The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the 19th century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.
In the 1970s, Ellen Langer demonstrated that mindfulness could reach even further than improving “judgment, character, and will.” A mindful approach could go as far as to make elderly adults feel and act younger – and could even improve their vital signs, such as blood pressure, and their cognitive function. In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the centre of mindfulness), for as little as 15 minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking – something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general well-being suffers a palpable hit.
But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal.
Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.
What Homes is really telling Watson when he contrasts seeing and observing is to never mistake mindlessness for mindfulness, a passive approach with an active involvement. We see automatically: a stream of sensory inputs that requires no effort on our part, save that of opening our eyes. And we see unthinkingly, absorbing countless elements from the world without necessarily processing what those elements might be.
We may not even realize we’ve seen something that was right before our eyes. But when we observe, we are forced to pay attention. We have to move from passive absorption to active awareness. We have to engage.
It’s true for everything – not just sight, but each sense, each input, each thought.
All too often, when it comes to our own minds, we are surprisingly mindless. We sail on, blithely unaware of how much we are missing, of how little we grasp of our own thought process – and how much better we could be if only we’d taken the time to understand and to reflect. Like Watson, we plod along the same staircase tens, hundreds, thousands of times, multiple times a day, and we can’t begin to recall the most mundane of details about them (I wouldn’t be surprised if Holmes had asked about colour instead of number of steps and had found Watson equally ignorant).
But it’s not that we aren’t capable of more doing it; it’s just that we don’t choose to do it. Think back to your childhood. Chances are, if I asked you to tell me about the street where you grew up, you’d be able to recall any number of details. The colours of the houses. The quirks of the neighbours. The smells of the seasons. How different the street was at different times of day. Where you played. Where you walked. Where you were afraid of walking. I bet you could go on for hours.