Sherlock and Elementary Intelligences

The success of the television programme “Sherlock” has not passed us by. Its creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, have cleverly updated the intellectual brilliance of the original writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Bringing Sherlock into 21st century, with its technological advancements and its concern with international terrorism, has led to some invigorating, intriguing and imaginative television. It’s definitely worth a watch. Its latest “villain” was a power-crazed and powerful multi-media mogul, and his portrayal was simultaneously hilarious, accurate, insightful and a little frightening.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is flawed. In this series he was accused of being a psychopath. His response was to refute that label but readily acknowledged that he was a sociopath.

“I’m not a psychopath. I’m a highly functioning sociopath”.

One psychologist’s writing – Maria Konnikova, found on the internet, has criticised this and she’s given her reasons for saying that Holmes is neither a psychopath nor a sociopath – partly because she believes that they are one and the same, and partly because she thinks Sherlock is capable of being emotionally intelligent but chooses to dismiss it. Also, she says that a real sociopath/psychopath is incapable of recognising his or her state.

Wikipedia too says that “psychopathy and sociopathy” are one and the same.

It might also be worth referring to these very interesting tell-tale signs of sociopathy to decide as to whether Sherlock Holmes is a “highly functioning sociopath”.


Many have used other labels to try to explain Sherlock’s unusual and quirky behaviour. Some have suggested that he may well have ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome. These too may be true, but there’s every possibility that he’s none or all of these things.

Does it matter? Are all these labels really helpful or do they merely place characters in a box from which there is no escape?

Perhaps it’s more significant and interesting to look at whether Sherlock is three dimensional and is capable of understanding and using multiple intelligences?

A clue to the way his mind works in relation to multiple intelligences comes from the following quote – again from the blogpost by Maria Konnikova.

“But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to the cold reason which I place above all things.”

And here’s another. His friend John Watson asks Sherlock about his relationship with a woman he recently met:

“We’re in a good place. It’s very affirming” says Sherlock.

“You got that from a book” relies Watson.

“Everyone got that from a book!” is Sherlock’s response.

Sherlock is no fool but perhaps he is a classic example of someone who places far too much importance on cold rationality to get him through life rather than embracing the complete joy of being multiply intelligent.

” I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”

Conan Doyle “The Adventure of Marizan Stone”

Sherlock is evidently an intellect. He is astute, calculating, clear and concise. His brain absorbs facts and assimilates them according to the circumstance he is in. As he says, he places this sort of ability above and beyond “emotions”.

He’s also right about love. It is an emotion, and can be a destructive emotion at that. He logically argues that becoming embroiled in the emotion of love and the potential destruction and havoc it can cause, means that he doesn’t want to concede to it. That is his rationale and it’s understandable in many ways.


If we look at the other main emotions (as declared by Paul Ekman) of fear, disgust, anger, sadness and surprise, they too are so often in direct contrast to rationality. In order to preserve his highly-functioning intellect, Sherlock doesn’t want to have anything to do with the destructive elements of these emotions.

The fact that he recognises that much of love and words about love are borrowed from literature and art is also understandable. He implies that many of us function and believe in a fairy-tale interpretation of love because that is what we’ve been conditioned to do.

Again, this is an acceptable analysis.

What Conan Doyle (for let’s remind ourselves that Sherlock is not a real person) and indeed Moffat and Gatiss may have failed to see is that there’s a difference between being emotionally intelligent and being able to control our destructive emotions. The management of our destructive emotions is a component of being emotionally intelligent. Sherlock could be emotionally intelligent without letting these destructive emotions into his life, as could we all. His inability to do so makes him two-dimensional rather than three dimensional, and thus not fully intelligent.

Being emotionally intelligent means that we use all of our intelligences to deal with, manage and control the deep and conditioned emotions listed above. We use our intellect, like Sherlock, to see and understand the damage that an emotional response can cause. And sometimes we don’t. We use our bodies and our senses (physical intelligence) to demonstrate our feelings – sometimes instinctively. We react instinctively to certain emotional situations, unless like Sherlock we’ve trained ourselves not to. We need to be aware of our own needs and to have some personal insight (or personal intelligence) in order to be emotionally intelligent – something that Sherlock could be good at. Unfortunately he confuses his feelings with emotions and therefore dismisses them as being intolerable and unnecessary in his life, which is not at all intelligent.

In order to be emotionally intelligent, we also need to be aware of the needs and desires of others, and how this complements or indeed contradicts our own needs. When we have a shared set of values and live virtuously, that is part of being spiritually intelligent, thus completing the set of intelligences working together to make us emotionally intelligent.

Sherlock Holmes is intellectually capable but what he’s not quite so good at is social intelligence. Having said that, he’s not completely devoid of social intelligence. He demonstrates real empathy with the most important person in his life. He cares for him, considers his wellbeing and recognises the personal qualities of his dear friend John Watson. What he is wrong about is the notion that the consideration for other human beings will somehow detract from his intellect.

Sherlock and Watson

On the contrary, his ability to be empathetic has enabled him, and humanised him in a way that mere cognitive and rational working of the mind will never be able to do on its own. By his own admittance, he works best in collaboration with Watson – who provides other areas of intelligence that Sherlock himself recognises he doesn’t have, and the absence of which leaves a gap or a flaw in his personality.

“It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

For this reason alone, Sherlock Holmes is not a sociopath. He understands empathy. He’s just not very good at it. The very fact that he understands the dangers of destructive emotions shows that he has logically considered the existence of them, and has chosen to ensure that he doesn’t succumb to them – again, a rational choice that is lost on a sociopath.

Sherlock Holmes is capable of being multiply intelligent but he chooses not to be. Part of this is because he, or his writers, has chosen to see “emotional intelligence” as an intelligence in its own right rather than a matter of all of the intelligences working together – to enable us to become emotionally intelligent. They’ve also defined emotional intelligence as purely a matter of being empathetic, which is incorrect. Empathy is a quality arising from social intelligence. Their Sherlock recognises the perils of destructive emotions but then doesn’t embrace the positive nature of human feelings and how this humanises us.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock Holmes, particularly this interpretation of him so brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is flawed – but that doesn’t make him a sociopath. Like so many of us, he probably needs to understand the real nature of intelligences, to understand that there is no ‘stand-alone’ ’emotional intelligence’ – only the ability be ’emotionally intelligent’ if all of our six intelligences are simultaneously engaged in the task of managing destructive emotions. For all of us this is elementary.


We could now go on to discuss the characters portrayed in The Bridge – Saga Noren and Martin Rohde. But that’s another story.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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