I do not think like Sherlock Holmes. Not in the least. That was the disheartening conclusion I reached while researching a book on the detective’s mental prowess. I’d hoped to discover that I had the secret to Sherlockian thought. What I found instead was that it would be hard work indeed to even approximate the essence of the detective’s approach to the world: his ever-mindful mindset and his relentless mental energy. Holmes was a man eternally on, who relished that on-ness and floundered in its absence. It would be exhausting to think like Sherlock.
It all began with those pesky steps, the stairs leading up to the legendary residence that Sherlock Holmes shares with Dr. Watson, 221B Baker Street. Why couldn’t Watson recall the number of steps? “I believe my eyes are as good as yours,” Watson tells his new flatmate – as, in fact, they are. The distinction lies in how those eyes are deployed. “You see, but you do not observe,” Holmes tells his companion. And Holmes? “Now, I know there are seventeen steps,” he continues, “because I have both seen and observed.”
To both see and observe: Therein lies the secret. When I first heard the words as a child, I sat up with recognition. Like Watson, I didn’t have a clue. Some 20 years later, I read the passage a second time. I realized I was no better at observing than I had been at the tender age of 7. Worse, even, with my constant companion Sir Smartphone and my newfound love of Lady Twitter.
The confluence of seeing and observing is central to the concept of mindfulness, a mental alertness that takes in the present moment to the fullest, that is able to concentrate on its immediate landscape and free itself of any distractions.
Mindfulness allows Holmes to observe details that most of us don’t even realize we don’t see. It’s not just the steps. It’s the facial expressions, the sartorial details, the seemingly irrelevant minutiae of the people he encounters. It’s the sizing up of the occupants of a house by looking at a single room. It’s the ability to distinguish the crucial from the merely incidental in any person, any scene, any situation.
And, as it turns out, all of these abilities aren’t just the handy fictional work of Arthur Conan Doyle. They have some real science behind them. After all, Holmes was born of Dr. Joseph Bell, Conan Doyle’s mentor at the University of Edinburgh. Bell was a scientist and physician with a sharp mind, a keen eye and a notable prowess at pinpointing both his patients’ disease and their personal details. Conan Doyle once wrote to him, “Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate, I have tried to build up a man who pushed the thing as far as it would go.”
More recently, researchers have discovered that mindfulness can lead to improvements in physiological well-being and emotional regulation. It can also strengthen connectivity in the brain, specifically in a network of the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex that maintains activity when the brain is resting. Mindfulness can even enhance our levels of wisdom, both in terms of dialectism (being cognizant of change and contradictions in the world) and intellectual humility (knowing your own limitations).
What’s more, mindfulness can lead to improved problem solving, enhanced imagination, and better decision making. It can even be a weapon against one of the most disturbing limitations that our attention is up against: inattentional blindness.
When inattentional blindness (sometimes referred to as attentional blindness) strikes, our focus on one particular element in a scene or situation or problem causes the other elements to literally disappear. Images are not then processed by our brain but instead dissolve into the who-knows-where, so that we have no conscious experience of having ever been exposed to them.
The phenomenon was made famous by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris: In their provocative study, students repeatedly failed to see a person in a gorilla suit who walked onto a basketball court midgame, pounded his chest, and walked off. But the phenomenon actually dates to research conducted by Ulric Neisser, the father of cognitive psychology, in the 1960s and 1970s.
One evening, Neisser noticed that when he looked out the window at twilight, he had the ability to see either the twilight or the reflection of the room on the glass. Focusing on the one made the other vanish. No matter what he did, he couldn’t pay active attention to both. He termed this phenomenon “selective looking” and went on to study its effects in study after study of competing attentional demands. Show a person two superimposed videos, and he fails to notice when card players suddenly stop their game, stand up and start shaking hands – or fails to realize that someone spoke to him in one ear while he’s been listening to a conversation with the other. In a real-world illustration of the innate inability to split attention in any meaningful way, a road construction crew once paved over a dead deer in the road. They simply did not see it, so busy were they ensuring that their assignment was properly carried out.
Inattentional blindness, more than anything else, illustrates the limitations of our attentional abilities. We can’t ever multitask the way we think we can. That’s why Holmes is so careful about where and when he deploys that famed keenness of observation. Were he to spread himself too thin – imagine modern-day Holmes, be it Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller, pulling out his cell to check his email as he walks down the street and has a conversation at the same time – something you’ll never see either of these current incarnations actually doing — he’d be unable to deploy his observation as he otherwise would.
It’s not an easy task, that constant cognitive vigilance, the eternal awareness of our own limitations and the resulting strategic allocation of attention. Even with Holmes, I’m willing to bet, it came with years of motivation and practice. To think like Holmes, we have to both want to think like him and practice doing so over and over and over. Mindfulness takes discipline.
I took the Odyssean approach: I tied myself to the mast to resist the sirens’ call of the Internet. I downloaded Freedom, a program that blocked my access completely for a specified amount of time, and got to writing. The results shocked me. I was woefully bad at maintaining my concentration for large chunks of time. Over and over, my fingers made their way to that habitual key-press combination that would switch the window from my manuscript to my online world – only to discover that that world was off-limits for another ... how long is left? Has it really been only 20 minutes?
Over time, the impulse became less frequent. And what’s more, I found that my writing – and my thinking, it bears note – was improving. I could think more fluidly. My brain worked more conscientiously. In those breaks when, before, there would be a quick check of email or a surreptitious run to my Twitter feed, there would be a self-reflecting concentration that quickly rummaged through my brain attic. (You can’t write about Holmes without mentioning his analogy for the human mind at least once.) I came up with multiple ways of moving forward where before I would find myself stuck. Pieces that had taken hours to write suddenly were completed in a fraction of the time.
Until that concrete evidence of effectiveness, I had never quite believed that focused attention would make such a big difference. It had taken Freedom, but I was finally taking Sherlock Holmes at his word. I was learning the benefits of both seeing and observing – and I was no longer trading in the one for the other.
Here’s what I learned. Those little nudges to limit your own behavior have a more lasting effect, even in areas where you’ve never used them. They make you realize just how limited your attention is in reality – and how often we wave our own limitations off with a disdainful motion.
It’s not for nothing that study after study has shown the benefits of nature on our thinking: Being surrounded by the natural world makes us more reflective, more creative, sharper in our cognition. But if we’re too busy talking on the phone or sending a text, we won’t even notice that we’ve walked by a tree.
If we follow Holmes’ lead, if we take his admonition to not only see but also observe, we may not only find ourselves better able to rattle off the number of those proverbial steps in a second, but we may be surprised to discover that the benefits extend much further: We may even be happier as a result.