One of the primary skills that I teach as an English professor is how to analyze, in other words understanding how the parts come together to make up the whole.
I tell my students to be literary detectives.
To exemplify how, I often show a clip from the first episode of the TV series Sherlock, which aired in 2010 as an update to the Victorian detective, setting Sherlock’s adventures in modern-day London.
Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, are discussing terms for Watson becoming Sherlock’s roommate on Baker Street when Sherlock gets a call to visit a crime scene. An excited Sherlock rushes for a cab, bringing Watson with him.
The two men have met only once briefly, but in the cab, Sherlock goes on to tell Watson facts about himself that seem impossible for him to know: Watson has left the military, having served in Afghanistan or Iraq, which Sherlock is able to deduce due to the pattern of his tan, Watson’s haircut, and even his posture among other details, telling the amazed Watson, “I didn’t know. I saw.” Add in the observations about Watson’s phone (expensive so that Watson wouldn’t have bought it himself given he’s looking for a flat to share among other traits Sherlock notices), and Sherlock is nearly completely right about who Watson is merely through looking carefully.
The same thing happens when the two men enter the crime scene, finding a woman dead on the floor in an abandoned building. Once again, Sherlock notices the relevant details: the woman’s clean jewelry other than her wedding ring, which is only clean on the inside, showing that she has removed it on a regular basis and is a serial adulterer; the spots of wetness on her raincoat letting him know she has come through rain and wind that would not allow her to put up her umbrella; the pattern on the back of her calf that only a small rolling suitcase could have made though there’s no suitcase in sight. They all add up to murder, which, given the patterns of other recent mysterious killings, add up to a serial killer.
Sherlock is a genius, of course, but, primarily, he is observant. He is by no means a model of empathy given his excitement to discover the existence of a serial killer. That part of his personality we should not emulate. Nor, perhaps, are we all capable of his brilliant ability to find patterns.
However, we are all capable of and would all benefit from bringing Sherlock’s level of observation to our own lives, which would benefit us emotionally and in our relationships — because, of course, Sherlock is modeling analysis and mindfulness.
To be mindful is to be completely in the moment, a necessary ingredient of observation.
Fortunately, we do not need a crime scene to practice. Nor do we have to be reading great works of literature (though doing so is a fun way to practice). We can bring observation into our daily lives at any moment: while we exercise, wash dishes, play with pets, and — importantly — interact with other people.
Social psychologist Ellen Langer suggests noticing five things wherever and whenever you are as a way to come back to the moment. Take a look around and notice without judgment.
She suggests doing the same with someone with whom you interact on a regular basis. Notice that person in the moment. Find five things without judgment. You will then be genuinely seeing that person rather than reacting habitually, something the person noticed will feel. We all want to be truly seen. It makes us feel appreciated.
This happens with Watson whose bond with Sherlock begins in that cab ride.
That without judgment part is important, though. Sherlock uses these same skills as a weapon to denigrate those already on the crime scene who are angry at his arrival since it (rightfully) implies they are not capable of solving the crime without him. Noting that Seargant Sally Donovan smells of the same deodorant as medical examiner Anderson, Sherlock casually exclaims, “I’m sure Sally came ‘round for a nice little chat, and just happened to stay over. And I assume she scrubbed your floors, going by the state of her knees.” This observation does not lead to feeling appreciated but rather attacked.
So let’s be Sherlock with the added features of empathy, compassion, and kindness, using our observational skills for the benefit of all.