Holmes#2 Sign of Four

A Matter of Attention:

Holmes and ADD in The Sign of the Four

by Greg Stoddard

English 395 - Victorian Crime Fiction
December 5, 1996

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`My mind,' he said, `rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of Existence. I crave for mental exaltation. This is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.'1

.the adult with high-stim ADD particularly abhors boredom. He- and it usually is a he - may seek stimulation through relatively safe avenues.taking on very challenging work.or through more risky means.putting himself in physical danger.or other high-risk activities of his own creation. A calm place or relaxing scene can stress such an ADD adult to the point of exhaustion.2 3

Albert Einstein. Thomas Edison. Wolfgang Mozart. Dustin Hoffman. Emily Dickinson. Edgar Allan Poe. George Bernard Shaw. Salvador Dali. Sherlock Holmes? Possessors of ADD: attention deficit disorder. Sherlock alone has a question mark following his name because he is the only one not diagnosed by a psychiatrist.4 The signs, however, are clear. In 'The Sign of the Four', perhaps better than in any other work, he shows strong evidence of the "high-stim, high-intelligence, high-creativity, depressive-type ADD without hyperactivity." ADD is not a disease, it is not even a deficit; the label ADD is a misnomer. Those with ADD are not deficient in their attention, but sporadic. It is not necessarily a hindrance. When combined with high intelligence, it can be an immeasurable benefit to the one of whom it is a part. Holmes capitalizes on it, and it is in fact, at least partially, the "disorder," which carries him to the superhuman heights of detection for which he is so renowned.

One must first explore what the "disorder" is. From a subjective perspective, it is exactly that, a disorder. A jumble of thoughts, disordered about one's head, from which the mind bounces back and forth incredibly fast. In those individuals with exceptionally high intelligence, the rate can be 10 or more complete, distinct thoughts or lines of reasoning within a single span of 5 seconds. The NIMH booklet (1994) on the subject of the disorder, describes the ADD experience as follows:

Imagine living in a fast-moving kaleidoscope, where sounds, images, and thoughts are constantly shifting. Feeling easily bored.distracted by unimportant sights and sounds, your mind drives you from one thought or activity to the next. Perhaps you are so wrapped up in a collage of thoughts and images that you don't notice when someone speaks to you.

Imagine thinking so fast that you can have a complete train of thought between the time when someone who is talking to you begins a word, and when s/he ends it. The kaleidoscope is either disabling, or enabling, depending on the level of intelligence of the possessor. In those with slightly above-average intelligence or lower, it can be disabling, causing a host of problems including inability to work, frustration, oppositional defiance, depression, mania, failure in social situations, failure in academics, substance abuse, and on and on. Imagine now, the ability to have the train of thought in the span of time between the beginning of the word and the end, and still being able to understand the meaning of the word and formulate an appropriate response in the next instant. For those that are able to move quickly enough mentally to process all of the information, to sort through the shifting Colors, images, sounds, thoughts, emotions, memories, logical trains of thought, and sensations which all are constant and simultaneous, an extraordinary observational power emerges. For those which combine that with an incredible memory, connections can be made in seconds that would take a normal person minutes to discover. When the third element, besides mental agility and memory: mental reasoning ability, is added to the mix, the recipe for Sherlock Holmes is produced. It is Holmes' ability to work, thrive within, and use the disorder of "the disorder" to his advantage that makes him the genius that he is. It is the "quickness of mind," rather than brute force of intellect. Holmes himself lists these three qualities, referring to François le Villard:

He possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge, and that may come in time.5

Before exploring the ramifications of ADD in the specific case of Holmes, one must fully understand what it is that causes those ramifications. As mentioned before, Holmes is a possessor of "high-stim, high-intelligence, high-creativity, depressive-type ADD without hyperactivity." The question to the uninitiated is what does that mean. A description of high-stim ADD appears at the beginning of this document. As for the rest of the qualifiers to the label of his condition, consider the following descriptions of various subtypes of ADD in the context of Holmes:


