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Sometimes It's What's Missing That Matters Most

BBC Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch)

In the series Sherlock, we find Sherlock often employing a method of thinking that is often hard to perform in practice. As an exercise take a look at the following image (Image of the police officers). Write down what you observe in the picture. Primarily we are focusing on the uniforms. I say write it down, but if you want you can do this exercise in your head.

Police Officers Without Badges, or Identification Visible

What's the point of the exercise? Our minds are fast paced and powerful at analyzing information. For an experiment, move one of your fingers or toes if you have them. What just happened? Your brain received the data for the request through the eyes then processed it. If you decided to comply with my request, your brain sent a signal that traveled down your nerves to your finger where it presumably moved. This overly simple explanation of how you move your finger, highlights how quick your mind works. It's so fast you didn't really have to consciously think about it. No wonder we miss little pieces of information constantly. Unless we are prompted, it's far too easy to gloss over data that we might not find useful.

Now consider that when you look at things, your brain is constantly searching for ways to optimize its usage. This is why you might not remember what car was in front of you on the way into work. This is also why you may easily forget what was said at the third staff meeting. Your brain needs rest just like any other muscle. It finds opportune moments all throughout the day to rest and process. It ignores the inconsequential and searches for what is easy to process. In the exercise above, the point was to find what was missing without explicitly being told to do so. One of the things that Sherlock would probably notice right away in the picture is the absence of identification. Every police officer as far as I am aware, has their badge, number, or identification visibly located on their uniform. Compare the image above to the image below.

Police Officers On Display

Without being prompted, it may have been a little challenging to identify that anything was even missing. But sometimes it's what is missing that matters the most.

In the BBC series Sherlock, Holmes uses his search for what he expects to see to help him identify leads. For example, in the episode, "The Study In Pink" we find Sherlock asking for the mobile telephone of the victim on the floor. In this day and age, considering the woman's dress and obvious disloyalty to her husband, she would be hard pressed to not have a cell phone. The obvious question that results is, "Where is it? What happened to it?" (Additionally her pink bag is missing)

In the episode, "The Empty Hearse" we see Sherlock return to the game as an imminent threat to London looms. He is faced with a question, "How could a man that got onto a train, disappear?" The answer, after some thinking, is obvious. It wasn't just the man that disappeared, but the entire train tube. This information led him to the underground bomb that was set to blow up Parliament. Once again, we find Holmes noticing what was missing. If we want to hone our observation skills, we need to find a way to notice what is missing when we look at things. How can we do this?

Set Intention

One of the most powerful ways we can improve overall observation skills is to be ready to do so. This means setting intention. It's a learning strategy that almost anyone can employ. What does it look like? Before you enter your next meeting or appointment, tell yourself, "I will be as observant as possible. I will see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world around me." If you walk into a room take in as much information as possible. Once you have done this ask yourself if anything is missing.

For example, let's say you walk into an office and you see the following clock on the wall and you are fully present.

What did you notice was missing? If you said, "The clock made no sound" great job. By asking yourself, "What do I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch?" you will be in tune with your senses and primed to notice what things may be missing. It's not always easy to do, but being diligent in asking these questions goes a long way towards being more present in the moment.

Ask Questions That Force You To Ponder

The next time you meet with that a patient, client, family member, friend, or acquaintance, ask yourself questions that make you ponder. Questions like, "What did they have to do to make it here today? Where are their keys, phone, and wallet? What type of weather did they have to walk through? How is their countenance?" These questions are simple, but they supply you with a lot of things to ponder. When your mind is in ponder mode, that's a great place to be. This head space allows you to notice things that, had you run on auto pilot, you likely would miss. You of course would then miss out on an opportunity to use your fine detective skills.

For example, let's say you meet up with a close friend at a museum. This particular museum only has about 20 parking spots for VIP members, handicapped, and employees. Every other person arriving at the museum has to park at a satellite parking lot or they can be dropped off at the front. You park your car and take the 10-15 minute walk to the museum. You're worn out and sweaty by the time you enter the building. It was blazing hot outside. You message your friend and tell them you have arrived. Before they meet you, you tell yourself, "I am going to ask myself pondering questions." Your friend greets you with a hug. The questions rattle off in your mind.

"What was the walk like for me? Why is my friend completely dry? Why do they smell slightly but aren't wet? Those three questions, predicated by the fact that your friend is missing sweat helps you come to the conclusion. "I see you arrived a minimum of 30 minutes ago."

Your friend looks at you in surprise, "How did you know that?"

"Well, there is limited parking out front. I couldn't park there myself because I wasn't handicapped, VIP, or an employee. I had to park in the remote lot. I can conclude that if you had just arrived, you would be either drenched in sweat, or you would be dry. If you were dry and you had just arrived, it would be because someone dropped you off at the front. Also if you were dry, you wouldn't smell like sweat. You lack the moisture, yet you smell like sweat. Therefore, you arrived here before me. You must have taken the same long walk and got sweaty. I say 30 minutes minimum because the walk takes 10-15 minutes. Additionally, it would be a minimum of 15 minutes for your clothes to dry."

Yes, sometimes it is what is missing that matters most. Our hectic schedules can leave us feeling drained and running on auto pilot. To combat this mindset, spend some time each day, focusing on using all of your sense. Additionally, you should ask pondering questions that make you slow down and think deliberately if you want to improve your ability to notice what is missing.

ABC news:

Upper Macungie Township:

Clock Video take from:

Sherlock Image:

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