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Don’t Just See, Observe: What Sherlock Holmes Can Teach Us About Mindful Decisions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Sherlock Holmes isn’t what you’d call a traditional psychologist. In fact, he isn’t even real (despite the letters that to this day arrive at 221B Baker Street). But his insights into the human mind do more to teach us about how we do think and how we should think than many a more conventional source. I, for one, would be happy to take a few pages from the playbook of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation any day.

Sherlock Holmes teaches us to be constantly mindful of our surroundings

When I was little, my dad used to read us Sherlock Holmes stories before bed. While my brother often took the opportunity to fall promptly asleep on his corner of the couch, the rest of us listened intently. I remember in particular one story that has stayed with me. Not the whole story, actually, but one exchange that caught my attention.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes instructs Watson on the difference between seeing and observing:

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The exchange really shook me. Feverishly, I tried to remember how many steps there were in our own house, how many led up to our front door (I couldn’t). And for a long time afterward, I tried to count stairs and steps whenever I could, lodging the proper number in my memory in case anyone ever called upon me to report. I’d make Holmes proud (of course, I’d promptly forget each number I had so diligently tried to remember – and it wasn’t until later that I realized that by focusing so intently on memorization, I’d missed the point entirely and was actually being less, not more observant).

What it means to go beyond seeing and to actually observe

Conan Doyle’s Holmes had taught himself to observe on a regular, almost superhuman basis. For him, taking note of the myriad inputs from his surroundings was a matter of course. He was never not observing, never not in touch with his environment. He had mindfulness down to an art. Most of us aren’t as careful.

Our senses–and here I don’t just mean vision; I mean all of them, touch, hearing, smell, taste–are powerful forces. Every day, countless items, some glanced, or heard, or felt, or smelled only briefly–perhaps without ever registering in our consciousness–affect our minds and play into our decisions. But for the most part, we don’t pay attention; and we fail to realize what it is that is guiding us at any given moment – or fail to note something that would have made a crucial difference to our decision calculus.

Most of us are lucky to have eyes that, like Watson’s, are every bit as good as Holmes’s. Ditto the rest of the senses. But so often, we squander them. We block ourselves off from the world, armed with headphones, dark glasses, eyes that look straight ahead and hurry on to their destination as quickly as possible, angry at the slightest interruption. How much do we miss that would actually make a difference, that continues to affect us even though we don’t realize it’s doing so? I’ve written in the past about the potential of smell to do just that, but the same holds for every single one of the senses we take for granted.

Using our senses to increase mindfulness

We and our decisions both would be well served to take some of the famed detective’s advice, to go beyond seeing and into the realm of observing. Take note of what’s around you. Take note of how or why it affects you. You might not turn into an expert crime solver, but I guarantee, you’d be surprised at the difference it can make to the quality of your life and your decisions.

To be mindful is to be aware. To observe, not merely to see, with our eyes, as well as the rest of our senses.

That insight forms the basis of this series, Lessons from Sherlock Holmes. Each lesson will be devoted to an observation culled from among the many exploits of the great detective. Along with Holmes, I hope to explore the interaction of our senses and our minds, the workings, possibilities, and limits of our brains, in order to foster a greater awareness of the constant interplay between ourselves and our environment and an understanding of how that interplay can help us become more mindful, more aware, and closer to the Sherlockian ideal of a thinker who knows how to go beyond merely seeing the world around him.

A slightly modified version of this post first appeared on Big Think, as part of the Artful Choice blog.

[photo credit: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John B. Watson, in "The Greek Interpreter." By Sidney Paget (1860-1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. Metropolitan Field Guide 12:46 pm 08/20/2011

    Yes exactly! I’ve long used the Holmes method of observation for ecology. I believe it’s a great way to view the landscape, whether it’s a remote mountain creek or a sidewalk in the city, to truly analyze the ecology of the site. Many city dwellers miss the huge variety of wildlife because they do not observe it to be there.

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  2. 2. ybaror 10:27 am 08/25/2011

    I hope you’ll be exploring WHY we tend not to pay attention to our surroundings. At least part of the explanation may come from an evolutionary psychology perspective. That is, our brains subconsciously scan our surroundings and quickly make judgments regarding whether there are sources of danger nearby. Anything that is not deemed a danger is dismissed and fades away from our consciousness.

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  3. 3. mkonnikova 11:39 am 08/25/2011

    ybaror: Yes, absolutely. The “whys” are certainly very important questions to consider. An evolutionary perspective, as you point out (thank you!), is one of the explanations, but there are many others, ranging from habits of behavior to habits of thought to simple lack of awareness. I hope to go into detail on these in the future.

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  4. 4. Myrna 4:48 pm 08/28/2011

    I enjoyed reading this, especially because I, too believe: … psychological insights can be garnered from literature and … some of the best psychologists are to be found not in labs and ivory towers, but among the literary greats. One of my favorites, Sheldon Kopp, wrote about an old Sufi saying: “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees is pockets.” The mindset, motivation of the observer creates its own reality. I’m looking forward to more of your pieces. Thank you.

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  5. 5. mkonnikova 6:36 pm 08/28/2011

    Myrna: I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. Mindset and motivation are both crucial factors in how we interpret and react to the world. And thank you for that quote from Kopp!

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  6. 6. jinlong 9:45 am 05/23/2012


    I sincerely appreciate and share your interest in the ability of the human mind to reason, observe, calculate and conclude with incredible accuracy concerning the things that our physical senses are pointing toward that can only be found if we use our powers of imagination and logic to clearly observe. “Having eyes to see they see not, having ears to hear they hear not”. This is so true because often we have not developed the powers of genuine observation and often we do not want to “observe” that which we do not want to accept.

    It seems that our imaginations serve as the architect and our logic as the builder of bridges into areas that are beyond the reach of our mere physical senses which do nothing more that collect the data or material to be used to build those bridges.

    For example, is it not often possible that the evolutionist sees the natural world without observing, or even allowing his mind to consider, what may be an intelligent imagination that is hidden behind what on the surface appears to be mere random, unreasonable, accidental processes that later prove to have a purpose that may have been the result of an intelligent intention that nature alone does not possess?

    I am just sharing some thoughts that your excellent writing provoked in my mind. I look forward to reading more of your observations and thank you for helping to learn more about how to use the incredible powers of our minds.

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  7. 7. sherlockholmes221 3:04 pm 11/30/2012

    Yes i am just a 9th grader in Florida but i have also been using the science of deduction on people the think its a magic trick but i just observe i have been observing. I hope that by the time i am 18 ill be better than i am right now.

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