The Sherlock Holmes information diet

Only a fool takes in all the content he come across.

Illustration by Sidney Paget sourced via Flickr

The quality of what we create with our minds depends on the raw materials available to them. And while range and variety are essential, we must choose what we feed our minds carefully. Time and mental space are limited. We should use them wisely.

No one better exemplifies the approach of carefully curating one’s information diet than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes.

When Dr. John Watson first met Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, he marveled at the detective’s deduction abilities and was baffled by his complete ignorance of topics that he expected to be general knowledge.

My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

Even more astounding was Holmes’ reaction to such a revolutionary fact:

“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.”

Fighting crime was Sherlock Holmes’ mission, and he reserved space in his mental attic only for cognitive furniture that would be of service to it. Knowledge such as discerning typefaces – “one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime” – or fragrances – “there are seventy-five perfumes, which it is very necessary that a criminal expert should be able to distinguish from each other, and cases have more than once within my own experience depended upon their prompt recognition” – both of which he showed off in The Hound of the Baskervilles case.

Holmes’ method of selective information absorption might be possible only in Doyle’s imagination, but it still offers inspiration for us in the real world. We might not be able to be ruthless in our information diet, but we can still take a page from Holmes’ book and approach and be more intentional.

We have continuous access to unlimited sources of information and entertainment, so much so that it becomes harder to focus and make good choices. As Herbert Simon put it, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

Without an intentional approach to our information and entertainment diet, we risk derailing our thinking in unwanted directions. At a time of infinite leverage, where judgment is the decisive skill, a mind clouded by frivolous information won’t reach its full potential.

Like Holmes said, it’s unwise to take in everything we come across. Just because stuff is out there, it doesn’t mean we need to consume it. You don’t have to have an opinion on every single thing that is happening in the world. You don’t need to read the latest book everyone’s talking about, watch the latest movie, or be up to date with the latest TV show.

In previous articles, I praised reading widely and outside one’s area of expertise as a way to fuel creativity. Curating what we input into our minds doesn’t go against that encouragement. You can study and savor all sorts of material as long as you do it intentionally and are aware of the ripples it generates in your creativity engine.

Our attention is finite. We need to be deliberate in what we dedicate it towards. When fed a diet of trivial nonsense, our brains will never have the raw materials for producing deep thoughts.