Monday, December 30, 2013

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova + Giveaway!

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova (cover)
I confess a weakness for the most brilliant person in the room. People who are great at what they do, whatever their “thing” may be, are my favorites. Excellence is dead sexy, especially when it comes to intelligence and the desire to improve. For this reason, I'm interested in the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Oh, sure, he's maddening to deal with — abrupt, insensitive, and distant at times — but the skill with which he gathers and assesses information is why his character has endured since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created him in 1887. In Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova examines what goes into Holmes' process, the way he can block out all other distractions in order to solve his cases, and how ordinary people can use these skills in their everyday life.

Besides being interested in Sherlock Holmes, I wanted to read Mastermind for another reason — to push through my own brain fog. I suffer from both chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, two illnesses with concentration and memory problems as symptoms. The severity of the brain fog varies from day-to-day, dependent on a few factors I've managed to identify so far (amount of sleep, activity level, etc.), but I wanted to know if there were ways I could retrain my brain to regain some of its previous ability.

And besides all that, increasing my powers of observation will make me a better writer. Being able to effectively take in my surroundings is just putting the work in, and Mastermind appears that it can help with such matters. Writers are not exactly known for being logical and reasoned, and we must remember that the tales of Sherlock Holmes are indeed supposed to be written by one Dr. John Watson.

Most psychologists now agree that our minds operate on a so-called two-system basis. One system is fast, intuitive, reactionary — a kind of constant fight-or-flight vigilance of the mind. It doesn't require much conscious thought or effort and functions as a sort of status quo autopilot. The other is slower, more deliberative, more thorough, more logical — but also much more cognitively costly. It likes to sit things out as long as it can and doesn't step in unless it thinks it absolutely necessary. 
 I'm going to give the systems monikers of my own: the Watson system and the Holmes system. You can guess which is which. Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits — the ones we've spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of the Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we'll be once we're done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives — and in doing so break the habits of our Watson system once and for all.

Konnikova points out that most people cannot be operating as system Holmes all the time. Sherlock Holmes has spent his whole life practicing his way of thinking and is already unusually gifted, especially considering that psychology was still a very new study when the original stories appeared. He's made his way of thinking his job, not a mere mental exercise. Older Holmes has acquired more skill through practice over his younger self, and by witnessing this practice, Watson also manages to become more circumspect. Is he always successful? No. Holmes certainly loves pointing out all the ways his friend has erred. However, Watson has learned how he might start to change his initial thinking, and that is progress.

Most references are to the actual Arthur Conan Doyle texts themselves, though Konnikova does mention the popular BBC show a couple of times. (Sorry, Elementary fans. No love for you in this volume, I'm afraid.) Though I haven't read many of the stories, I've seen several of the films (old and new), and in reading Mastermind, I see how much the BBC show gets right and how much from the original stories, down to exact dialogue, that the writers include. That those details and conversations hold up over a century later is amazing and so much fun. Despite all the advanced technology now available to a modern Sherlock, it all comes back to his mind. His “brain attic” is where all that information is cataloged.

Yes, it's a “brain attic” originally, not a “mind palace.” Not nearly as funny, but the concept remains the same:

Whatever it looks like, it is a space in your head, specifically fashioned for storing the most disparate of objects. And yes, there is certainly a cord that you can pull to turn the light on or off at will. As Holmes explains to Watson, “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.” 
The attic can be broken down, roughly speaking, into two components: structure and contents. The attic's structure is how our mind works: how it takes in information. How it processes that information. How it sorts it and stores it for the future. How it may choose to integrate it or not with the contents that are already in the attic space. […] 
The attic's contents, on the other hand, are those things that we've taken in from the world and that we've experienced in our lives. Our memories. Our past. The base of our knowledge, the information we start with every time we face a challenge. And just like a physical attic's contents can change over time, so too does our mind attic continue to take in and discard items until the very end.

Konnikova uses both Sherlock's methods paired with scientific studies to show how our minds work — how they jump to conclusions — and how to parse out what is relevant information, the facts, and what is conjecture. How many times have we been put off a person because they reminded us of someone annoying in our past? How many times have we been more likely to unconsciously indulge a person because we think they are pretty? And if we're the sort to love it when people are very, very good at what they do, do we put up with or completely ignore their frustrating personality quirks?

System Holmes asks that we pause and ask, What's really going on here?

Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson also get their time in Mastermind. Konnikova points out the times when the police see the “facts” as they want to see them, all for the benefit of having a speedy, open-and-shut case. What we want to believe is not necessarily true. And also, “When we try to recall something, we won't be able to do so if there is too much piled up in the way. Instead, competing memories will vie for our attention.” Long hours, similar cases, evidence that fits well enough — all these factors can make Lestrade think he has captured the right man.

We may insist that we are not biased to think one way or another, but upon further examination, that will not be true. A “bias” is merely the direction we have programmed our brains to take, to the point that we have programmed our brains to interpret the word “bias” as a negative, undesired concept.

Rather than be biased towards, for example, a person's appearance, Konnikova references “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” where Watson remarks that, “Surely his appearance would go far with any jury?”

“That is a dangerous argument, my dear Watson. You remember that terrible murderer, Bert Stevens, who wanted us to get him off in '87? Was there ever a more mild-mannered, Sunday school young man?”

What it comes down to is engagement. Why Sherlock Holmes is good at what he does is because he is fully engaged with the observation at hand and nothing else. He is taking in everything presented before he goes on to decide what that means compared to the information he has gathered previously. He is not allowing himself to be distracted in the moment, and he does not let his thoughts wander, and because he has trained himself to be mindful in all that he does, he does not often slip up in his cases. (Mastermind points out where Holmes does slip up as well.)

The takeaway for my own brain after reading this book is twofold: One, I need to reread the book because the trouble with reading a book on mindfulness before bed is that one's mind tends to drift off and lose the thread even more so than usual. Two, I need to quit trying to multitask.

When we multitask, we are not actually being more productive — we're just doing two or more things at the same time, badly. We are not fully engaged and focused, and it is near-impossible to do anything well when we are not concentrating one thing alone. In terms of my illnesses, for example, I've found that if I'm trying to cook something, it can be more difficult to follow a conversation. Measured ingredients are hard to keep track of, and all for, what, getting three-quarters of what is being said to me? No, no, let me get all these things into the pot, and then you can tell me what you need to tell me.

Mastermind references and re-references different case studies, Sherlockian and scientific, and does so in a simple, straightforward way. In order to relearn how to think, we need to have the new ideas presented again and again for them to really sink in. I suspect that anyone who finds the book repetitive might want to check their bias that they are already perfectly smart and know plenty just fine, thanks.

Are you sure?

Well, maybe there are a few real Sherlocks walking among us, but I'm guessing that they might be using lived experience and the specific case studies themselves, and not necessarily Mastermind to know if their powers of observation are up to snuff.

While I'll definitely reread Mastermind at some point, Konnikova's enthusiasm for the original stories (plus wanting to notice more of the details on the show) make me want to delve into that source material. My brain may never get back to what I think it “should” be, but I can certainly try to improve.

Penguin Books provided me with this book for review purposes (and I thank them), and they have also generously provided one more copy to give away to one of you fine readers.

To be entered into the giveaway, leave a comment answering the following:

Have you read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Or are you more of a film/TV-version connoisseur?

Please also provide a way to contact you in the comment. (Email, Twitter handle, etc.)

One winner will be selected via random number generator and will be announced the evening of January 1, 2014.



  1. Also, I haven't read any of the Sherlock books, but I have watched the BBC series, the one on ABC or CBS or whichever network, and the movie with RDJ. You can contact me via Facebook, because you know who I am on there. Right?

  2. I've read all the original stories ... nothing like the real thing!

    Reading your (excellent) review, two thoughts came to mind:

    1. Given the dubious proposition of gleaning psychological insight from a fictional character, does Konnikova make any reference to Joseph Bell -- the real person behind the Holmes character?

    2. What lessons (if any) can be learned from Holmes' cocaine use? Watson disapproves (of course), but Holmes thinks it's crucial to maintaining his mental acuity!

    1. Yes, she does mention the inspiration for the character and goes into Arthur Conan Doyle's history too.

      The cocaine use is not really delved into to any degree in this book. Though the long term effects might not be good, I wonder if cocaine would not affect Holmes in the same way it might affect a "regular" person. I don't know enough to say.

  3. I haven't read any of the books or actually seen any of the shows, YET. But they are on my ever growing list :)

    1. The 3rd series of BBC Sherlock starts today, so lucky you! Once you do catch up, you won't have to wait the TWO YEARS the rest of us did for new content!

  4. I read one Sherlock story when I was younger, but I've only somewhat recently gotten back into his stories.

    Honestly, it was RDJ that did it for me, and from there I watched Sherlock on the BBC...and then it's just been a spiral back into his classic stories.

  5. The random number generator gave me.... 1. So Pinky is our lucky winner.