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January 26, 2013

Slate: Do you think like Sherlock Holmes?

NEW YORK — I do not think like Sherlock Holmes. Not in the least. That was the rather disheartening conclusion I reached while researching a book on the detective's mental prowess. I'd hoped to discover that I had the secret to Sherlockian thought. What I found instead was that it would be hard work indeed to even begin to approximate the essence of the detective's approach to the world: his ever-mindful mindset and his relentless mental energy. Holmes was a man eternally on, who relished that on-ness and floundered in its absence. It would be exhausting to think like Sherlock. And would it really be worth it in the end?

It all began with those pesky steps, the stairs leading up to the legendary residence that Sherlock Holmes shares with Dr. Watson, 221B Baker Street. Why couldn't Watson recall the number of steps? "I believe my eyes are as good as yours," Watson tells his new flatmate — as, in fact, they are. But the competence of the eyes isn't the issue. Instead, the distinction lies in how those eyes are deployed. "You see, but you do not observe," Holmes tells his companion. And Holmes? "Now, I know there are seventeen steps," he continues, "because I have both seen and observed."

To both see and observe: Therein lies the secret. When I first heard the words as a child, I sat up with recognition. Like Watson, I didn't have a clue. Some 20 years later, I read the passage a second time in an attempt to decipher the psychology behind its impact. I realized I was no better at observing than I had been at the tender age of 7. Worse, even. With my constant companion Sir Smartphone and my newfound love of Lady Twitter, my devotion to Count Facebook, and that itch my fingers got whenever I hadn't checked my email for, what, 10 minutes already? OK, five — but it seemed a lifetime. Those Baker Street steps would always be a mystery.

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