But the evidence now shows that there are hosts of children and adults who have all the other symptoms of ADD but who are not hyperactive, or even overactive. If anything, they are motorically slow, even languid.6 [especially when non-timulated]
`Why, hardly,' he answered, leaning back luxuriously in his armchair, and sending up thick, blue wreaths from his pipe.7

One with Hyperactivity would be absolutely incapable of being described in the above manner. Mania (refutation of diagnosis of bipolar disorder in favor of ADD):

Sometimes ADD can look like manic-depressive illness due to the high energy level involved in both syndromes.The very high moods called periods of mania, can resemble ADD[as well as vice-versa] in that they include highly active behavior, easy distractibility, impulsivity, and an apparent disregard for personal safety.8
`Strange,' said I[Watson],' how terms of what in another man I would call laziness alternate with your fits of splendid energy and vigour.9


First of all, people with ADD have a greater tolerance for chaos than most. Living in distraction as they do, bombarded by stimuli from every direction.people with ADD live with chaos all the time. They are used to it, they expect it. For all the problems this might pose, it can assist the creative process. In order to create, one must get comforTable with disarrangement for a while.In bearing with the tension of the unknown or the unfamiliar, one can enable something new to come into existence. If one forecloses a thought 10 too quickly because it seems to strange or disorganized, then the pattern or beauty that may be hidden within the fantasy will get lost.11

For relation of this description to Holmes, one need only think of any of the scenes where Holmes' reasoning is described. His basic maxim of theories fits this description perfectly: "Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth." Holmes never "forecloses a thought" before it is satisfactorily and logically banned from the realm of possibility. His ability to hold on to improbable, but not impossible theories, along with his ability to synthesize ideas through the barrage of the thought-kaleidoscope, while considering every image from the kaleidoscope in relation to the facts and theories forming in his head as a dynamic process, enables him to come to conclusions astoundingly quickly.

The pattern of attention in those with ADD tends to be as follows: long periods of allowing the attention to bounce at its own pace, touching on the surface of various trains of thought, broken by periods of intense concentration, delving deeply into a train of though with a level of concentration and attention that is so severe as to exclude external stimuli. This can be represented graphically as follows:

Time (30 sec.)

Normally a pattern of thought as random as the one pictured above would be disabling. Normally, those with ADD without hyperactivity, as in most forms of ADD, flow from topic to topic, constantly in the states like Holmes' "down times." They are able to function, but without focus. They are held prisoner to the whim of their attention stream, bound to follow it. The role of the individual is passive and subordinate to the train of thoughts. One sees a rare glimpse of Holmes at ease, and at the mercy of his train of thoughts in the following passage. The episode occurs after he receives god news about the case at hand, after a long period of frustration.12 After such a long period of mental effort without stimulation, a state while boring to those without ADD is hellish to those with, Holmes' thought-pattern control mechanism13 would have been exhausted. The flood of thoughts which ensue in the classic "brain-bounce" pattern is evident here:

Our meal was a merry one. Holmes could talk exceedingly well when he chose, and that night he did choose.14 He appeared to be in a state of nervous exaltation. I have never known him so brilliant. He spoke on a quick succession of subjects - on miracle plays, on medieval pottery, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future - handling each as though he had made a special study of it. His bright humor marked the reaction from his black depression of the preceding days.15

The lack of mental stimulation was as if Holmes was being starved for both food and drink for days. The promise of that food and drink was always imminent, but it did not come. When it did come, Holmes feasted on any sort of mental stimulation he could get, jumping from topic to topic, at every level of depth of thought, randomly, rapidly enough to form the illusion of coherence. This mode of "exaltation" without control is the exception, however.

