Updated: Jan 27, 2019
By Alexis Bruce.
Just some thoughts about perspectives on and the portrayal of intelligence in Sherlock.
First of all, one thing you need to know is that I was a TA for a little while when I was in high school at a school for highly intelligent children, children who, on the IQ scale, could be labeled as prodigies; as geniuses. I was in a classroom of students from ages eight to sixteen who were absolutely brilliant. I remember meeting a little boy, a little more than seven or eight years old, who read college microbiology textbooks and managed his entire family with a twitch of his finger.
Children who have high IQs, children who are stunningly brilliant, operate on a swinging scale. The higher it swings on the intellectual side, the higher it swings on the emotional side. Basically, when you’re a child, if your brain is so far ahead of the rest of you, your emotions and your emotional maturity are going to be lesser even if your emotional intelligence (two very different things) is just as high as your brain function. You are highly sensitive, highly gifted, and both of those things pressed into one small body means that one is going to be shoved aside. It means there’s going to be conflict and there is going to be pain no matter what you try to do, because you are used to being the brightest kid in the room. You are used to being isolated; you are used to being the odd one out, the unique character, and often the one who is told you’re brilliant, you should be able to do this; you’re brilliant, you should be able to get along with everyone; you’re amazing, but you need to stop acting like a child.
I’ll get to Sherlock in a moment.
I remember this same little boy who in his love of science and learning and reading was probably (mentally) fourteen or fifteen years old. Maybe older. Much of the time, though, he acted about five, maybe younger, willing to throw tantrums if he didn’t get his way. This same little boy had panic attacks if things weren’t explained to him exactly the way he needed them to be, and he trusted very few people enough to tell him the truth. He was one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met, but he’s a perfect example of Gifted or highly intelligent children. Children who are labeled as brilliant, as geniuses, as Gifted: they are just as vulnerable if not more so, emotionally, as other children, because of their understanding of the world. Because of their extreme sensitivity. Because of their unwillingness to be pandered to; because they are smart enough to know when they are being pandered to, and unwilling or unable to take it.
And yet because they’re so brilliant, they’re left on their own. They develop shells. Research shows that it’s more typical for girls to mask their intelligence; they hide, they deliberately screw up their questions in order to fit in, in order to have friends, in order to keep themselves from getting those words thrown at them every single day. If you’re in eighth grade math, why can’t you read a second grade textbook? If you can play the violin like a master who’s been training for years, then why can’t you figure out how to tie your shoes or memorize your times tables? Boys hide too, but in a different way – they often start acting out in class, intellectually under stimulated, bored, finished with their work hours early and wanting to do something that won’t drive them out of their minds with frustration at the simplicity. Often these kids – especially the boys – end up in and out of the principal’s office all through school for disruptive behaviors, talking in class, “cheating” on their homework assignments.
Every single child I met at that school was emotionally restricted in some way because of those shields they built. Whether it was the ‘smartass’ shield – I don’t want to and you can’t make me – or the shield of ‘normalcy’ – I can’t do this, I don’t know how – it took a long time for them to let go the hard shell. They were so used to not being believed about how fast their minds worked, about the intricacies and elegance of their ideas, about their inherent ‘freakishness’ (I didn’t meet a single child there that didn’t refer to themselves as a ‘freak’ at one point or another) that they simply stopped believing. They stopped trusting. They stopped trying, and behind their eyes their brains raced so fast that most human beings wouldn’t be able to comprehend it at all. And at the same time, as their brains clicked faster and faster, spinning into skids because they had no outlet and no way to focus, their emotional perceptions and reactions grew more and more conflicted. Twelve year olds acted like five year olds; eight year olds acted even younger. If they were confused, if they felt they weren’t being understood, if they thought someone who should have been able to keep up was no longer doing so, if they thought someone was calling them stupid or strange or insulting them for their brains, they flared up and flashed back to the lower end of the emotional scale. It’s simple brain development. The higher you go on the intelligence scale, the longer it takes for the rest of the mental development – personality, emotional maturity, social comprehension – to catch up.
