Why Sherlock Holmes was wrong, and what you should do about it

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209493486_90b93b0beb_mIn the story, “A Study in Scarlet,” while introducing one of the most famous fictional characters of all time, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote (and Sherlock Holmes said):

“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 a difficulty in 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.”

The brain-attic.  It’s a great image–but completely wrong.  This is not at all how the brain operates.  In fact, working memory functions quite the opposite.  The more you know, the more you can know.  A better metaphor for how the brain actually works might be a web in which every piece of information creates a new link, connection or pathway, to every other connection.  The more links you have, the easier it is to access stored data and attach new information–from which you can then more easily attach more information—and so on, and so on.

Assuming we agree that the more we know the better, and that continual learning is a good thing, there’s only question remaining: What is the best way to add new links?  Unlike computers, we can’t simply plug in and download new information (yet), so what then is the most efficient way to do this?  Travel is good.  Increasing social networks and meeting new people helps.  Taking classes and getting advanced degrees doesn’t hurt.

But nothing beats reading.  Nothing.

Beyond cheaply transporting you to new places, meeting new people, and expanding your mind with new perspectives, reading does for the brain what exercise does for the body.  It is the ultimate neurological workout.

The physiological benefits of reading are similar to those of meditation.  It reduces stress, deepens sleep and reduces memory loss.  Plus there are all the people, places, ideas and images to which reading can expose us that aren’t often practical (or possible) given the constraints of time, space and money.

Also, reading will make you smarter than a great many people.  That’s because thirty-three percent of high school graduates never read another book after graduation.  Think additional education fixes that?  Nope.  Forty-two percent of college graduates never pick up another book either.

Which is too bad, really, because the number one predictor of occupational success is a robust vocabulary.  And after fourth grade, most vocabulary gains are developed through reading.  Reading just 30 minutes a day for a year exposes you to two million words.  Conservatively speaking, one hundred thousand (five percent) of those would be new.  Just think of all those new links in your brain-web!  Not to mention how much more difficult it will be for someone to manipulate you—personally, professionally, commercially or politically.

Helen Keller said, “Language sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”

Reading enriches our minds and expands our possibilities.  With all due respect to Sherlock Holmes, if our brains are like little attics they do indeed have, “ . . . elastic walls and can distend to any extent.”  Depend on it.

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