Normally, Holmes takes an active role, as is possible as a constant phenomenon in only those with extraordinarily high intelligence, and masters his attention, to a degree. His mind must still bounce at irregular intervals. However, the direction of bounce is controlled. He has transformed a mind which normally meanders into one with an incredibly powerful ability: to think quickly enough, to move from topic to topic quickly enough, with mental comprehension at every step of the way, so that observations, deductions, and conclusions appear to occur simultaneously, an impressive appearance. In Hallowell and Ratey's "Suggested Diagnostic Criteria for Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults," one of the criteria they list is as follows:

9. Often creative, intuitive, highly intelligent

Not a symptom, but a trait deserving of mention. Adults with ADD often have unusually creative minds. In the midst of their disorganization and distractibility, they show flashes of brilliance. Capturing this "special something" is one of the goals [of the ADD possessor].16

Holmes' intelligence is so high, that the flashes of brilliance are fairly constant, contingent, of course, on the availability of mental stimulation. The creative management of his own thought process enables him to direct the bounce of his thoughts between the cardinal traits of a good detective: Observation, Deduction, and Specific Knowledge. One can see him at his best, during his investigations of the scene of the murder of Brother Bartholomew:

He whipped out his lens and a tape measure, and hurried about the room on his knees, measuring, comparing, examining,* with his long thin nose only a few inches from the planks and his beady eyes gleaming and deep-set like those of a bird . So swift, silent, and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law, instead of exerting them in its defense. As he hunted about, he kept muttering to himself, and he finally broke out into a loud crow of delight.17

Watson leaves out some aspects of this scene. Added to the beginning(marked by the asterisk), should be "accessing memories, deducing,"; Watson observes only Holmes' observing, leaving out the other two aspects of detecting. The additional processes are evident in the phrase "he kept muttering to himself." One can imagine the stream of thoughts coursing through the mind of Holmes during this passage. Simultaneously, he observes, compares his observations with previously acquired knowledge, deduces, synthesizes hypotheses, tests them(the "comparing" Watson describes), concludes, and synthesizes a theory from tested hypotheses, resulting in his "crow of delight," the climax of the thrill of investigation, evident earlier in the passage in the description of his "beady eyes gleaming." Within moments, he has reached a conclusion which would have taken a team of detectives(of the caliber of Atheleney Jones, in any case) hours to reach, due to his ability to control, to some extent, the bounce of his mind from action to action, thought to thought, with extraordinary rapidity.

Holmes is not able to do this through sheer force of will. Such an effort would be futile. There are tricks he uses, techniques which are presently the cutting edge of modern ADD treatment. An exploration of these techniques will yield an explanation of some of his idiosyncrasies, and lead to a deeper understanding of the character of Holmes. One way in which he is able to sustain attention is an intense motivation. It is a biochemical fact that motivation increases the level of stimulation of the frontal lobe, the area which controls "brain-bounce." With the frontal lobe more active, he is able to exert more control over the direction of his thoughts. The common medications used to treat ADD: Ritalin and Dexedrine, perform the same function, as does caffeine.

His motivation seems to stem from a need to fulfill his thrill-seeking tendencies, as a high-stim-type. His thrill, his rush, comes from intellectual "exaltation," as he puts it, or challenge. Given that for an ADD possessor, boredom is akin to hell, Holmes will do anything to avoid that hell. Consider Holmes' own description of the world, as it is without mental stimulation.

'I cannot live without brainwork. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was there ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofiTable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-Colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, Existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function on earth.'

Aside from his creative and eloquent expression, as well as his flair for the melodramatic and exaggeration(all qualities commonly characteristic of ADD) he shows his depression and boredom, at the lack of mental stimulation. He has a need for stimulation in order to function which he supplies in several ways. One way is by his various interests. He has hobbies such as prize-fighting, chemistry, authoring and forensics. With such a wide range of interests to choose from, he may immerse himself in any one of them, depending on his attention span at that particular time, for minutes, or weeks at a time. One of the more troubling ways he remains stimulated is through the use of cocaine, which is not at all uncommon among ADD possessors:

Cocaine is in the class of drugs we call stimulants.Most people feel a rush of unfocused energy when they take cocaine. However, people with ADD feel focused when they use cocaine.Rather than getting high, they suddenly feel clearheaded and able to pay attention. When those who don't know they have ADD stumble upon cocaine, the drug seems like a cure that temporarily alleviates their ADD symptoms, and so they become chronic users. Interestingly enough, in the literature about cocaine, approximately 15 percent of addicts report feeling focused by the cocaine, rather than feeling high. This 15 percent probably have adult ADD and are self-medicating, albeit unwittingly, with cocaine.18
He smiled at my vehemence. `Perhaps you are right, Watson,' he said. `I suppose that [cocaine's] influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.19

Given Watson's description of the frequency of Holmes' taking of the drug, (three times a day)20 it seems almost certain that he was self-medicating for the purpose of staying focused. Ritalin, cocaine, caffeine21 and other stimulants are artificial ways of stimulating the same area of the brain that motivation stimulates, having the same effect.

