On the Psychology of Sherlock Holmes

In Sherlock Holmes's time, psychology was but a young field, not having blossomed into the science it is now. However, it is interesting how psychology can be applied when reading Conan Doyle's works and how insightful it can prove to be. Even Holmes himself starts talking psychology when he contemplates human nature. One of the more famous quotes from the canon that has even appeared in psychology textbooks is his comment on memory:

"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose...It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew beforeā€¦."

We now know that this is completely false, although it certainly was the sentiment back in the day. Long term memory is seemingly infinite- it's just the retrieval of information that's a bit tricky.

Psychology can also be used practically when looking at the original stories. Something I have pondered about since reading A Study in Scarlet is the question of why Holmes is so appealing. He is, after all, a cocaine and narcotics addict; an egotistical, conceited misogynist; a sarcastic, tactless man who disparages even his close friend, Dr. Watson; and, debatably, something of a racist to boot. So why the fascination with this character who, if any of us were to meet in real life, we would immediately find repulsive?

The answer lies in two basic principles of social psychology: first impressions and the four central traits, (warmth, goodness, strength, and activity), are everything. These traits are important, as they allow the perceiver to infer, within just a few seconds, other characteristics about their target and, in this way, construct an entire personality about the target and determine if he or she is likeable.

Holmes has all these positive central traits on the very first page upon which he appears. When Watson and Stamford walk into the lab at Bart's, he jumps up and goes into an animated state, exclaiming that he has found a way to distinguish blood from other substances- that's being active. Watson remarks that his grip is firm, which indicates he is strong. He smiles and readily takes to Watson, which shows he is warm. And finally, anyone willing to fight crime and bring justice into the world must have something good in them. Four positive central traits, all presented quickly, and the reader immediately thinks that Holmes is worthy and decent. Doyle may not have known about this when he wrote the story, as these things hadn't yet been researched and published, but it is still imaginative, and lucky, that he did.

Stereotypes also heavily affect how we perceive someone, and Doyle has steered clear of these by giving Holmes a unique profession and not giving him any salient traits. Doyle does not mention an accent, or a peculiar way of dress, or anything of that sort. The only singular thing about Holmes is that he is so eclectic in his interests. In this way, the reader's perception of Holmes is not colored by any preconceived ideas. Instead, his eccentricity adds to his appeal, as he is entirely new, fresh, and enigmatic. Only later does the reader find out about his cocaine habit and of the incident in which he pockmarked the wall with V.R., but the deed has been done and the reader already likes Holmes. Thus, anything negative we find out about him is not such a calamity, as we absorb all his bad habits with his overall good personality. Just imagine if we had first met him in one of his lazy, surly moods. I don't think many of us would have reacted so favorably towards him.

Another point about Holmes has more to do with abnormal psychology. There has been found a correlation between bipolar disorder, or manic-depression, and genius. This does not mean that one causes the other, but there have been very famous, intelligent individuals who have suffered from the disorder. This is by no means a diagnosis from the DSM-IV, and the degree to which Holmes had this disorder is arguable, but it is another point of view. When Holmes is in his creative state, such as when he is on a case, he tends to be active, and when he has nothing to do he is in a black mood. This "black mood" does not simply mean idleness. It infers some degree of depression and a lack of interest in anything. Perhaps this is why he began taking cocaine- to get himself out of this state.

Naturally, it could be argued that he is simply happier when he is on a case and I agree with that, but think about it. He displayed his mania not only when on a case, but even when he had no mystery to solve, at which point he would become restless and begin to play the violin. Stanford researchers have found that people with bipolar disorder tend to have a wider range of emotions and thus have a creative, artistic edge over people without this disorder. This can explain Holmes's immense talent on the violin. He even managed to compose pieces himself, seemingly on the spot. Sometimes he would play a very frenzied, original piece, which I suspect would have been during his manic episodes, and other times his depression manifested itself in listless scratchings on the strings.

It is just the same with someone like Virginia Woolf, the English author who suffered from bipolar. She would write zealously for some length of time and then suddenly stop taking interest in anything. Her periods of creativity were characterized with manic feelings, and that was followed by bouts of depression. In this way, Holmes was creative and displayed enthusiasm even when not on a case, and he would be depressed when he had nothing to stimulate his intellect.

Another point that some Sherlockians have commented on is his apparent change in personality when he comes back to life after Reichenbach. They claim he is more introspective and subdued, and that maybe he had never come back to life at all, but that Watson made him up because he needed to get out of debt. While this is an interesting theory, there is a more logical way of thinking about it. Studies have shown that personality remains relatively stable as we age, but that major events in our lives can certainly change us. I suspect that his time in Tibet might have been wrought with thoughts about his life and how he was getting along in his years. Actually, it could be argued that his decision to take up beekeeping during his retirement is a sign that he had achieved Abraham Maslow's self-actualization, where he has fulfilled his potential and realized his place in the world.

Many people, too, have tried to explain his choice of career and his personality using the Freudian perspective, which focuses on sexuality, aggression, and childhood. Certainly there's nothing wrong with this, as it is very easy to find answers. Thus, Holmes hates women because he was sexually confused about his mother, he has not married and had children because his father was ambiguous, et cetera, et cetera. But the point to remember is that psychology is a social science, which means that research is done to back up theories. Freud had no evidence. That doesn't mean it isn't possible, but it can't be proven if Freud was right or not. The psychoanalytic method can be applied then, but sometimes the easiest explanation is not always the best.

Why, then, is he the way he is? Was he born this way or is he a product of his environment? Most nature versus nurture studies are done with twins and it is unfortunate that Holmes did not have one, or else we could have immediately known if his personality was learned or a result of his genes. But we can use the next best thing- his brother. Thus, Holmes could have gotten some of his traits from his family- certainly his genius and eccentricity seem this way, as Mycroft is highly intelligent and something of a recluse. Holmes was a Vernet also, so his artistic side probably was inherited.

However, he might have learned from his environment that honesty and humanity are important. Maybe something happened when he was growing up that made him realize that he was greatly interested in criminology. Misogyny was more acceptable in that time period and he might have acquired that prejudice from what he learned when he interacted with or read about people whom he admired. Without a doubt, if he had bothered to meet more women, that stereotype would have been dispelled even before his encounter with Irene Adler.

There are many more ways in which psychology can be applied to Sherlock Holmes, but these seemed to be the most interesting. I don't think of any of this as being conclusive and the topic definitely is open to debate. Obviously, he was a very original character and another point about our fascination with him is that he was seemingly indestructible- a natural superhero, as it were. So, please, leave your opinion in a review, as I'd like to know about other people's perspectives on this subject.