Being Dull and Boring Isn't Necessarily Bad

Being Human 101: A world that is dull and boring gives us time to think.

Posted Oct 02, 2020

Admit it, you see yourself as just as smart as Sherlock Holmes, or nearly so. But is Sherlock the right role model for all of us? There is a decided downside to his obsessive attention to detail. He so abhors the routine of daily life without a crime to investigate that he is easily bored. Then he is more than willing to use artificial means such as alcohol and a 7% solution of cocaine.

Previously I have used Holmes as an avatar for our human powers of PERCEPTION, or P in the cryptic 3-letter acronym PHI. These letters stand for what my son and I see as the three sorts of work done by our evolved human brains. If you have been following Being Human 101 you know the letter H stands for HABIT, and the letter I represents IMAGINATION.

History shows we humans like to see ourselves as saints (not sinners), philosophers (not fools), wise pundits (not stupid oafs). In short, we like to see ourselves as rational creatures who are, intentionally or not, treading on our birthright as brilliant souls if we don't use good judgment, and do something foolish, even downright stupid "simply out of habit."

In this post, however, I want to speak up in favor of HABIT. Yes, I have an avatar for this letter, too.

The 17 steps

According to Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes often chided John Watson for not being observant enough. "A Scandal in Bohemia," as a case in point, opens with Watson telling us he happened to pass by 221B Baker Street and caught sight of his old friend pacing back and forth:

To me, who knew his every mood and habit, his attitude and manner told their own story. He was at work again. He had risen out of his drug-created dreams and was hot upon the scent of some new problem. I rang the bell and was shown up to the chamber which had formerly been in part my own.

Sidney Paget (1891) / Strand Magazine / public domain
Holmes and Watson at 221B Baker Street on the evening of the twentieth of March, 1888.
Source: Sidney Paget (1891) / Strand Magazine / public domain

Watson goes on to tell us that after first observing Watson had put on weight since their last encounter, Sherlock chides him for not picking up on the fact that there are 17 steps leading up from the hall to the room they are in even though he previously had climbed those stairs hundreds of times.

Every time I read this tale, I have the same reaction. I suspect you do, too. Why would anyone other than the obsessively observant Holmes want to know how many steps there are?

Although Holmes might see value in counting steps — nowadays you can get an app for your cell phone to do this for you — the human brain’s resources can only be stretched in so many different directions at once. Why invest time and energy doing something like counting stairs when taking those stairs habitually, or at any rate without much conscious effort, would be more than just good enough? 

Let George do it 

Although not nearly as well known a character as Sherlock Holmes, when my son and I were looking for an avatar for the brain's ability to learn from experience and then do things "by habit," it did not take us long to discover another one of Doyle's creations, the cantankerously self-confident Professor George Edward Challenger. He made his first appearance in 1912 in a series in The Strand Magazine about prehistoric ape-men and dinosaurs later published in novel form as The Lost World

William Ransford / Wikimedia Commons / public domain
A. Conan Doyle (seated with false beard) pretending for the camera to be George Edward Challenger, 1912.
Source: William Ransford / Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Like Holmes, Challenger as sketched by Doyle is someone who is perfectly willing to contest popular wisdom. However, Challenger lacks Sherlock’s patience. Furthermore, he is utterly convinced he already knows pretty much all there is to know that's worth knowing.

Therefore, since we had chosen Holmes as our avatar for the human brain's ability to observe the world firsthand and carefully — the kind of rationality called perception — he is a suitable avatar for the brain’s ability to exploit its own past experiences as its fundamental guide to life — the complementary form of rationality commonly known as habit.

So what is a habit?

Take sight, for example. As we know from people who were blind and then gained their sight at an age when they were able to talk about it all, at first nothing makes much visual sense. Certainly you don't suddenly see the face, say, of your mother and recognize her for who she is. It takes time to put the visual sensations you are receiving via your eyes into meaningful patterns, facial or otherwise. Using a word that may at first sound inappropriate, sight is an acquired habit of the mind, not a sit-back-and-let-it-all-happen passive experience. 

Therefore, even PERCEPTION is a habit that is a lot like riding a bicycle. Once you have mastered the art, say, of seeing — or hearing, feeling, etc. — the work that needs to be done may be so predictable and routine — in a word, so habitual — that you don't have to think about it consciously. There is still a lot of brain work involved. However, mostly you just "see" what you are used to seeing. You just "ride" your bike without falling over. Voilà! There is nothing to it! Or so it seems. 

Habits, good and bad

Stated simply, therefore, habits (and to a great extent, perceptions) are learned expectations. Someone as obsessive as Sherlock Holmes may find it hard to handle living in a world that is stable and predictable enough for us to be able to experience it as dull and boring. It is precisely such a predictably patterned world, however, that makes it possible for all of us to develop habits, however good or bad. 

Nonetheless, habits — say, being as pigheaded and over-confident as Challenger — can lead us into trouble, too. Doing something "just out of habit" without checking first can indeed be foolish sometimes. After all, if you are not attentive while bicycling — and instead you are off somewhere in your head thinking about who-knows-what — you may not see that pothole along the path you are taking. You may end up in the ditch.

Next up – Being Human 101: Fantasies and Make-Believe Make Us Human