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Harry Potter helps focus

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."

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.



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