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Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle used his famous character, Sherlock Holmes, to exemplify the perils of boredom for those with powerful intellects. (Photo: Wikipedia)

When Scottish physician and writer Arthur Conan Doyle created his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, he gave the immortal sleuth some character traits not considered virtues. Foremost among these dubious qualities would be Holmes’ chronic problem with boredom. Another negative behaviour, his cocaine habit, stems directly from this noteworthy inability to stay afloat in unstimulating situations. Doyle wished us to see that Holmes’ mind was so powerful it required huge amounts of intellectual “fuel” to keep it from stalling.

In reality, anyone with a decent mind faces the same situation. We know that all human beings tend towards “psychic entropy” when alone – the least stimulating situation a person can be in. It is less obvious that persons of greater intelligence may suffer the same fate even when among others if the milieu in which they travel is of insufficient sophistication. The danger is, as it was with Holmes, boredom followed by sudden descents into severe depression.

Just for fun, we might identify these symptoms of being prone to boredom and then sliding into depression as indications of Sherlock Holmes Disease. It starts with a seemingly innocuous state of mind, but things can get out of hand.

Surprising numbers of people, like the fictional Holmes, need substantial amounts of intellectual stimulation in order to forestall mental stagnation and intense emotional distress. Moreover, there are “complications,” which follow the onset of an attack of this “illness.” The boredom incites other difficulties in the life of the sufferer. Boredom can cause the intellect to shut down leading to foolish or thoughtless behaviour. Although quite bright, the sufferer may appear rather stupid. Attempts to escape the boredom by livening things up can lead to abrasive interactions with others. Now the sufferer seems given to excess, bad tempered, or aggressive. Of course, when alone again, and agonizing over how badly things went, there is always the temptation of easing the pain with substance abuse.

Once a sufferer of Sherlock Holmes disease has racked up a few poor performances, it becomes harder to do well with others because of their altered expectations. Repeating poor performances, and the negative responses they draw, lead to sinking levels of self-esteem and self-confidence, which further erode the sufferer’s ability to function effectively. A disastrous downward spiral ensues. We see this in Holmes when he has skidded into a long debased bout of cocaine use. A man so intelligent we might expect him to be above such debauchery shows himself more than usually susceptible.

It is common for individuals who suffer from Sherlock Holmes disease to remain ignorant of the underlying mechanism. There is a tendency to ascribe bad behaviour to causes other than simple boredom. With the number of better-educated and more-sophisticated individuals on the rise, the prevalence of the disease is growing.