you make noise while you’re hidden; mostly you speak when you reappear.)  
        My grandniece also had the high sort of tweet for punctuation, but during one lull she took to sucking her big toe, kicking her mom by mistake when the toe came out, and then trying to eat the camera.  
        I think it is the learning, the incredible significance of that learning — learning mom is there even when she doesn’t seem to be — that makes it so hysterically gripping for that age.  Learning as surprise, revelation.  Comedy as the art of the unexpected.   (So it’s like being dumped by a lover and finding out you were mistaken?  Ha-ha?)

    • Brett

      I am reminded of a study I once read about in college. The whole thing was a little show on a tiny stage with a curtain and so on. The show involved the character disappearing on stage. At under a year (sorry, I can barely remember the particulars) the children would would laugh, look surprised (as you note, an important ingredient in prompting laughter). They had the look as if true magic had just happened. Older children would look skeptical on some level; some would look behind the curtain in an effort figure out what the “trick” was; some would look at their mothers in an effort to say, “what just happened here, Mom?” 

  • Wjest

    “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh?”

                              – Abraham Lincoln at a Cabinet meeting -

  • Cheryl Lekousi


    I am a medical clown and executive director with the Boston
    based Hearts & Noses Hospital Clown Troupe.  Over the past 15 years we have done bedside visits to
    thousands of ill and disabled children. 
    The goal is not about being funny, which is rather funny since we are
    clowns but to be present.  By
    having these visits be child centered, light and gentle a sweet humor

    Imagine a young child and their family in a hospital room
    for hours, days, dealing with pain, treatments and fear suddenly finding
    themselves going on a journey with a couple of sweet but not so bright
    character clowns.  The sky is the limit.  Or not the limit since I have traveled
    in to space with young astronauts. 

    Please check us out at http://www.heartsandnoses.org or look for us
    on facebook.

    There has also been evidenced based research on medical
    clowning and is on a wonderful group’s site Dream Doctors http://www.dreamdoctors.org

    I look forward to reading Professor Provine’s book.

    • Dianna Hahn

      Cheryl and all! I work with Clowns Without Borders, an organization that brings laughter through clown and physical theater performances to children living in crisis areas around the world. The organization was founded in Spain in 1993, and now their are nine country branches. I am the VP of the board of the US branch. I just returned from a project in India where we collaborated with three Indian artists to perform for more than 2000 marginzalized children in 2 weeks! We are currently working in Colombia and Burma. We also work frequently in Haiti. We are always looking for interesting work in response to crisis situations (out of the hospital) here in the USA! For more information: http://www.clownswithoutborders.org

      I am thrilled to see the science of laughter is getting attention in the news! It is healing for humanity!

  • AC

    this will be interesting…i’ve never given it much thought, but now that i am thinking about it, i realize i’m most uncomfortable & distrustful when i hear what i perceive as ‘forced or fake laughter’….is there anything to that?

    • AC

      i should add, i’m sure i myself have fake laughed, but i do think i usually just try to politely smile or something instead….

  • Stillin

    I remember in college, in a course in death and dying…of a book by someone who cured themselves of cancer , by laughing to the point of losing control as a way of being. Also, since it IS so important, how sad that certain classes in school have to be so humorless, and work places too. duh.

  • Anonymous

    Somebody explain to me why I always laugh uncontrollably at videos of people falling down!

  • JustSayin

    I’m still laughing about a OnPoint poster’s retort about preparing for Armageddon by stocking his basement with cash and light bulbs.  

  • Anonymous

    Laughing didn’t evolve from chimps.  It was intelligently designed by a creator so we can be entertained by Rush Limbaugh. 

  • Klc

    my 20 month old son just heard the clips of babies and people laughing and came running in from the other room and started laughing hysterically.

  • Enewton

    Thanks for this programme. The sound of a baby laughing never fails to make me smile and lift my spirits. 

    • Laurie

       Baby laughs are the best!

  • Tina

    What do we as a society LOSE now that so much of our PUBLIC HUMOR (TV) is SARCASTIC/sardonic/laughing AT others?!

    Do we LOSE some of the emotional benefit of laughing when it is non-stop sardonic?Thanks!

