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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Sally Haldorson

January 30, 2013


Have you ever driven to or from work only to arrive at your destination not remembering much at all about the drive? If someone asked you to describe the colors of the other houses on your street, could you? We often excuse our lack of attention or memory by saying that we are "on autopilot.

Have you ever driven to or from work only to arrive at your destination not remembering much at all about the drive? If someone asked you to describe the colors of the other houses on your street, could you? We often excuse our lack of attention or memory by saying that we are "on autopilot." How much time do you think you spend at your desk, in a meeting, at the dinner table on mental autopilot? And as such, how much do you miss? Test yourself: How many steps lead up to your house? (I personally could not tell you precisely.) This is the question Sherlock Holmes poses to Watson in "A Scandal in Bohemia." How many steps lead up to 221 B Baker Street? Watson cannot say, but of course Holmes can. And it is with this example that author, psychologist, and journalist Maria Konnikova opens her new book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and with it her entertaining gambit: Sherlock Holmes was a master of a mindful interaction with the world, and by learning to think like Holmes, you too can engage in "improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally."
All too often, when it comes to our own minds, we are surprisingly mindless. We sail on, blithely unaware of how much we are missing, of how little we understand about our own thought process--and how much better we could be if only we'd taken the time to understand and to reflect. Like Watson, we plod along the same staircase tens, hundreds, thousands of times, multiple times a day, and we can't begin to recall the most mundane details about them....
If you are skeptical about how serious a book touting a methodology belonging to a fictional character can be, Konnikova would answer that while Holmes was indeed fictitious, he was a product of both his author and of the day. Arthur Conan Doyle, Konnikova explains, was known to be quite a resourceful investigator in his own right. And Doyle created Holmes at a time when "the scientific method was coming into its prime in all manners of thinkings and doings--from evolution to radiography, general relativity to the discovery of germs and anesthesia, behaviorism to psychoanalysis--then why ever not in the principles of thought itself?"
It is here, in observation and inference and deduction, that we come to the heart of what it is exactly that makes Holmes who he is, distinct from every other detective who appeared before, or indeed, after: the detective who elevated the art of detection to a precise science.
She lays out Holmes' use of the scientific method while also teaching us the process. Observation serves as the base for solving any problem and represents the objective overview. Then comes the time for hypothesis and trialing possibilities until a conclusion is reached. The problem for those of us who are less Holmes and more Watson is that scientific reasoning takes time and it takes practice. But Mastermind makes the practice fun, even somewhat fantastical as Konnikova assigns Holmes a "real-life" personae:
Holmes had thousands of hours of practice on us. His habits have been formed over countless opportunities, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, for every year since his early childhood. It's easy to become discouraged in his presence--but it might, in the end, be more productive to simply become inspired instead. If he can do it, so can we.
Konnikova is so clearly a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works that it seems she must know the stories by heart. But she never strays far from her overall purpose: to not only celebrate with us the popularity of this character, but to learn from him. And despite the unusual element of intertwining Doyle's stories into her book, Konnikova is all seriousness about her subject matter. The scope of the book includes a chapter on how the typical brain is likely to store information (titled with Holmes' own metaphor, "The Brain Attic"), then moves on to how we can improve our powers of observation ("Stocking the Brain Attic"), accelerate creativity to create hypotheses ("Exploring..."), ignite our deductive reasoning ("Navigating..."), and finally, continue with the practice ("Maintaining...") until you've stockpiled your own "Dynamic Attic." She concludes with a short chapter on failure. Like Holmes, we are human beings who will make mistakes when employing our new deductive talents. It's a sure thing, and even Holmes' creator Doyle was not exempt, Konnikova explains with an entertaining story about Doyle having been duped by some fairies, or rather, pictures of fairies.
We are all limited by our knowledge and context. And we'd do well to remember it. Just because we can't fathom something doesn't make it not so. And just because we screw up for lack of knowledge doesn't mean we've done so unredeemable--or that we can't keep learning. When it comes to the mind, we can all be hunters.
Other than being an enjoyable read, Mastermind reminds us that we all can stand to turn off the auto-pilot more often and gain control over how intensely we engage with the world. The benefits are "elementary."

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