PSYCHOLOGISTS have used the unique vocabulary Harry Potter for an in-depth eye movement study showing how people's brains process unfamiliar language.

Husband and wife behavioural psychology researchers and Potter superfans, Dr Chris Hand and Dr Joanne Ingram, wanted to find out how specialist knowledge affects reading behaviour - an area which has had limited investigation to date.

They studied how fan and non-fan participants responded to 72 specially-constructed sentences containing words such as Muggle, Hogwarts and Quidditch which were either used in or out of context, in fantasy or real world examples respectively.

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The researchers used technology to track the movement of volunteers' pupils and low-level infra-red light to pinpoint where they were looking.

"The really good thing about eye movement tracking is that it gives you a really super fine timeline of where someone is looking," said Dr Hand.

"From that you can infer whether they're successfully processing what they're looking at because they've been able to move on. But it also picks up when they're looking back, so you can tell when there's a bit of text that's caused them more difficulty."

There were 32 Harry Potter fans and 22 non-fans, but participants were not told in advance that the study had any link to J.K Rowling's hugely popular boy wizard.

Only afterwards, when they were asked to fill out questionnaires, were they divided into fan and non-fan categories.

"We didn't tell anyone in advance that the study was about Harry Potter because we knew that would skew things by getting fans excited and non-fans would probably lose interest and drop out," said Dr Hand.

"It's hard to get people who have never had any contact with Harry Potter - it's a bit like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

"Most of the fans had read all the books multiple times and seen all the films. One of the participants had read all the books at least four times.

"The people who were classed as non-fans were people who'd never read any of the books but had maybe seen one or two of the films."

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After hours of analysing raw data, the psychologists, whose research backgrounds are in words and language, discovered that most people can understand these specialist terms if used in the right context.

"What we saw was that when you put a Harry Potter word in a Harry Potter context, people deal with it a lot better than when you put it in a 'real world' context," said Dr Hand.

"The benefit of that context was even greater for the Harry Potter fan, so that allows us to make inferences about how these words are stored in the brain.

"The Harry Potter fans were reading this Harry Potter sentence and they were starting to tap into their Harry Potter knowledge, so that when they got to the part of the sentence that had Quidditch they were speeding through it.

"Whereas the non-fans were reading along a bit slower because they're not quite getting what's going on, but they understand that it's something magical and weird.

"Then when they hit the word Quidditch, they can still deal with it because they have enough context - they just can't deal with it as well as the Harry Potter fans."

HeraldScotland: Dr Hand and Dr Ingram with their son, EricDr Hand and Dr Ingram with their son, Eric

Dr Hand and Dr Ingram, who teaches at the University of the West of Scotland, have been married for 12 years and have studied Harry Potter for years - reading all the books and watching the blockbuster movies.

Their toddler son Eric is also a fan and has a Harry Potter nursery backpack.

Dr Hand stressed that the same results could have been achieved using people with highly technical or specialist medical jobs, instead of Harry Potter fans.

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But the overall message is that people can cope with unfamiliar, complex language, if it is set in the right context.

Dr Hand said: “If we had started using medical terminology such as epidemiology before Covid-19 six or seven months ago, the public might have really struggled to understand what that meant but if you say epidemiologists are studying Covid that gives them the right context and illness frame.

"We did it with Harry Potter but the takeaway message is – with the right context everyone can understand these really specialist terms.

“This is important research because it helps us understand how to communicate public health information.

"The message is that if you have a technical word – don’t dumb down language, use the proper word and context because we are showing that it actually makes it easier to understand if you’ve got the right contextual information.

“So for things like public health information, economics, politics, medicine, training, education, and for GPs who are trying to communicate something to a patient, don’t just throw the word in without context or try to replace it with a simpler word.”

The research entitled ‘Words from the wizarding world: Fictional words, context, and domain knowledge’ is published in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Experimental Psychology.