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In A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes opined that he had no room for useless knowledge (in that particular case, it was the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun). He remarked to Watson:
"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"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...It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
We're all familiar with information overload (especially these days), but I wonder if this was the hubris of a younger Holmes speaking. Recent research shows that the older brain can actually process information much better than previously thought, and is better at filtering out distractions than a younger brain.

From a recent New York Times article:
Such tendencies can yield big advantages in the real world, where it is not always clear what information is important, or will become important. A seemingly irrelevant point or suggestion in a memo can take on new meaning if the original plan changes...
"A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers," Dr. Hasher said. "We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser."

What do you think? Does this match with your experience? Does Holmes's claim seem like juvenile boasting to his easily-astonished new friend? Would the older Holmes agree?


Elizabeth said... May 30, 2008 at 10:25 AM

I don't know, but as a young person with broad, unfocused interests I've always found Holmes's "empty attic" speech a bit disheartening. In this case I prefer the words of Nero Wolfe: "The more you put in a brain, the more it will hold--if you have one."

Meghan said... June 3, 2008 at 11:32 AM

It sounds more to be the boastful pride of youth - it is well documented throughout the stories that Holmes, for all his disdain about sensationalism, enjoys dramatic statements and shocking Watson. It also holds the slight edge of teasing, with the claim of doing his best to forget it, as both Holmes brothers are known for having minds like steel-traps.

The specific sentiment of focusing only on what seems important is more Holmes' speed, I should think - he is a very focused individual. All the things he learns and watches for as a young man tend to be in the pursuit of the single goal of being the foremost detective in existence. He learns languages, cryptograms, chemistry, and an endless variety of things, all of which are useful in their own right, but applicable to his line of work.

However, all people mature with age, and he certainly switches directions by deciding to study bees! No on truly has a cap on what they can learn, and a character created with the curiosity inherent to a Sherlock Holmes would doubtless end up fascinated by other subjects, and explore them to their full extent. He just had to master his initial pursuit before he would allow himself to recognize the urge.