On the plane back from New York, I got bored enough to watch ‘Elementary’, the American version of ‘Sherlock’, starring Jonny Lee Miller as the man himself and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, a “sober companion” for Holmes.
Let me say that it wasn’t too bad. I was wary to watch it because the reviews (well, the ones I have seen) have not been positive, and I can see why there would be objections. Yes, it’s author licence to change and experiment, but my biggest issue is Watson’s character. Yes, there’s the initial shock of a woman throwing the male-male partnership off-balance, but I also think that the traditional Watson is not portrayed in personality, either. She just seemed too…well, not how I would ever imagine Watson. I think the doctor having a background in war helps to give him an additional sense of morality, one which may sometimes stray away from the norm.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the original mysteries/storylines and that was what kept me watching. And Jonny Lee Miller’s quietly eccentric manners, reminiscent of Jeremy Brett.
There was one thing that definitely stuck with me afterwards. At one moment, Holmes mentions his theory that the brain is an attic – that is, it can be filled up to the point of holding no more intelligence/memory/facts. This is actually a Doylian point:
“A man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use.” From ‘The Five Orange Pips’
I think it is a brilliant idea, especially for one so obsessed with knowledge.
Now, I know the basic structure of the cognitive processes of memory. I know enough to say that it’s unlikely that our brains can be ‘filled up’ in such a physical process as the way an attic is filled up. We are able to hold up to nine items in short-term memory at once for a certain amount of time. Then rehearsal enables us to encode these pieces of information to long-term, otherwise the stimuli degrade through transience.
It is unclear for how long someone can keep a piece of information in long-term memory before it fades. I’m writing the psychology of this post from my memory of what I had to learn for my exams last year. I can remember some visual memories as clear pictures. On the other hand, I learn scripts for performances, but in less than a few months afterwards, the lines I had to learn fade.
Of course, there are cases where this cannot be exactly true. Someone with an eidetic memory is not affected by the degrading of sensory input in the brain, even without rehearsal of information. I find this fascinating. Just like that, they are able to remember days from years gone. This can be a curse, but I’d like to try it out, just to see the benefits of remembering all the tiny details (I’m great with the bigger details myself, not so great with the small ones).
I guess that’s memory for you. It’s so unpredictable that items or stimuli one thinks are long-term chemical connections in one’s brain are really short-term flashes. We live for so long that what is short-term for the present becomes long-term if we remember it a year later. Perhaps. Or maybe not. One thing I’d like to know is whether there is a limit to what counts as short-term.
In this way, I think Holmes has a capital point when it comes to the mind as an attic. We start off airy – the tabla rasa, some might say – and we know nothing until it is ‘shelved’ up there in our memory from where we can retrieve it if necessary. The more times something is retrieved, the more we understand or come to remember that it is there.
On the other hand, we can shelve so many pieces of information in our short-term memory, to be collected or thrown away perhaps, that we struggle to remember to keep the important things. I know I’ve had this experience: working too hard or too searchlight that I struggle to rehearse anything, and I come to forget every point I have wanted to make.
Whilst the attic metaphor may be too literal an idea, I know that it demonstrates Holmes’ point: the mind feels finite, even if there may be physical evidence (brain scans, for instance) that ‘proves’ this wrong. Every stimulus we take in through our five, or more, senses stacks up in the mind and keeps us from remembering the best bits of another. The amount of times I have wanted to keep a fact there, but have been distracted by visuals to push it away. Rehearsal is so important to the attic-ness.
Give me empirical evidence and I will shun it any day.
Yet, I can already contradict my scientific self by pointing out that there are some things – first language acquisition is one – that we are never explicitly taught and that we absorb from the world around us that never fade. Where does that then go to be remembered forever?
The mezzanine below the attic? This needs more thought, more research.
On a tangent, Guardian Books digested ‘How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes’ by Maria Konnikova and came up with a humorous response.