  • John in Vermont

    I think it was Norman Cousins who first called laughter “internal jogging” but it’s often repeated by Joel Goodman of the Humor Project.  A good belly laugh gives an internal massage to our internal organs.

    Go ahead, laugh right now – you don’t need a joke just start laughing.  This is the basis for laughter yoga.  While standing in mountain pose the leader starts laughing and it become infectious and builds as everyone starts laughing.

  • Anonymous

    The best relationships I’ve had is when me and my partner have the same sense of humor.  I’m wondering if that is the key ingredient to not only a long marriage but a synergetic one too?

  • Eloiselynch

    It’s been really interesting watching my seventh month old daughter laugh. I’ve found that two main things cause her laughter. One–surprise or sudden change (when playing peekaboo, my face popping back into view, for example). Maybe this is why we find men in women’s clothing humorous, a deviation from the norm. Two–building suspense (crawling toward her slowly before tickling). I suppose we also laugh in order to release tension…a trick filmmakers use often.

    Are these two causes of laughter found in chimps, too?

  • Michiganjf

    If we typically laugh only with firends, not with strangers, why is it that we enjoy group laughing so much in theatres and at live shows?

    Is there a group dynamic at work which changes the formula?

  • Chris in Pennsylvania

    The infamous recording of Elvis losing composure in a live recording of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” always brings a smile to my face.  Allegedly a woman in the audience knocked a wig off of another patron and Elvis watched it happen.  Laughter is contagious I suppose.

  • Yar

    In rough and tumble play, it is important to know the play partner is okay. Laughter is a positive feedback, when it turns to yelps then the play went too far.  If it stops, it is a sign to back off.  The evolutionary advantage is it establishes a safe space for play.

  • MarkVII88

    Is there something that your guest has found makes everyone laugh?  Things that immediately come to mind include “fall humor”, flatulence, and babies.  I can’t tell you how many times I saw the clip with the baby win the $10,000 prize on AFV over other clips that I thought were just as funny.

  • TFRX

    The Okeh “Laughing Record”?

    I can’t believe you dug that up! It’s hilarious. And (further) evidence that marijuana wasn’t invented by beats in Greenwich Village in the ’50s or by hippies in San Francisco in ’60s.

  • Jeff in Belmont, Mass

    I find that there is a great way to laugh. First start out with a forced fake laugh that sounds like a robot, “ha ha ha ha ha ha”. If you keep this up eventually you will start to really laugh. Works every time and it’s very cleansing.

    Another thing I’ve found that my kids used to do when they were very young. I would let them tickle me while I lay on the bed. I was able to resist moving and yet I would laugh hysterically. I’ve never met anyone else who could do this for long and it always eventually made even my kids get freaked out.

  • Maureenclairewhite

    When I visited India I learned about “Laughter Clubs”- groups of men that gathered in public parks to laugh together.  The idea behind it is that laughter brings numerous health benefits and is a great stress-reducer.  

    Maureen, Boston

  • Marc

    How do actors make laughter so real?

    • Marc

       Make THEIR laughter so real when doing a role.

  • nj_v2

    How do canned laugh tracks added to TV sitcoms fit into this?

    • MarkVII88

       I think the goal here is to make the canned laughter “infectious” for those watching to keep them hooked.

  • Kjmboston

    The Carol Burnett Show, Tim Conway’s Elephant story, Funniest five minutes of Televison ever.

  • Lark

    I found myself laughing this morning when I heard the “ad” for WBUR–Robin Young trying to pawn a June fundraiser.  The pawn shop guy plays the tape: “This is the 21st day of our June fundraiser . .. ”  I cracked up, and was so aware the humor would be lost on anyone who wasn’t a regular NPR fundraiser!  Context , shared culture, is important–and the source of “in” jokes, I guess.

  • Daniel

    The last time I laughed ’til it hurt was at a live performance of Flight of the Concords. There is something about being part of an audience that allows you to give in to the laughter.

  • Christine

    Oh my gosh, this show is making me laugh so hard, and I’m at work!!  Stop before it gets me in trouble …

  • JustSayin

    Laughing from memory requires no outward stimulus. Also people who are really tired tend to laugh at everything, kinda like when they smoke weed.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Or people who are really stressed tend to laugh, maybe not at anything, but once it starts, watch out.  The bride who heard from the groom he was taking her as his “wawfully wedded wife” is a case in point.  I remember falling off my chair while working once, and I curled up in a fetal position and laughed hysterically, which I wouldn’t have done if someone weren’t watching, I suppose.

