What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes? It might be a deerstalker, a pipe or a violin, or shady crimes in the foggy streets of London. Chances are, it’s not his big, warm heart and his generous nature. In fact, you might think of him as a cold fish — the type of man who tells his best friend, who is busy falling in love, that it ‘is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’. Perhaps you might be influenced by recent adaptations that have gone so far as to call Holmes a 'sociopath'.
Not the empathetic sort, surely? Or is he?
Let’s dwell for a moment on ‘Silver Blaze’ (1892), Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the gallant racehorse who disappeared, and his trainer who was found dead, just days before a big race. The hapless police are stumped, and Sherlock Holmes is called in to save the day. And save the day he does — by putting himself in the position of both the dead trainer and the missing horse. Holmes speculates that the horse is ‘a very gregarious creature’. Surmising that, in the absence of its trainer, it would have been drawn to the nearest town, he finds horse tracks, and tells Watson which mental faculty led him there. ‘See the value of imagination… We imagined what might have happened, acted upon that supposition, and find ourselves justified.’
Holmes takes an imaginative leap, not only into another human mind, but into the mind of an animal. This perspective-taking, being able to see the world from the point of view of another, is one of the central elements of empathy, and Holmes raises it to the status of an art.
Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion. Perhaps that cold rationalist Sherlock Holmes can help us reconsider our preconceptions about what empathy is and what it does.
This is something that I have discussed before -- the difference between empathy and imagining what it might be like to be someone else.
The perspective taking is also an interesting phenomenon, particularly because it appears that it can be taught, as evidenced by the success of an intervention program for at risk youths, which teaches the youngsters perspective taking through the use of regular interactions with an infant volunteer (see this fascinating description).
Even though she insists that Sherlock is not a sociopath, I couldn't help but notice some similarities between the way he thinks and the way I think. For instance, a tendency to not think linearly:
But he is also a man of inordinate creativity of thought. He refuses to stop at facts as they appear to be. He plays out many possibilities, maps out various routes, lays out myriad alternative realities in order to light upon the correct one. His is the opposite of hard, linear, A-to-B reasoning.
This default of abstract thinking has helped me immensely in my own career, and the article mentions that this sort of mental flexibility also enabled "an Einstein to imagine a reality unlike any that we’ve experienced before (in keeping with laws unlike any we’ve come up with before), and a Picasso to make art that differs from any prior conception of what art can be." although also means I often have to have my thoughts translated to others or reverse engineer explanations that are more universally palatable than my own scattered thought processes. And when used in the context of imagining other people's minds, better than typical empathy?
Here are some other advantages according to the article:
- In sterilising his empathy, Holmes actually makes it more powerful: a reasoned end, rather than a flighty impulse.
- No doubt Holmes would argue that his lack of emotion gives him a certain freedom from prejudice, as much as a lack of warmth. And recent research bears this out. Most of us start from a place of deep-rooted egocentricity: we take things as we see them, and then try to expand our perspectives to encompass those of others. But we are not very good at it.
- Because he actively avoids distorting his view of others with his own feelings, "he ends up as a less egocentric and more accurate reflection of what someone else is thinking or experiencing at any given point."
- Just think how precise are Holmes’s insights into people’s characters, their whims, their motivations and inner states. . . . In our own attempts to understand others, we might think such minutiae below us — why bother with such petty concerns when there are emotions, feelings, lives at stake? — but in ignoring those petty details, we lose crucial evidence. We miss the signs of difference that enable us to walk in those shoes we don’t deign to look at closely.
- Empathy it seems, is not simply a rush of fellow-feeling, for this might be an entirely unreliable gauge of the inner world of others.
- The psychologists Ezra Stotland and Robert Dunn distinguished the ‘logical’ and the ‘emotional’ part of empathising with similar and dissimilar others. They understood the first as an exercise in cognitive perspective-taking, and the latter as an instance of non-rational emotional contagion. More recently, Baron-Cohen has described how individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder might not be able to understand or mentalise, yet some are fully capable of empathising (in the emotional sense) once someone’s affective state is made apparent to them — a sign, it seems, that the two elements are somewhat independent.
- Feelings are not entirely absent from Holmes’s empathic calculus, but they are not allowed to drive his actions. Instead, he acts only if his cognition should support the emotional outlay. And if it doesn’t? The emotion is dismissed.
Sherlock Holmes might be described as cold, it’s true. But who would you like on your side when it comes to being given a fair say, to being helped when that help is truly needed, to knowing that someone will go above and beyond the call of duty for your sake, no matter who you are or what you might have done? I, for one, would choose the cool-headed Holmes, who understands the limits of human emotions, and who seeks to ‘represent justice,’ so far as his ‘feeble powers allow’.