Sherlock Holmes and Seeing Past The Trivial

Having clarity of thought can be challenging. Why? Many of us recieve what seems to be countless sensory inputs. From the cooking of a nice meal, to the sound of people in a busy marketplace, our minds are constantly being bombarded with information that it has to process. Of course, there are other reasons that can contribute to our inability to focus. Regardless, finding clarity of thought provides us with a unique opportunity to apply some lessons from Sherlock Holmes. How does Sherlock focus his mental energies on the things that matter? How does he take an idea, in a sea of ideas and turn it into a salient one? How can we do the same in our thinking? Let's find out. In the story of the Speckled Band, Sherlock is confronted with a case that has a number of false leads. I think as a reader, we don't tend to be nearly as single minded in our analysis of what Holmes is given. That is, we don't pay as much attention as we should. Holmes always seems ever alert to opportunities to gather information and to make deductions. Let's read.

“Good-morning, madam,” said Holmes cheerily. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my intimate friend and associate, Dr. Watson, before whom you can speak as freely as before myself. Ha! I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire. Pray draw up to it, and I shall order you a cup of hot coffee, for I observe that you are shivering.
“It is not cold which makes me shiver,” said the woman in a low voice, changing her seat as requested.
“What, then?”

Let's stop there for a moment. When Holmes first sees Helen Stoner, he makes an observation. He offers her a cup of coffee and a seat by the fire. He has made a false deduction in this instance but we don't fault him for it. He sees a young woman shivering and assumes its because of the weather. Presumably the weather must have been cold outside for him to offer those amenities. But the point of this isn't to point out the fact that he made a mistaken deduction, but rather that he was ready to do so.

Most of the time, when we encounter new places or things, how ready are we to be observant and alert to the opportunities to make deductions? It's not an easy thing to walk into a room and deny yourself the pleasure of simply allowing yourself to experience the moment. But this is not what Holmes does. When he encounters new people and things, he looks for ways to be observant. The observation he makes about Helen shivering is just one of many thoughts and observations that he makes in the story, but we can draw a conclusion from this.

Holmes is either a natural observer or he has primed himself to be vigilant when he needs to be. We can take something away from this. If we want to be more vigilant ourselves, we don't have to be a natural observer. That is, we don't have to fall into the belief system that we aren't observant. We can actively engage ourselves to be ready to be more observant and ready to make deductions. Try this. For one week, BEFORE YOU ENTER A NEW SPACE, spend a moment and tell yourself to be ready to be more observant. Priming yourself to be ready to think is a great way to guarantee that it will happen.


Let's continue with the story.

“It is fear, Mr. Holmes. It is terror.” She raised her veil as she spoke, and we could see that she was indeed in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and grey, with restless frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty, but her hair was shot with premature grey, and her expression was weary and haggard. Sherlock Holmes ran her over with one of his quick, all-comprehensive glances.
“You must not fear,” said he soothingly, bending forward and patting her forearm. “We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt. You have come in by train this morning, I see.”
“You know me, then?”
“No, but I observe the second half of a return ticket in the palm of your left glove. You must have started early, and yet you had a good drive in a dog-cart, along heavy roads, before you reached the station.”
The lady gave a violent start and stared in bewilderment at my companion.
“There is no mystery, my dear madam,” said he, smiling. “The left arm of your jacket is spattered with mud in no less than seven places. The marks are perfectly fresh. There is no vehicle save a dog-cart which throws up mud in that way, and then only when you sit on the left-hand side of the driver.”
It isn't really far fetched to think that Holmes makes such sharp analysis of her journey. Note that it isn't until after she removes her veil that Holmes takes time to glance her over with one of his "all-comprehensive glances".

I don't know if Conan Doyle intended this, but when Holmes first makes the observation about Helen shivering, it's sort of off the cuff. This of course, gives rise to a conclusion that is less than accurate. It's the sort of observation and conclusion that any one one of us could make. But now Holmes does something a little different. He re-focuses his attention to make a better deductions.

Now that he has redoubled his concentration, what is he focusing on? The idea is so simple it almost seems silly to contemplate. The question is this, "how did this person arrive here"? I don't know about you but I don't normally ask this question when I encounter someone. Also, I don't think other people are asking that question either. It's such a simplistic idea that it feels a bit wasteful considering it, but I think this is exactly what Holmes is doing when he focuses his attention.

We might take for granted how a person arrives at a destination, but it's a universal truth that if someone is in a location, they had to travel in some capacity to get there. So how did Helen arrive at 221B? Holmes points out some of the most obvious things first. To get to 221B she would have to walk to some degree and possibly take a train or some kind of wheeled vehicle. The presence of a ticket in her hand would have been a clear indication of a train ride because hansoms didn't distribute tickets. Additionally, the splatter pattern from the dog cart was distinctive enough for him to reach a conclusion about where it came from.