  • Just Curious

    Can Robert address the role of laughter in relieving high stress? When I was about 10, a friend and I were accosted by a group of older kids who tried to mug us until scared away by some passersby. The two of us then started laughing uncontrollably for a couple of minutes. Humor played no role in that reaction, but it clearly helped us cope with our emotions. How does that relate to other kinds of laughter?

  • Griscom3

    I was working in an Emergency Room in Los Angeles trying to take care of an elderly Mayan Indian women who spoke only an ancient Mayan dialect and after minutes of trying English, Spanish and universal anatomic gesticulations, she and I just burst into belly-busting laughter, each of us seeming to recognize the hilarity of two humans whose ancestors last saw each other 50 thousand years ago when they left Africa ( her people going East and mine West) being unable to simply communicate….and yet we did so directly with our laughter!

  • NSM

    Are there any universal things that cause people to laugh?  Americans may not appreciate British humor but what might they both find funny

  • Jonathanmoulin

    Why does other people’s pain cause us to laugh? shows like jackass and the ever popular groin shot on Americas funniest videos are always hilarious but not so much when it happens to you!

  • Pingback: Bob Provine, Psychology, on NPR’s On Point | UMBC Insights Weekly

  • Khut313

    Some humor seems gender-specific.  For instance, all the men I know think the Three Stooges are hysterical, and I don’t know any women who do!  On the other hand, most women I know will laugh (and/or cry!) at commercials with kids and puppies :)

    • nj_v2

      I’m a guy, and, with just a few exceptions, i never thought the Stooges was very funny.

      • Khut313

        maybe I’m just hangin’ with the wrong guys :)

      • Anonymous

        I also don’t find them funny.

    • FranG

      I grew up watching the Stooges and I can still think back to episodes which cracked me up.  And I am a woman.   Maybe you’re hanging with the wrong crowd ;).  Woman talking with Moe: “The sword of Damacles must be hanging over your head”.  Moe: “Lady, you must be psychic”. Woman replies: “I wonder what’s wrong with that young man?” (She looks up and the glob of dough is about to fall on her face). Ha!

  • Laurie

    This is a fun show. Thanks for this one!

    I have a secret way of making my husband laugh until he cries. Every so often I unleash it on him when I think he’s being too serious and needs a good, cathartic laugh. Mwahaha. :)

    • TFRX

      My brother and I did this as kids, and still do. He’s “it”. It’s his turn to make me laugh while drinking until I spit out (through mouth or nose).

      I don’t know how we started this “tradition”, but we wouldn’t give it up for anything.

  • Vicki Young

    I remember, with great enjoyment Tim Conway making everyone in the cast of the Carol Burnett show laugh in the middle of their skits.  One skit still makes me chuckle thinking about it twenty years later….

  • Jeff

    The “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the funniest TV moments ever.  Mary trying unsuccessfully to stife laughter at Chuckles The Clown’s funeral.  Sure anyone who has seen it will remember it.  I laugh out loud no matter how many time I have seen it.

  • Owen

    I am sitting at my desk with a big grin on my face every time you play a clip of people laughing uncontrollably because I do this all of the time. The last time I did it was after a few drinks my friend and I played some midnight basketball and he took a flailing, backwards tumble into my yard and we were both doubled over laughing for minutes. 
    One of my favorite celebrity clips of someone laughing is Anderson Cooper talking about Gerard Depardieu’s plane urination story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyxOoR_uWvg

  • Birgit

    One caller reminded me of an article about intercultural communication I’d just read. It said that Asian cultures might even smile or laugh when telling an employer about a death in the family. It was described as a mechanism where the person affected does not want to impose his or her grief onto the employer. It is also interesting to compare American humor to the more subtle humor of other cultures – just noticed that in the documentary “The Ambassador” by a Danish filmmaker.

  • Mary

    Two things occur to me: hearing Jon Stewart interviewed, and the interviewer says, “I understand that you fact-check your pieces very carefully–more carefully than many news broadcasts.” And he replied, “Absolutely–because if it’s not true, then it isn’t funny.”

