It’s a question Sherlock Holmes fans have been debating for years. Does the world’s most famous fictional detective — first introduced in an 1887 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — have some kind of mental illness or personality disorder, and if so, which one?
Over the decades, Holmes has been variously diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and depression. It’s been hinted he’s a drug addict and could be either a psychopath or a sociopath. While there’s no agreement on exactly what makes Holmes he way he is, the BBC/PBS show Sherlock and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrayed the character on the series, have a theory about the brilliant detective.
Benedict Cumberbatch said Sherlock Holmes was ‘sociopathic’
During an appearance at San Diego Comic-Con in 2016, Cumberbatch weighed in on Holmes’ mental health during a panel interview, as reported by Collider. Speaking ahead of the show’s fourth (and for now, final) season, he said that his character was initially “sociopathic.” But as the show progressed, he evolved. Per Cumberbatch:
He has moved from being someone who was sociopathic, work-obsessed and slightly amoral, into being someone who has a certain degree of a private life, which is very, very private, with The Woman, or Irene Adler. With his interactions with people, he’s better at what he does. He has to understand the world. That’s very much John’s influence on him. But like a lot of the friendships and relationships in that world, it’s born out of necessity. It makes him better. There’s a pragmatism to it. It’s not whimsical or sentimental. It’s born out of necessity.
Cumberbatch’s assessment of Holmes’ character fits with how he described himself on the show.
“I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research,” Holmes says in the first Sherlock episode, “A Study in Pink.”
A psychologist disagrees, says Sherlock Holmes is not a sociopath
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Sherlock’s creators, Cumberbatch, and the character he played might have seen Holmes, at least at first, as a sociopath — a more familiar term for what doctors would call a person with antisocial personality disorder, according to WebMD. But according to at least one psychologist, they have the character all wrong.
Holmes is neither a psychopath nor a sociopath, Maria Konnikova wrote in a 2012 essay for i09, explaining the two are essentially the same thing. For one, anyone with that type of personality would not use those terms to describe themselves.
“[N]o actual psychopath — or sociopath, if you (or Holmes) will — would ever admit to his psychopathy,” she wrote.
Sherlock Holmes has a conscience and emotions
While Holmes appears to have several psychopathic traits, such as being cold and lacking empathy and remorse, the Sherlock character is more complicated and emotional than he appears on the surface, Konnikova argues.
“Sherlock Holmes is not a cold, calculating, self-gratifying machine. He cares for Watson. He cares for Mrs. Hudson. He most certainly has a conscience,” she writes. “In other words, Holmes has emotions — and attachments — like the rest of us. What he’s better at is controlling them-and only letting them show under very specific circumstances.”
So there you have it: Sherlock Holmes might not be quite like other people, but he is not a sociopath.
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