Sleepless in Victorian London – Holmes on the case

The October issue of The Psychologist has just hit the wires and two of articles, freely available online, have a fascinating take on the Victorian mind. The first looks at the 19th century understanding of insomnia, and the second on what master detective Sherlock Holmes can teach modern cognitive psychology. The game is afoot!

The article on the Victorian’s view on insomnia is fascinating as it illustrates how far our thinking has come in terms of the relationship between body and mind.

Despite the fact that we now think of sleep as primarily to do with the mind and brain, early Victorian theories rarely considered these as important and instead suggested seemingly odd ‘treatments’ focused on the blood, for example.

Over time people started becoming more brain centric, seemingly due to the discovery of effective sleep-inducing medications, and more aware of the effects of stress, anxiety and thought on sleep.

The article on Holmes and cognitive psychology is by two authors who research the psychology of expertise. Case studies of experts are often used to illustrate the theories but in this case, however, they argue that Sherlock Holmes could serve equally as well.

To this day, research on expertise has devoted little attention to expert reasoning, and the few available studies on this theme mostly deal with inductive reasoning. However, experts use abductive reasoning in many situations. Abductive reasoning consists of starting from observed data and deriving from these data the most likely explanation or hypothesis. From this explanation, the data can be deduced by implication (e.g. Hanson, 1958). Holmes clearly explains the method of reasoning to Watson in A Study in Scarlet (1887):

‘In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backward. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practise it much. In the everyday affairs of life it is more useful to reason forward, and so the other comes to be neglected. There are fifty who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically.’ ‘I confess’, said I, ‘that I do not quite follow you.’

‘I hardly expected that you would. Let me see if I can make it clearer. Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backward, or analytically.’

In this example, Holmes describes in his words, but also with precision, the nature of abductive reasoning.

The only drawback is that the article finishes just as it gets going, but a great idea none-the-less.

Link to ‘Insomnia ‚Äì Victorian style’.
Link to ‘Can Sherlock Holmes help cognitive psychology?’.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist.

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