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

Emerald Gloves boxing brings fights to Langford

Langford’s Matt Daniels dropped weight for debut

West Shore RCMP seizes more than $16,000 worth of drugs

Suspected cocaine, pills and cash seized from a Greater Victoria home

UPDATED: $136M in transit funding coming to B.C.

The announcement was made at the BC Transit yard in Langford on Friday morning

U.S. mayor and dying dog’s roadtrip to Victoria goes viral

First vacation in three years came a month after blood cancer diagnosis

Team Canada to hold junior selection camp in Victoria

22 players from camp will make roster for 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship

VIDEO: Stan Lee leaves posthumous message for his fans

Marvel Comics’ co-creator died on Monday at the age of 95

VIDEO: Protected bighorn sheep killed in B.C. Interior

The sheep are considered a species of concern because of their low population in B.C.

Missing hikers on Quadra pull search teams from all over the Island

Two women, aged 69 and 70, did not return from what was supposed to be an hour-long walk Wednesday

VIDEO: The definition of a kilogram has officially changed

50-plus countries voted to a ground-breaking overhaul to the international system of measurements

Deer carcasses don’t belong in green bins, says B.C. city

City of Nanaimo issues reminder to residents, saying fur isn’t compostable

Firearms and cocaine seized from Vancouver Island residence

The file remains under investigation and charges are pending.

B.C. couple helping wildfire evacuees in northern California

A planned holiday has turned into a humanitarian effort for a Penticton couple

Dead whale discovered on B.C. shore

The whale was discovered Friday morning near the BC Ferries terminal

‘This is gangster,’ bait car thief declares on video

Footage from Abbotsford gains attention on social media

Most Read