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

UPDATED: West Shore RCMP officer cleared in Goldstream trestle death

Independent Investigation Office of BC issues final report

Transportation Safety Board’s out-of-date data system makes it hard to track trends

An upgrade to the system will be coming in the next fiscal year

Canadian Armed Forces to change approach to sexual assault investigations

New program aimed at a more open and transparent process, will consult with civilians, health and law professionals

Friends, family remember Dan Sealey, stepson of Minister of Agriculture, in private gathering

Lana Popham confirmed Sealey died of an accidental drug overdose earlier this month at age 23

Changes coming to BC Ferries reservations for Vancouver Island routes

Many customers are booking multiple reservations, inflating wait times

Unique technology gives children with special needs more independent play

UVic’s CanAssist refined seven prototypes aided by $1.5M government contribution

$50k fine and community service for Vancouver Island tax evader

David Gonyea was given a nine-month conditional sentence

Paved Pacific Rim National Park trail costs balloon to $51 million

Feds kick in an additional $17 million to complete trail running between Tofino and Ucluelet

Island connection to launch of new $10 bill

Great nephew of Viola Desmond says bill is a ‘step in the right direction’

B.C. fire chief learns from California fires

Chief Travis Whiting and Kelowna Fire Department learn from the devasting U.S. fires

1st Indigenous woman to start Canadian airline looks to B.C.’s remote regions

Teara Fraser is the first Indigenous woman in Canada to start her own airline, called Iskwew Air

Prosecutors appeal B.C. cops’ acquittal of sex assault charges in Cuba

Port Moody’ Const. Jordan Long and Vancouver’s Const. Mark Simms were acquitted last week

Examine ‘monstrous’ allegations of forced sterilization of Indigenous women: NDP

The issue of forced sterilizations will also be raised at the UN Committee Against Torture

Canada Post ‘cooling off’ period won’t resolve postal dispute, says CUPW

CUPW national president Mike Palecek says the union isn’t holding rotating strikes to harm the public

Most Read