Lessons from Sherlock Holmes Pt.II: Cultivate What You Know to Optimize How You Decide

Today’s lesson from Sherlock Holmes deals with learning to cull and to cultivate knowledge in such a way that your decision process will be optimized for the question at hand, and not get bogged down in irrelevant minutiae – a lesson that is all too relevant in the age of the internet, when we have a constant stream of information at our beck and call.


A mind is an attic: keep yours well organized

In “A Study in Scarlet,” Dr. Watson expresses surprise that Holmes is ignorant of Copernican theory and the composition of the solar system. Holmes explains that he does his best to forget any information that is not relevant to his existence:

“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 difficulty 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.”

“But the Solar System!” [Dr. Watson] protested.

“What of the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

A cluttered mind prevents organized thought

Holmes, of course, is exaggerating. Obviously, the solar system does make a difference to both him and his work, on a broad scale and even in the particulars (the properties of physics, for instance, are of great importance to the detective – and those he has down to an exact science; he just doesn’t care about the broader picture when it’s not immediately relevant). But the principle is a valid and useful one.

Especially when it comes to decision making, Holmes’s analogy is remarkably apt. When making a decision, it is easy to get distracted if too much clutter has accumulated in the attic of our mind. We need to learn how to shift through the layers of dust and only use what is relevant – and prevent the irrelevant from clouding our judgment. No matter how many facts are at our disposal, how capacious and deep our memory might be (and there are people whose talent in memorization is staggering), it is useless unless we know how and what to apply to a particular situation. In fact, the “what” is a major component of the “how.” Knowing what to use and what to ignore is one of the fundamental skills of a good decision maker.

In a decision, it is crucial to ignore so-called distracters, things that are actually irrelevant but that can influence our judgment if we are not careful. These come in many guises: emotions, for one, and personal impressions (which, while sometimes useful, are often completely beside the point); or, additional information that should make no difference but that actually does impact our decision (for example, the color of a text: we might choose one option over another because it happens to be in blue, and we prefer blue to red, the color of the other option. Should that matter? Absolutely not. But many of us make such personal judgments constantly, letting small preferences, superstitions, rituals and routines guide us away from what we should be looking at).

Here’s the crucial point: even if everything is there, it is rendered useless if we don’t know what we need to access and what we need to sweep away at any given point. And the more cluttered our mind attic, the more difficult it can be to shift the useful from the useless – and the more we might find that the useful has disappeared into some dark corner, or under some strange box, and that we can’t find it altogether.

Our attics can change, and this is a benefit worth exploiting

Of course, our brain attic is not immutable. We can move things out and move others in. We can shift items around, box them differently, make some easier to access or to identify. In other words, our memory may change. Unlike Holmes, whose fictional mind is perfectly fixed, ours is in flux, and when we return to the attic for something, we may find it is no longer the same as when we left it. We might not even realize the shift has occurred. Every attic will be different, and even the same attic can change over time.

Where I don’t agree with Holmes is that there is no room for a broad base of general knowledge. In a non-fictional world, you never know just what the precise tools are that you will need, and it is best to be prepared. A broad base of knowledge, I often find, ends up being relevant to far more than you might originally think possible. What we read, what we hear, what we learn even in those classes we think we’ll never use again, can all color how we approach a problem and can shed insight on a seemingly unrelated problem in the most startling ways. It would be a shame to clear everything quirky out of your attic; then, it would be a boring place indeed. (And here, it also bears noting that even in Holmes’s so-called stark attic, resided a vast knowledge of music, literature, science, and countless fields that seem to have little to do with detective work).

Has the internet expanded our attics?

The internet provides a tremendous resource for storing and retrieving information.  What does that mean for our mind attics?

In a recent study in Science, Betsy Sparrow and a team of researchers from Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found two important effects: first, when people are primed to think about computers, or when they expect to have access to information in the future, they are far less able to recall the information. However—and this is the second effect—they are far better able to remember where (and how) to find the information.

This study has direct implications for how we think about our own storage space, the attic of our minds, as we make decisions and interact with the world. As with most things, it provides us both with opportunity and with further need for caution. The opportunity: we can store “clutter” that might be useful in the future, and know exactly how to access it should the need arise. And the need for caution: we might be tempted to store even that which should rightly be in our mind attics outside of them, and the curatorial process (what to keep, what to toss) becomes increasingly difficult.

As with effective leadership and functional teamwork, when it comes to memory, smart delegation is key.

How to exploit expanded storage without subverting our mind attics

Holmes had his filing system. We have Google. We have Wikipedia. We have books and articles and stories from centuries ago to the present day, all neatly available for our consumption. We have our own digital files.

But we can’t expect to consult everything for every choice that me make. Nor can we expect to remember everything that we are exposed to – but the thing is, we shouldn’t want to. We need to learn instead the art of curating our attics better than ever. If we do that, our limits have indeed been expanded in unprecedented ways. But if allow ourselves to get bogged down in the morass of information flow, if we store the irrelevant instead of those items which would be best suited to the limited storage space that we always carry with us, in our own heads, the digital age can be detrimental.

Here’s a good check. If you were deprived of all technological access (I mean computer, phone, any files that you store, everything) for a day, would your ability to make solid decisions suffer? How about a week? A month? A year? If the very thought sends you into a panic, you might want to recheck your use of your limited attic space. And even if it doesn’t, take a look around: are you using your resources to their optimal capacity?

Remember to maintain your attic vigilantly

It’s nice to do a periodic check. Even the best-kept attic needs to be updated every so often. So, look, make the adjustments necessary (does anything need to be thrown out? Anything else need to be moved in?), and then, enjoy the benefits that technological access allows. We have more space than ever before. Let’s use it productively.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

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  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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