Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

11 Jan
I think it’s safe to say we all admire Sherlock Holmes’s brain, reasoning ability, and sheet intellect yet shy away from his more esoteric qualities like tobacco and drug use. When we read Holmes’s adventures, we see ourselves as Dr. Watson, the common man so to speak, who can’t fathom Holmes’s techniques ahead of time but the truth becomes crystal clear after the great detective reveals his methods.

Well, Maria Konnikova, PhD in psychology, is here to say that you and me, indeed each of us has, within ourselves the capability to train our minds to think like Holmes. For even Sherlock wasn’t born Sherlock Holmes.

The key quality in all of her remarkable book is that Holmes has “a method of mindful interaction with the world.” To make Konnikova’s point more succinct, Holmes was always in the moment. He didn’t multitask, but devoted his entire brain to the problem at hand. True, he lived in an era without smartphones, the internet, television, and all the other media glaring at our minds and eyes for attention, but he lived in arguably the most advanced town of his time. As did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Holmes. We, too, can train our minds and our attention to interact with our modern world in a manner such as Holmes.

Like the modern version of Holmes in the BBC show “Sherlock,” Konnikova uses Holmes’s own comment about a mind attic as the basis for how we can train our brains. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock calls it his mind palace, the place where he stores all the information in its own specific place. It’s an ancient technique developed by the Greeks, but in the age of Google, perhaps the need for our own mind attics has lessened. Not so, says Konnikova, but with a caveat. You see, our mind attics are only good if we know where to find a piece of information and can retrieve it. But, as a point she makes late in the book, as long as we remember where and how to retrieve a piece of information—even if it’s on Wikipedia—we can retain the knowledge. So, is Google our collective mind attic? Maybe.

In recent months, however, I’ve begun not to reach reflexively for my phone if I can’t remember a fact I know I have learned. I give it five minutes or so, often spending a good minute trying to pull the data point out of my brain before I move on to a different task. Little did I know that technique—Konnikova calls it mindful distraction—is exactly what Holmes often did. She uses various scenes and quotes from the canon to illustrate a point, like this one from “The Red-Headed League.” Mindful distraction—where you take your mind off the immediate problem and focus your conscious mind on a different task—relegates the problematic thought to the subconscious. More often than not, the solution will manifest itself. It’s a rush when I actually remember the data point without resorting to the “source of all truth.”

Konnikova’s book is chuck full of examples of how to think differently, coupled with research and examples you can do yourself. Some are a bit more difficult when you listen to the audio, like I did, but nonetheless worthwhile. What’s especially good is when she lays out a regimen of how to retrain the brain. As 2018 is only eleven days old and I’ve already begun mindfully reading the books on my bookshelf, I think, too, I’ll work on my brain. It is, after all, the main reason I bought this book on New Year’s Day…2014.

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