Konnikova, Maria. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. NY: Viking, 2013

No, sorry, not your kind of mastermind, Moriarty.

No, sorry, not your kind of mastermind, Moriarty.

We’re all aware that we can change our bodies. Most of us have seen enough television shows, read enough articles, and attended enough meetings to know that, with proper, long-term attention to diet and exercise, we can become leaner, healthier, and (hopefully) more attractive.  Chances are, the majority of us are also familiar with the idea that we can change our emotional state. Whether through therapy, meditation, prayer, prescriptions, anger management classes, or copious amounts of carbohydrates,* we can exert some control over our moods. But did you know that you can also improve your brain?** And not in some gimmicky fashion, but in real-life ways that impact your problem-solving skills?

It's like baritsu, but for the mind....

It’s like baritsu for the mind….

Maria Konnikova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at New York’s Columbia University,  first encountered Sherlock Holmes as a child, when her father read Waton’s accounts to her and her siblings at bedtime. As happens for many, the sleuth stuck with her, and in Mastermind she combines current psychological insights with lessons from the Canon, in the touchingly firm belief that, if we just apply ourselves, we can shift our brains from relying on the default “System Watson” to the more effective, albeit demanding, “System Holmes.”

Doubtless there are many exceptions, but it seems to me that most of us spent our  years in school being taught a lot of facts. Occasionally–say, while learning geometry proofs–we might have been taught to reason things out, and perhaps our supports were measured against our thesis statements in those ubiquitous five-part essays, but I don’t remember ever really being taught how to think about problems in a systematic fashion. We were left to our own devices, to rise and fall as our innate abilities led. Like Watson, we’ve ambled along pretty well, assured we’re seeing the world correctly and making proper decisions. Then we run into Sherlock Holmes.***

Holmes’s ability to cut through clutter to find the truth, while possessing no superpowers or special gadgets, have made him intriguing for over a century. He doesn’t have infinite resources and isn’t empowered by our yellow sun, so what he achieves seems just possible, if only we were smart enough. I think we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s read the stories and didn’t try, at least once, to “deduce” something. I know I have–and given up in frustration, because I didn’t even know where to start. Also, the driver behind me was impatient.

We seem to be approaching a steel structure of some sort.  Water may be present....

We seem to be approaching a steel structure of some sort. Water may be present….

So, we try, and fail, to emulate our hero, then tell ourselves that he was just born a genius or (if we’re feeling especially bitter) that the stories were formulated to make him so. Ms. Konnikova argues, however, that by practicing–and  practice is crucial–a different way of managing our “brain attics” and becoming aware of faulty thinking patterns, we can get much closer to our ideal than we might believe.

She begins with the idea that we must pay attention. Really pay attention, in a directed way. We need to define our problem, specifically. Then we need to observe–to gather information, as well as use what we have already stored up in our brain attics–in a systematic, thorough fashion, working to avoid biases, shortcuts, and other pitfalls of lazy thinking. Once we have our (thoroughly vetted) data, it’s time to make bricks, using our imaginations, asking questions, building up scenarios and giving our brains some “play.” At times, we may even need to step back–to go see Mme. Norman Neruda† or something, in order to let the information percolate  in our heads, allowing it to come together in ways we couldn’t see for looking too closely. Finally, we test our ideas against the facts–and only the facts–to see which stand, which fall, and which, however improbable, must be the truth.

It sounds simple enough (and indeed, the above paragraph was a gross simplification of over 200 pages worth of information), but if it were, we’d all be doing it, wouldn’t we? Just as Ms. Konnikova shows us–using the canon–how Holmes reasons and deduces, she also shows us how Dr Watson illustrates, with frightening accuracy, common flaws in the way humans think. Watson is oblivious to factors in his environment or mood that might divert his focus and influence his observations. He doesn’t use all five of his senses. He’s easily distracted, and often judges solely based on appearance–particularly if said appearance is feminine. He makes up “stories” using a few facts, and then tends to see only the evidence which supports them. And once Holmes corrects his deductions, he tends not to learn from his errors–in order to improve–but instead salves his ego with the one or two points he got right.†† I’ll admit to patting myself on the back on the few occasions when I recognized a “System Holmes” component in my brain…but those “System Watson” errors were far, far more frequent.

You’ll find that, too. Generally, this blog reviews books about Sherlock Holmes. Mastermind, however, is about YOU. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I saw aspects of my own life reflected (and even explained) in Konnikova’s chapters. I had, initially, thought about sharing those with you, only to find there were far too many. Perhaps one will suffice.

In discussing ways and reasons why even careful deductions can go wrong (the topic is, actually, Conan Doyle’s investigation of the “Cottingley Fairies”) Konnikova writes that “it’s easy to be fooled by scientific context into thinking something real when it is not.”††† I was immediately reminded of an incident, early in our courtship, when my now-husband casually told me that gallbladders could, on rare occasions, regenerate, and that the phenomenon was called “cholecystic neogenesis.” Now, I studied Greek and Latin derivatives. I knew what that meant, and for the tiniest fraction of a moment, I believed him–until I realized, if that were true, everyone would know it. I prefer to remember my skeptical brilliance, while he…yeah. You’ll experience these same flashes of recognition as you read; Mastermind is eminently relatable.