Now to Sherlock.
Sherlock Holmes is not a sociopath. Not in my opinion. Sherlock and Mycroft are two utterly brilliant boys who have grown up without anyone who can keep up with them. They’ve grown up with parents who probably looked at them with falling expressions when they came out with something brilliant because their parents, no matter how much they loved them (because I think they did love them and probably still do) could not keep up. In fact, I’m absolutely certain that the only people throughout their entire lives who could keep up with them were themselves – the only lifeline they had was each other. They were lonely. They were sensitive, and the world burned them for it, so the shells started. Probably when they were little. They were most likely beaten up for being nerds, for being teachers’ pets, for being too smart. For being freaks.
Mycroft seems to have a better handle on maturity and emotions. He adapted better. He probably had to keep an eye on his younger brother, and so he had to grow up faster, emotionally, to protect Sherlock, though he’s willing to revert right back to child when he and Sherlock are arguing because he can trust Sherlock. Sherlock is safe because Sherlock can keep up with how his mind works.
But Sherlock did not adapt. He did not catch up, because Sherlock is so bloody brilliant that he’s never caught up. He’s never had anyone to help him catch up, emotionally, with the rest of him. His emotional development has not kept up with his brain. His shield is so thick that he reduces his own emotions to nothing. He sees them as nothing. He sees himself only as a giant brain, nothing else, his valuable payload, a Faberge egg carried on a pixie stick. To Sherlock, who has been bored his entire life – who has had absolutely nothing to stimulate his brain, his lightning-fast brain that he depends on so much, except coming up with games for himself – he is his brain, and when he feels emotion, he pushes it back because he does not have the capacity to understand it. His life has not allowed him the social training to understand it.
He is not sociopathic in any sense of the word. Humbly, I would point out the great detective’s misdiagnosis of himself. He is not a sociopath. He has a conscience. He is not particularly antisocial. He’s not a robot. He’s not just a brain. He does experience emotions. We all know he experiences emotions. He just cannot handle them. His mind is seeking so much intellectual stimulation – so many hunts, so many little puzzles to solve – that there is nothing else in his life that he can comprehend. Which is why the cabbie in "A Study in Pink" makes so much sense:
"I bet you get bored, don’t you? I know you do. What’s the point of being clever if you can’t prove it? You’d do anything, anything at all, to stop being bored."
I cannot tell you how many children I’ve met with this exact problem. I can’t tell you how many people who don’t even know they’re brilliant who fill their lives with difficult crosswords and odd studies and what society might view as ‘strange obsessions’ (morgue visits, anyone?) in order to keep their own minds from driving them insane. They are not strange. They are trying, in the only way they can, to keep themselves from going absolutely mad with boredom.
I am one of them, and I cannot tell you how many hours I spend reading, writing, thinking every day in order to keep myself from screaming.
My outlet is words. Languages, novels, short stories, fan-fiction. That is my obsession. That little boy I used to know, his was biology; if I showed him a picture of a cell, he could tell me its genus, phylum, and Latinate name without even looking at it for more than a handful of seconds. Another boy I met was doing advanced calculus at twelve years old. The list goes on. We find outlets. We find ways to keep ourselves busy, because there is nothing else we can do.
So the fact that Donovan and Anderson call Sherlock Holmes – brilliant, beautiful, childish, arrogant, lonely Sherlock – a freak, a psychopath, and a pervert makes me angry enough to scream.
Because there are so many Donovans in the world. There are so many Andersons. And there are so many children who are so, so smart and so, so sensitive not being recognized, being told that they are brilliant so why are they getting Ds in their classes, being told that they are freaks or not good enough, who are being lectured by the rest of the world. So many who fall into drugs because they are so bloody bored they have no other outlet. So many who drive themselves into depression, into anxiety, into loneliness, because there is no one who will accept them.
There are so many of them that it breaks my heart in two.
The fact that society does not – or, rather, will not – understand them shatters it.