Benjamin Cortens, a computer science graduate student at the University of Guelph, is at the school’s DRIVE lab on Wednesday. (Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press)

Harry Potter audiobook can improve focus on long, boring drives: study

Canadian researcher concerned that 40% of crashes can be attributed to in-car distraction

Harry Potter’s power appears to extend beyond the page, as recent Canadian research suggests listening to an audiobook from the popular fiction series can improve focus on long and boring drives.

Lana Trick, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph, wanted to look into areas that could help improve driving performance, given that 40 per cent of collisions can be attributed to in-car distraction, she said.

While much of scientific research has focused on the deleterious effects of distracted driving, she sought to look into “good distractions.”

READ MORE: Armchair Book Club reviews Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The problem with driving, she explained, is the load the brain carries. Too little stimulation — dubbed mental underload — can be just as bad as the opposite, or mental overload.

“It’s like nature abhors a vacuum,” she said. “If you have an empty brain, you can doze off or your mind wanders or you find another way to distract yourself, like grabbing your cell phone.”

The key, she said, is to find the sweet spot between the two for the brain — that’s where audiobooks come in.

“Audiobooks can be cases where a little bit of distraction can be useful,” she said.

For the project, Trick’s team wanted an audiobook that featured an interesting, relatively popular story, and the novel featuring the boy wizard and his friends fit the bill.

“Harry Potter is engaging and exciting,” Trick said, “but also something you can have in the background and not too complex.”

Her research, recently published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, showed drivers who participated in her study had better “hazardous response times” — braking faster in response to hazards — while listening to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” compared to those who drove in silence.

Trick recruited undergraduate students at the University of Guelph as test subjects who used a driving simulator at a specialized laboratory. The DRiVE Lab — named for Driving Research in Virtual Environments — is a state-of-the-art facility where researchers can test various scenarios without the risks of driving on a road, Trick said.

The lab has a car — a convertible Pontiac — that is surrounded by screens. Sounds of driving and “force feedback” — such as the vibrations of a moving car — add to the feel of driving, Trick said. For her study, participants drove both complex and simple routes while listening to parts of the Harry Potter audiobook or driving in silence.

The researchers first scored students on their working memory. Those who had strong working memories, as in those who could hold a number of ideas at once, saw a particularly strong benefit to listening to an audiobook while driving long and boring routes, Trick said.

“Those drivers that have the highest memory load are the most challenged by dull, simple drives and an audiobook seemed to help them,” she said.

The audiobook did, however, have a slightly negative effect on drivers with poor working memory on particularly complex drives. The research shows the audiobook had no effect on drivers’ speeds.

“What this means is that it could help when you’re driving along the boring 401 with no change of scenery for miles and miles and miles,” she said.

One other notable finding, Trick said, came with what’s known as “standard deviation of lateral position,” which means how much a car moves from side to side in a lane. At times, those who listened to the audiobook showed more variance in their lanes, she said.

“When people are excited they tend to shift around a little bit more,” Trick said. “We were going through an especially exciting period of Harry Potter and it was possible they were getting into it.”

Trick said she hopes to test other drivers, especially those who have experience commuting, to expand her research. She said she is also studying the effects of audiobooks on different aspects of road complexity.

“What we’re trying to do is find ways to reduce the number of collisions on the road, especially those from distracted driving, which has become a major problem.”

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Nelson Leafs’ win marred by dangerous play

Nelson is undefeated through the first five games of the season

VIDEO: SPCA ushers in new era with Castlegar facility

$2.69-million project had ribbon cutting on Friday

Slocan seniors’ housing hosts grand opening Sept. 27

The society wants to give the public a glimpse before tenants move in and the weather changes.

LETTERS: Tom Fletcher analysis is as outdated as the Edsel

Dona grace-Campbell takes issue with columnist Tom Fletcher’s column on the carbon tax

VIDEO: Lydia Kania is here to skunk you

The Vallican track athlete has turned to cribbage in her senior years

Czarnik nets 3 as Flames dump Canucks 5-2

Calgary picks up exhibition win over Vancouver

Ottawa to name new ambassador for women, peace and security, Freeland says

Chrystia Freeland also confirmed Canada would spend about $25 million to fund number of initiatives

‘A little bright spot:’ Ottawa residents rescue dog trapped beneath rubble

Freelance journalist says rescue of a dog trapped under rubble was happy ending amid chaos in Ottawa

B.C. deaf community wants different sign languages on federal accessibility act

Advocates also want Indigenous Sign Language to be recognized on the Indigenous Language Act

VIDEO: B.C.-born firefighter remembered by MP in emotional speech

Family asks first responders to look after one another in wake of suicide, growing concerns of PTSD

Airline has ‘close call’ with drone while en route to B.C. airport

Jazz Aviation reported the drone sighting near Vancouver to the RCMP and Transport Canada

Tragic accident claims life of B.C. toddler

Fundraising effort has been created to help mom and family

B.C. nanny charged with sex abuse of 3 children

Saanich Police seek potential victims of Johnathon Lee Robichaud from Central Saanich

Most Read