Sherlock Holmes and Observation Skills


sherlock_holmes_by_cattymary-d4lt3udIf you’re looking to improve your observational skills, it can be hard to know where to start. Most people fancy themselves as being fairly observant anyway, and unless you can develop super-powers, it seems as though improving your observation skills is virtually impossible. Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary literary detective is a master of observation, but he comments that Watson can “see everything […] you fail, however, to reason from what you see” (in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle“).

Think about yourself. When you enter a room, how much do you really pay attention to? When you meet people, do you really look at them? How we present ourselves, and even objects we own, can tell trained observers a lot of information. Holmes uses his observational skills throughout Doyle’s original stories and novels to extract specific information about people’s personalities and actions through observation. This reads like something of a parlour trick, and seems a virtually unattainable skill. This, however, is not the case.

Even though Sherlock Holmes was created in the late nineteenth century, the techniques he uses can still be applied in the modern age, and are easy to apply in life. Firstly, and most importantly, the very act of consciously deciding to improve your observation will help. The reason why goes back to how much we really observe in everyday life.

Your brain has a lot of work to do, and is inclined to process things quickly, using as little space as possible. When you see something, it’s easy to just identify the person or object and then pay no further attention. A conscious decision to pay attention to what you see offsets this. Holmes, for example, when presented with a note in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” not only reads the content, is actually able to work out where it was written. He notices that the writing is generally quite bad, but there are frequent short portions with neater writing. This is the entirety of the work required by your actual visual capacity to determine the solution.

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the ...
Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holmes‘ eyes have picked up the raw data. That is the first stage. This can be practised easily; just really look at the next person you meet. Don’t just identify the key factors, go deeper. For example, you could notice that somebody has smart trousers on, but you have to look for more, perhaps the trousers are smart, but not ironed, or torn at the side. Observation is all about the minute details.

The second stage, as Holmes said, is to “reason from what you see.” From the note, Holmes deduced that it was written on a train, the neat portions representing stations, which were so frequent it could only have been done in central London. In the trousers example, what can we assume about the owner? They are well provided for, because they have smart trousers, but they are probably careless or lazy, because they don’t iron them or look after them.

Honing your observation skills can be of fantastic value in business and personal relationships, and can help you get to know people, identify lies and stay one step ahead of the competition. By examining the Sherlock Holmes canon, you can pick up many of the great detective’s techniques and use them in your own field. Holmes himself says (in The Hound of the Baskervilles) that “the world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

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