Another way in which Holmes compensates is his chosen profession. He has created an environment without a confining structure, that would necessitate traditional thinking patterns, or repetitive thought processes or actions. His environment in which his self-created profession places him is ideal for his working style. It is an environment which is constantly stimulating.

Besides his detecting prowess, there are other traits which can be explained by the ADD lens. For instance, his musical ability is consistent with other case histories of ADD:

He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play some low, dreamy, melodious air - his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation.22

Holmes' improvisational ability falls under the creative abilities that often accompany ADD. Musical improvisation involves split-second choice-making from a nearly infinite number of possibilities at every note. To be able to make those decisions requires extremely quick intellect to order the chaos of music on the fly.

Another, slightly more complex issue, that of Holmes' relations with women, may be at least partially explained by ADD. Part of the problem might be rooted in sexuality.

The impact of ADD upon sexuality is poorly understood. However.both men and women.complain of either an inability to pay attention during sex well enough to enjoy it, or the opposite: a hyperfocused sexuality.23

It is possible that all of Holmes' talk of the interference of women in his mental activities is a cover for underlying sexual problems. Perhaps either Holmes can't maintain interest or attention to sustain interest long enough to have a relationship, or perhaps, he can't maintain focus in intimate situations, or his interest, however hyperfocused they are, shift too frequently.

His own explanations also fit in with the ADD filter. Perhaps the structure of a relationship with a woman would be too confining. His relationship with Watson works because Watson makes a concerted effort to accommodate Holmes' style, staying out of his way when need be, or jumping into the fray when asked. A romantic relationship requires attention and devotion, something Holmes is not willing or able to offer.

Holmes' impulsivity is another common feature. He is a "bottom-line" type of guy. He demands answers without social tact, breaks down doors without warning, and seems to make decisions and act on them without consideration over a period of time. These are all classic symptoms of ADD.

Holmes' affinity and skill for disguise and acting can also be explained through ADD characteristics. Consider the following:

They can be exasperating in the extreme.but they can also be unusually empathic, intuitive, and compassionate, as if in that tangled brain circuitry there is a special capacity to see into people and places.24

With that empathy, intuitiveness, compassion, and insight, combined with the quickness of mind and acting ability, Holmes can easily counterfeit appearances and personalities of those he studies. All that he must do is attempt to begin to think like the subject of his disguise, and prevent his brain from bouncing to Holmes-like thoughts. In essence, he would become the character for the necessary period of time. He would be able to think as if he had no connection to the characteristics of Holmes, screen them out on the fly, to keep them from corrupting the character he was playing. This, among other minor characteristics, along with endless lisTable examples from not only The Sign of the Four, but virtually every Holmes story there is, adds to the evidence for diagnosis, as well as a greater understanding of the man.

In fact, Holmes meets at least the required fifteen out of 22 criteria put forth by Hallowell and Ratey to be diagnosed with ADD.2526

So what? What does this mean? Why did I just spend 13 pages telling the reader that Holmes has ADD? Literature is a vehicle for understanding the human condition. Holmes is an icon of genius which is pervasive in our culture. He is much read, much studied, and much analyzed. There is something essential to the human core embodied in the character of Holmes. Among other things, it has something to do with intellect, and curiosity, and logic, and justice. One studies literature to understand humanity, on a societal, personal, and cultural level. Given that Holmes is such a dominant force in the cultural literary canon, the lens through which we, as a collective society, study our nature, it is essential to understand him, his motives, his mental assets and personal liabilities. There is an air of mystery about Holmes, the shroud of which I hope will be parted slightly to allow a new perspective to enter into the public discourse regarding not only this icon, but these aspects of ourselves. To add to the understanding of the icon is to add to the collective understanding of humanity.