    And the healing power of laughter–that is often touted by the medical professionals–that belly-laughs are so good for your health.

  • ndrj

    Once I was working late through the night on a project with a friend and we were getting tired and then we started laughing for no particular reason and laughed for about 20 minutes (could not stop).  After that we felt refreshed like we had taken a nap.

  • Inda Roddy

    Why are some laughs more contagious than others.  Eddie Murphy laughs and I HAVE to laugh

    • Laurie

       George Takei’s laugh is like that, too.

      • Anonymous

        Oh my!

  • Scott B, Jamestown

     What makes women snort when they laugh?  I know that if I can get a woman to snort when laughing that she’s into my humor and/or me.

  • Laurie

    Anyone else remember Dana Carvey as Massive Head Wound Harry on SNL?


    I remember watching this episode live and being helpless with laughter when the dog makes its appearance and totally steals the scene, sending the audience and cast into paroxysms.

  • Scott B, Jamestown NY

    Reagan’s “The bombs are away” microphone “test” didn’t go over well, though…

  • Eric

    I am curious about the sound of laughter; the he-he vs. the ha-ha. How much of our laugh is natural and how much of it is altered to mirror the laughter of others? Will friends begin to laugh alike in time?

  • Pamg213

    I laugh all the time at my animals – 3 dogs and one cat.  I love to laugh and it makes me feel so good inside after I’ve laughed hard.  My husband makes me laugh too.  He quiet/smart funny.  Makes me think.  I think my dogs laugh too.  My one little dog actually smiles when I baby talk to him.  He shows his teeth and it’s so stinking funny.  I mean he may be just mimicking me but I know there are times when they are laughing when they play.

  • Camille

    I was just talking with a friend yesterday about how I have to try not to laugh when my kids do something they are not supposed to do, but I find it funny. Sometimes I have to leave the room and laugh where they can’t seem me! Other times, my husband and I have to avoid eye contact so we don’t start laughing at the wrong time.

  • Mmmcutler

    I am late to this discussion so this may be repetitious.  Our 18 month old granddaughter loves to faux laugh and has been doing it from before she was one year.  Not surprisingly, she has a great sense of humor, too.  I love to laugh with her and she will continue until I stop.  I am sure that she likes the way she feels during and after laughing.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    From Stranger in a Strange Land:

    “I grok people. I am people… so now I can say it in people talk. I’ve
    found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much… because
    it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting. “

  • Rex

    This forced laughter is similar to a model smiling without their eyes. It’s creepy and less humorous.

  • Robin from Hampton Roads

    I’d really like to know more about the role of gender and humor.  As a female that humors herself as humorous,  I often find that funny men are more well liked than funny women.  Is there something inherently emasculating about finding females funny?

    • Sam

      Maybe it is directly tied to men’s self esteem?
      Like they are consciously or unconsciously afraid that a funny woman would make fun of them, and there are very very few men whose ego would be able to handle that. :)

      But then again, I wouldn’t want to be with a man who cannot take a joke and takes himself too seriously. :)

  • ashley

    In college my friends and I started a Laughing Club during exam period. It was always a little awkward in the beginning, but once we got going it turned into genuine laughter. It provided a much-needed break from the books.

  • Anonymous

    That laughter class sounds like a horrible experience.  Fake laughter is pointless as I find laughter to be honest critical judgement of whether something is funny or not. 

    • Sam

      I agree, that audio clip made me shiver. It sounded disingenuous and made feel uncomfortable.

  • Tyrobbie

    What about the very threatening, sinister laughter in Kurosowa’s “Rashomon”?

  • Yesim

    My husband and I are just about the the only ones giggling during yoga classes.  Generally, yogis appreciate the positive disposition.  Sometimes we get verbal approvals from other yogis.  They say it is infectious.  Every once in a while we get a weird stare, which seems to prompt an even more hilarious responce from us giggling yogis.   

