I recently saw the movie Mr. Holmes, which I enjoyed very much. Imagine a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes who lives with a housekeeper and her son out in the country where he keeps busy with his bees. He has outlived his companions and is reflecting over his past successes and that one particular case that sent him into retirement. His age has caught up with him. He still has his abilities but only in fleeting glimpses.
We have a bunch of Sherlock Holmes movies and television shows to choose from these days. He is always the master of observation and detail. Almost nothing escapes his attention. It is frustrating for his companions — like Watson and Lestrade — who have seemingly normal powers of observation and deduction. Sherlock not only observes everything but he remembers and recalls it all as well.
There are other similar TV characters in shows like Lie To Me or The Mentalist who have well honed or specialized skills at observation. We seem to enjoy this theme….and yet, most of us do not have similar skills. We fail to observe details. Our attention flits from one thing to the other without really absorbing anything. What dress was she wearing? What kind of purse? Did he wear glasses or a ring?
This past weekend I happened to be a witness to a crime. On reflection I think “witness” is way too strong a word. The event, sadly, ended with the death of the perpetrator and I didn’t see that part…I was only present at the beginning. I saw the aftermath and the results of the original incident — property damage and minor injury. That part could have been much worse than it was. By the time I realized what was going on and reacted it was too late to observe what actually happened or even see the offender. It was sort of a novelty at first…just a commotion over by the door…I wasn’t ready or primed to be paying attention. I spoke with some others on the scene and realized that most people were like me…they saw something but only a piece of the whole. From that piece they were willing to make broader assumptions. “He was on drugs.” “It was a domestic violence altercation.” “He must be crazy.” The person in question intentionally rammed another car but not everyone was sure who was driving. He…it was a he…sprinted away from the scene and was almost hit by a car. The driver of that car was the only person who actually seemed to see him enough to give a description. It was a chaotic scene and almost half the people around me were calling 911 to report the incident to the police. The other fateful events of this incident took place some distance away…..with a whole other set of witnesses who may or may not have seen anything. I’m sure that there was probably a bunch of other 911 calls. The police were racing to the scene from all directions with only the scraps of information that was reported on those 911 calls.
I usually pride myself as being observant. If I’m on a walk or in a natural setting I can pick out sounds and the presence of birds and various plants or small animals. But in a random social setting — like at this fast food restaurant — I don’t pay much attention. I was once present at another crime many years ago but with the same general result. This was a gas station robbery and I was in full view of what was happening but not paying attention. Something was going on but it didn’t involve me so it didn’t register.
For most of the last forty years I lived in a small town where not much happened. I never was present or observed any crime or similar incident during those years. We lived within ear-shot of a sporting gun club and heard shots fired every day for hours. Later, my daughter lived two doors from the site of a double homicide and she never heard the gunshots — or they just didn’t register because she grew up hearing gunshots. We had car accidents in our town but not much else. Maybe people who live in a larger city or who live in places where there is more crime might be more observant. Apparently there are ways to improve your observation and recall skills and there are training programs for police officers to help them be more observant.
Here is a little YouTube test I found….