So, yeah....these don't grow back.

So, yeah….these don’t grow back.

Ms. Konnikova–a frequent science contributor to such well-regarded periodicals as The Atlantic, Scientific American, Scientific American MIND, Slate, and The Paris Review (as well as the science-fiction oriented site, i09)–knows how to present complex ideas in an understandable fashion. Don’t worry if you haven’t cracked the binding of a science text in twenty years. You’ll be able to navigate her descriptions of brain physiology and psychological research–and will find them engaging. I really wanted to know more about several studies; while my old academic self would have preferred a formal bibliography, there is a section dedicated to further reading in the back.

“Well, that’s all very well and good,” you say, “but this is, you know, a Sherlockian review site, and the book says–right there in the title–Sherlock Holmes. How does the canon fare?”

The answer is: very well, actually.  The subtitle, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, is not a gimmick roused up to take advantage of Holmes’s resurgence in popularity. Ms. Konnikova is a genuine fan. She chooses her stories well, and takes care to explain them–accurately– for readers who may not be familiar with Conan Doyle, helpfully providing canonical references at the end of each chapter. It is fascinating to see how she is able to use Holmes and Watson to illustrate her concepts. There is nothing forced or artificial about it; the information she presents is really there. One is left with a greater appreciation both of Conan Doyle’s intelligence, and of his ability to weave his era’s fascination with science and scientific reasoning into popular tales. And while we may look at his involvement with spiritualism and…fairies…with a little embarrassment, Konnikova uses those aspects of his life to gently illustrate how we are all products of, yes, our desires–but also of our times. Are there canonical glitches? A few. For example, when discussing Holmes’s practice of distracting himself when he hits a mental block while working on a problem, Konnikova seems to think he’s reading, rather than writing, the monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus. But these instances are few, and do not distract from the book’s mission.

Because Maria Konnikova is, in fact, on a mission. She truly believes that you can learn to think like Sherlock Holmes; that, with enough Motivation, you can train yourself to pay attention–to be truly present in any situation–using this Mindfulness to handle information skillfully while avoiding the errors replete in lazy thinking. It takes a good deal of effort and practice, she acknowledges, but our own biology is on our side. Recent studies have shown that the human brain is much more “plastic” than we’ve always thought, and we can build and develop it as we can our muscles–faster, even–regardless of our age, or (even better) prior mental fitness level. Yes, you can turn off the television and, by beginning to educate yourself–by refusing to stop learning, by practicing critical thinking methods, and by holding yourself to more rigorous mental standards–you can rebuild and develop your brain. I was about to say, “You probably won’t solve crimes with it,”–but hey, what do I know?

Just please don't, you know, commit them.

Just please don’t, you know, commit them.

It’s a common characteristic of adulthood to begin to limit oneself (and others); to cling to the familiar, to embrace comfortable habits of living and thinking, to retreat into a more narrow, egocentric existence. Mastermind not only tells us this isn’t necessary (or advisable), it suggests that we have another option, that  all of us have untapped mental capabilities. Holmes is quite serious when he tells Watson that “Education never ends…. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.”‡ We have options and adventures waiting for us–if only we are motivated and mindful enough to explore them.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is available in hardback and ebook format, from your favorite bookseller. You can learn more about Maria Konnikova at her website, http://www.mariakonnikova.com/. She is on Twitter, and has an Author Page on Facebook.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5. “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”


*Note: This last method does not necessarily fit in well with the body management method mentioned previously.

**You don’t need a gaming program to do so, either.

***Or someone like him. I have met many very intelligent people in my life, however, and I’ve not met anyone with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes. (Sorry, dear.)

†Her attack and her bowing are splendid.

††We’re used to seeing Holmes accused of having an out-sized ego, and he can be quite, er, confident. However, this point made me realize that Watson is not as humble, perhaps, as we’ve been accustomed to think.

††† Mastermind,  p. 234

‡ “The Adventure of the Red Circle”


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3 responses to “Konnikova, Maria. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. NY: Viking, 2013

  1. shiela elder

    Very apropos for me at the moment. I have been really trying and failing to “deduce” recently and just gave up, figuring Holmes was simply just too brilliant to emulate. something to think about.

  2. Delightful review! I like the psychology aspect, being a psychologist myself. 🙂 But I do feel bad that Watson takes the fall as the example of poor thinking skills. Studies (psychology studies!) show that people often gravitate to friends (and spouses/partners) at a fairly similar intellectual level. Watson’s intellectual gifts are abundant, not least of which are his storytelling gifts and his ability to appreciate, present to the public, and champion his friend Holmes. 🙂
    Thanks for a great review!

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