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

      There is a form of yoga which is “laughing yoga”.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Beatty is talking about Norman Cousins using laughter to heal — I think it was cancer.  There is a woman doctor, I believe, who has written a book about the various kinds of cancer, and the psychological dispositions that are statistically (as I recall) are related to each.  At the time, I had breast cancer, and I read that that cancer was connected to disconnectedness, lack of rapport, in significant relationships.  Something like that.  Other cancers reflect other things, but I can’t tell you what book it was.  Laughter certainly reflects connectedness, so.

  • Sam

    What about the “Stranger in a Strange Land” where the main character – a human of Martian upbringing – couldn’t laugh, and learned how to laugh when he saw a monkey fighting another monkey. Because it was so painful, he had to laugh.

  • Steven

    Jack and Tom make my Friday, like a good belly laugh. This show,On Point, is the best.

    • Anonymous

      I wish Jack were on once a week in addition to the weekly news.

  • Ssheldon

    Isn’t laughter a close relation to crying? Sometimes my hardest laughing bouts ends in crying or visa versa. In other words,  incredible stress may trigger doubled over laughter. 

    • nj_v2

      [[ "Sometimes my hardest laughing bouts ends in crying or visa versa." ]]

      As often happens when beholding our national politics.

  • Diana Arezzo

    Laughter Yoga clubs for me are not only about the physical benefits, but also about the emotional benefits.  The idea is to encourage and provide practice at choosing to laugh instead of “stress out” at a given situation.  For example, we might practice laughing while acting out scraping ice off a windshield, or cleaning a kitty litter, so that the next time we have to do these tasks we could keep a cheerful attitude.  More importantly, we practice beginning to argue (shaking a finger) at someone, and then switching to laughter — reminding us to lighten up when disagreeing with others.  I have found myself deliberately stopping to laugh about getting lost, instead of getting horribly upset.  Giving ourselves permission to laugh at life and at ourselves, and to actually laugh even when alone can seriously improve mood.   In working as a psychologist with children with severe mood disorders, I have found that sometimes the most effective way to break a child out of a rage is to stimulate her/him to laugh — using silly laughter rituals we practice at other times.  Laughter is a very powerful therapeutic tool, with only positive side-effects.  

  • Rick a surgeon from Encino, Ca

    The physiologic basis of laughter is stimulation of the endorphin system.

  • Diana Varney

    I had several long minutes of very painful suppressed laughter during an extremely long prayer in church when my 9 year old son farted quite loudly. My niece and I almost choked, we turned red, tears ran down our faces, and we could barely breath. This is the WORST kind of laughter!

  • Abc

    Laughing with the Talking Tom on my iPad is fun!

  • Sandra

    I’ve had a painful case of shingles for over a week. The combination of doing laughter yoga on the phone with others along with doing some self-massage has helped take the edge off the pain. The laughter in this situation clearly isn’t based on humor, but gives a lot of relief anyway.
     As a Certified Laughter Yoga leader in the Boston area (www.laughterevents.com), my focus is to offer people a chance to laugh continuously for an extended time, so that it becomes an aerobic workout. We take brief breathing and stretching breaks. We don’t depend on humor; our aim is to laugh for the sake of it, not dependent on jokes or humor. We focus on the social and health benefits of sharing laughter in a group (which can include pain reduction.)  After a LY session, participants have said that they feel like they had a good workout at the gym, but it was more fun.   Or some come in with a headache and leave pain free. Research shows that people get the same health benefits from faking laughter as real laughter. Even if we start as strangers, a sense of community develops at the end of a session. Since we don’t depend on humor, faking the laughter is a catalyst to get to real laughter.  Try it you might like it.

  • Tina

    Just testing.  

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  • Slipstream

    It wasn’t mentioned directly, at least I didn’t catch it, but I wanted to point out that laughter and joking is often used to mask feelings and thoughts that are socially unacceptable or risky.  I suppose this connects to the idea that humor is a social lubricant.  I think it is much more than that tho, and runs the gamut thru a variety of feelings.   It is often an end in itself.  It is also not only social – some of the best laughs I have had have been all by myself – but other people are usually involved somehow.

  • Bettye10

    Can’t keep a straight face when listening/watching this.  It’s wonderful.

  • HomeGirl

    Little did I know my relationship was gender bending in yet another way! I delight in making my male fiance laugh and I love hearing him laugh, whilst I myself am much slower to laugh and certainly don’t laugh out loud as often – - – -I just do the quiver. 

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