Sherlock and Sheldon among the Prophets

Sherlock and Sheldon among the Prophets January 11, 2014

I’ve been getting caught up on shows that I ought to have been watching for a while. Both Sherlock and The Big Bang Theory feature main characters who exhibit behaviors and abilities which suggest placement on the autism spectrum – incredible genius in some respects, but also difficulties in social interactions and knowledge that most ordinary people take for granted.

In the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia,” mention is made of Sherlock believing in a “higher power” – namely himself. And in the episode “The Pork Chop Indeterminacy,” Sheldon’s sister quotes their mother in describing him as “one of God’s special little people.”

In a previous era, people with such attributes might have been considered prophets, with special gifts bestowed by a divine benefactor.

Can’t you imagine Sherlock at the well with the Samaritan woman, noticing details about her that others would miss, and stating that she had had five husbands and was now in the status of concubine? (I’d love to watch such an episode – and see what clues led to the deduction!)

Am I saying that Jesus was autistic? Not at all – not only because the Gospel of John’s material is of dubious historical authenticity (sorry Chris), including the famous story in John 4. But even more importantly, because Jesus’ teaching suggests that empathy was central to his thinking in a way that is at odds with current research on autism.

My point is that ancient notions of prophecy may have included people that we today might term “savants.” How might our thinking about ancient religion – and the texts ancient religion has bequeathed to us – differ if we took this view of things? While trying to diagnose historical people at a distance, through literature that may not depict them accurately, is very precarious, simply as a thought exercise, what instances of Biblical prophets’ and other religious figures’ personalities and experiences might suggest that they fit a particular modern medical diagnosis?

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  • Gary

    I can certainly see Sheldon as an enhusiastic member of the Essenes. Fetish about washing, eating (hot dogs in spaghetti), favorite spot to sit (hierarchy in eating, only certain people can speak), relationship with women. PhD in theoretical physics trumps both experimental physics and engineering with disdain (Essenes with same view of themselves versus temple priests). I can see Sheldon marching out into the desert, in a long white robe, and shovel, to dig a hole to poop.

  • arcseconds

    It certainly is a dangerous hobby!

    I once read the start of a short introductory book on Wittgenstein, where the author (a respected philosopher), diagnosed Wittgenstein as having dyslexia (of all things!). His reasons for doing so seemed spurious to me, and bore little resemblance to anything I’d ever understood about dyslexia. I can’t remember whether I actually threw the book across the room in a rage or not, but I certainly felt like it!

    One problem with this approach, looking to diagnose writers (and others) with some kind of mental abnormality, is that it prevents a genuine engagement with the text. Rather than challenging one’s own understanding, one can just say “Oh, that’s the disorder talking”. In this particular case, Wittgenstein’s alleged dyslexia was used to explain why he expresses himself in a somewhat cryptic and compressed style; such an idea precludes the question “why did Wittgenstein choose to express himself like this?” — an important question for any writer, but especially someone like Wittgenstein.

    I’m also a bit sceptical about these autistic-spectrum disorder armchair diagnoses (Wittgenstein gets that too, with a bit more plausibility than this dyslexia idea admittedly). Social skills are, well, skills. The development of any skill can be hampered by cognitive disorders (and other disabilities), but surely the most common reason for having a skill less developed than other people is not a disorder of some kind, but simply lack of practice (again, like any other skill, lots of time spent on the activity might not equate to adequate practice!).

    The classic example of the socially awkward genius, I think, can usually be adequately explained by them having spent more time enthusiastically engaging with their books, papers, computers, lab equipment, etc. than with people. It’s also worth noting that if you’re especially good at something, people will excuse and put up with your lack of social graces, so people with special talents can in some ways get away with a lot more, giving them less reasons to work on their interactions with others.

    That’s not to say that none of them have autistic spectrum disorders, but the combination of unusual talents and being difficult socially on its own is not enough.

  • arcseconds

    It’s also worth pointing out that diagnosis of mental conditions is culturally-bound. I recall an anecdote mentioned in a book on psychology, warning about this, where a man from the middle east made some statement that expressed pessimism about the future and the state of humanity. To his surprise, he found himself diagnosed with depression, but such statements were perfectly ordinary things to say where he came from!

    So that makes it doubly difficult. If someone claims to have a vision from God, and we wish to make a western medical diagnosis of this, we might say they had a hallucination and therefore might be suffering from psychosis. But if they’re in a society where visions are accepted and even considered laudable, did they really experience a full-on hallucination, or did they have a vivid dream? Or might they even be just faking it? Plus, of course, some of the practices of monastics and eremites make hallucinations and unusual mental states more generally much more likely.

    • did they really experience a full-on hallucination, or did they have a vivid dream?

      Or perhaps they just had a creative revery, like the one featured above. Did James have a vision of Sherlock Holmes at the well, or did he have a vision?

  • Chris Crawford

    If you’re interested in autistic characters on TV, you should check out Community (if you haven’t already). Abed is the most honest depiction of somebody with Aspergers I’ve ever seen; Sheldon is pretty much a caricature. I bet you’d particularly enjoy this episode,, as Abed agrees to shoot a film about Jesus for the show’s Christian character.

  • Evan

    Empathy is not at odds with current research on autism, that’s a common misunderstanding. Autistic people tend to have have trouble with “cognitive empathy” — that is, guessing what you’re thinking from your facial expressions, or sorting out which facts you’re likely to know from which ones you probably don’t. What most people mean by the word “empathy” is sharing people’s feelings and wanting to alleviate their pain; autistic people do that fine.

    • Thank you for that clarification – I ought to have worded my blog post more accurately.

  • guest

    I’ve heard a theory that Paul/Saul’s conversion at Damascus was the result of an epileptic fit. Some people with epilepsy have visions, called ‘auras’, before a fit. My mum once saw Goofy and Mickey Mouse- it was like they were in the room with her.

    I’ve also heard that fairy changelings might have been a way of explaining children with autism before the condition was better understood.

    I do wonder if Mary Magdalene had schizophrenia or something like that. When it says she had ‘seven devils’ driven out of her maybe she was hallucinating or something.