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Is Sherlock Holmes correct? In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes makes the following statement...

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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted May 11, 2013 at 11:18 PM via web

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Is Sherlock Holmes correct?

In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes makes the following statement to his new friend Dr. Watson:

   "You see," he explained, 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. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. 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 before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

What do you think of this attitude?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted May 11, 2013 at 11:35 PM (Answer #1)

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I believe that this attitude is wrong both in terms of the physical nature of the brain and the nature of our psychology.  I also find it strange that Holmes would say such a thing given the way he operates.

Physically speaking, I do not believe that there is any limit to our brain capacity.  At least, there is no limit that we could possibly reach in our lifetimes.  The brain simply has too much space, as discussed in this link, for us to run out of space in the way that Holmes suggests.

In terms of psychology, Holmes’s attitude also seems implausible.  It seems more likely to me that adding knowledge allows us to build more and more connections between things.  It allows us to have more facts and ideas that can connect with other facts and ideas and allow us to have what seem to us to be sudden and serendipitous “brainwaves.”

Finally, it seems unlikely that Holmes himself truly believed this.  After all, so much of his detection seems to be based on knowledge of arcane facts that he would not have been able to know that he would need.  In this particular story, for example, are we to believe that he knew ahead of time that knowledge of German would be important and that he would need to know that “Rache” means “revenge?”

So, I really can’t agree with this attitude and I’m surprised that he propounds it. 

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