At first observation, Holmes' genius seems untouchable, unreachable, and unintelligible. There have been many attempts at explaining his genius, his personality, and his eccentricities, none of which have been completely successful. Holmes would have approved of my thought experiment here today: to combine observation of traits, with knowledge of psychological fact, and deduce. Having eliminated the impossibilities, the one thing that remains, however improbable must be the truth. It is my hope that that truth will yield other truths.


  1. Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Sign of the Four, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993.
  2. Hallowell, Edward M., MD and Ratey, John J., MD Driven to Distraction Pantheon Books, New York, New York, 1994.
  3. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes, Castle, New Jersey(no date)
  4. Extensive personal/professional experience with ADD,
  5. Interviews with and lectures by Dr. Hugh M. Leightman, MD, and Harvey Botman, Ph.D. (Psychiatrists at Wediko Children's Services, Hillsborough, NH)
  6. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, NIMH, 1994
  7. Baker Street Connection -@- http://www.citsoft.com/holmes3.html

  1. Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Sign of the Four, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993. P.4
  2. Hallowell, Edward M., MD and Ratey, John J., MD Driven to Distraction Pantheon Books, New York, New York, 1994. p. 179
  3. This work is the only definitive tome about ADD available, and is the most often sited of all literature on ADD. It broke new ground in that it made thebetween ADD and Hyperactivity, two distinct disorders. The DSM-IV is shamefully and deplorably inadequately informed about the subject, and is in some cases is blatantly wrong. It's frankly not worth the paper it's printed on.
  4. To my knowledge. As a paid clinical intern at a short-term, residential treatment facility for severely emotionally disturbed children, and as a possessor of the state myself, however, I believe my diagnosis carries some weight.
  5. Doyle, p.6
  6. Hallowell and Ratey, p.153
  7. Doyle, p.7
  8. Hallowell and Ratey, p.169
  9. Doyle, p.119
  10. or theory, as Atheleney Jones does in his investigation.
  11. Hallowell and Ratey, p.176-177
  12. Incidentally, the descriptions of Holmes' frustration with his failure coincide both with Hallowell and Ratey's description of those who have failed due to ADD, as well as with the actions and emotions of the patients of the short term residential treatment facility at which I worked this past summer, kids that have lived with nothing but failure.
  13. Part of the frontal lobe of the brain, specifically, it is a dysregulation along the catecholamine-serotonin axis(Hallowell&Ratey)
  14. Here Watson(Doyle?) erroneously attributes Holmes' looseness and easiness of speech to a conscious decision by Holmes.
  15. Doyle, p.79-80
  16. Hallowell and Ratey, p. 74
  17. Doyle, p.43
  18. Hallowell and Ratey, p.173
  19. Doyle, p.4
  20. incidentally, the same frequency Ritalin, also a stimulant, is normally administered to treat ADD
  21. "Caffeinism"(I actually didn't make the term up1) is a common trait of those with ADD. (including myself. 3 cans of dew during every class. Then there was the time with the octuple espresso. And you thought I was just an addict.)
  22. Doyle, p.69
  23. Hallowell and Ratey, p117
  24. Hallowell and Ratey, p.10
  25. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, C.20 and B are uncertain due to lack of background info on Holmes' personal history.
  26. I didn't even bother with the DSM- IV criteria, as they are woefully inadequate, not worthy of the spit of a particularly mucus-filled llama. .
Sherlock Holmes - Vine#1

Greg Stoddard is a student at Bates College. You can email Greg with your comments or questions. You can also visit Gregs' WebSite. This work is copyrighted © 1997-2003 by Greg Stoddard. My deep thanks to Greg for allowing me to post this work on Yoxley Old Place. For more information on Attention Deficit Disorder visit Attention Deficit Disorder.

Note: This work first appeared on the web on Greg Stoddard's site


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