Sherlock Holmes and the Power of Introversion

The Smirk

Ah, Twitter! Earlier today, a hapless celebrity (who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this post) let loose a possibly-alcohol-fueled tweet implying that extroversion is so wonderful that there must be something wrong with introverts.

Initially, I laughed. Then, I was irritated. I’m an introvert, sure, but even if I wasn’t, it’s ignorant and silly to denounce a huge, perfectly normal part of the population as inferior. However, I have to thank this errant public figure for supplying a very pertinent topic for a blog centered around Sherlock Holmes.

First, a short digression to say: I think extroverts are wonderful. My mother and sister both have extroverted tendencies, and they are two of my favorite people in the world. All my life, I have meshed well with extroverts. They have strengths I lack, and they sometimes shield me in social situations that I find overwhelming.

Nevertheless, as has been discussed a lot in the news recently, the Western world is an extremely extrovert-biased society. From toddlerhood on, children are judged not on their ability to think deeply or understand concepts, but on how social and gregarious they are, and it never ends. The reasons for this are many and varied, stemming from historical perspectives, bad psychological theories, and other things. Introverted children often internalize the idea that there’s something wrong with them (I certainly did), until they’re old enough to realize that they’re simply wired differently from their extroverted peers. Thankfully, books like Quiet by Susan Cain and more attention given to the topic has begun to shed light on the unique gifts and contributions introverts bring to the world.

Who better to help us explore these traits than literature’s quintessential introvert, Sherlock Holmes? In the next few paragraphs, I’ll use Holmes’s character to unpack and explore what introversion is and is not.

(Note: This is intended to be a very brief overview, not an exhaustive, scientific look at the topic.)

Introversion is not shyness. Shyness/outgoingness are entirely separate concepts from introversion and extroversion. Sherlock Holmes illustrates this throughout the canon through his complete lack of reticence to speak or interact in any situation that requires his expertise. He’s an extremely bold character, neither fearful nor hesitant to share his opinion with others.

Introversion is being energized by solitude. There are times in the canon when we see Holmes not speaking for long periods of time. This has nothing whatsoever to do with shyness or hesitance and everything to do with his mental processes. Extroverts gain energy by the chemicals released in the brain during social activity. Introverts gain energy from the chemicals released during peaceful solitude.

Introversion is not hating other people. Holmes is clearly not a social butterfly, but throughout the canon, we see him mention a friend from university, spend countless hours with Watson, maintain a positive relationship with Mrs. Hudson, and arguably do a great deal to benefit mankind as a whole. He’s certainly irritated, at times, by the slow pace of the normal human mind, but he’s no misanthrope. Introversion doesn’t mean being a recluse who hates human beings.

Introversion (often) is preferring limited or smaller social gatherings. Arguably, when it comes to his friendship with John Watson, Holmes is extremely social, spending nearly every waking moment with the doctor at different periods during the canon. Like many introverts, he prefers the calming company of one preferred friend with whom interacting is unstressful and fulfilling. He obviously needs interaction, but socializing with one fulfills him more than socializing with many.

Introversion is not genius. There’s a danger in holding up something to public scrutiny and yelling, “Here look at this special snowflake thing.” If you yell too loudly, the pendulum can swing too far, and you get some kind of Rain Man effect in which introversion is viewed as a savant, zen thing that leads to Einstein-like levels of brilliance. This is simply not the case. Sherlock Holmes is a genius, but it isn’t his introversion that makes him that way. For instance, Professor Moriarty, Holmes’s arch-nemesis, is equally brilliant but shows far more extroverted tendencies. (I draw this conclusion because of his decision to use his talents to lead a network of people, rather than to become a solitary mastermind.)

Introversion is a facilitator of genius. Sherlock Holmes perfectly illustrates one of the grandest things about introversion–the fact that if a tendency toward intellectual brilliance is present, an introverted mind is uniquely suited to grow and develop that brilliance into something truly remarkable. It’s Sherlock Holmes’s long hours sitting in Baker Street, thinking through strings of clues, that take a quick mind and make it a thing of unparalleled acuity. A preference for quiet and solitude gives the detective time to fill his mental attic with information that allows him to make inferences and come to conclusions that seem nearly miraculous. Like him, introverts often have the ability to sit alone and concentrate for hours at a time, to take an idea and make it into something new and beautiful to add to our world.

In the main, I’m pleased that the Western world seems to be taking a longer and harder look at introversion and coming out with a more positive and understanding viewpoint. I’m even more delighted, however, that long before Susan Cain or TED Talks, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented readers with the consummate introvert, the one and only Sherlock Holmes.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? What unique gifts do you have as a result?


The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

5 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes and the Power of Introversion

  1. This is a fascinating article thank you! I am fairly extroverted-that is, I am comfortable in a large-crowd setting, I don’t ever mind being around a lot of people. Conversely, my husband, and perhaps at least one of my two sons (maybe the other also) tend to prefer very small groups, particularly those with a specific purpose (as in sports-like or board gaming or computer expertise. We often find we compare our differences in how we approach people and maintain interaction.
    Your comment about Western society being extroverted made me think of one oddity of that extroversion. I noticed after traveling in Egypt that there, men are very comfortable in greeting each other with very warm hugs, even out on the public street. In Western society that is still sometimes an issue. Also, in Egypt (and even in Greece I noticed) it is the custom for retail establishments to greet the customer as a guest, offering refreshment, beverage and sometimes even food. Never see that, I don’t think, in the US certainly. Both of these are strange accompaniments to our otherwise openness.
    Those comments are a bit tangential to your excellent post–but they did make me also think that Sherlock, by very nature of his talent for observing everything (at least everything he deems pertinent-which is far more than many can manage), has a very open-eyed, opened-mind, approach. This rather goes “against” a usual stereotype of an introvert–someone with head down, eyes down, aware of and attending to only the bit of space around them.

    • Very good points! Holmes does illustrate that the quality of introverts being “in their own heads” a lot does NOT necessarily mean they’re not observing or learning about the world around them.

    • I’d argue that introverts tend to observe the world around them *more* than extraverts. It’s a favorite past time of many introverts (myself included) to sit and observe and analyze. We’re not so busy talking and interacting that we don’t have time to see and hear, and we probably spend more time coming to deeply thought-out conclusions about what we observe. But then we might squirrel them away and never tell anyone about them…

  2. Pingback: 29 Sherlockian Faves for my 29th | Girl Meets Sherlock: A Holmesian Blog

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