Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

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Overview

The New York Times bestselling guide to thinking like literature's greatest detective

No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?

We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. ...

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Overview

The New York Times bestselling guide to thinking like literature's greatest detective

No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?

We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. Beginning with the “brain attic”—Holmes’s metaphor for how we store information and organize knowledge—Konnikova unpacks the mental strategies that lead to clearer thinking and deeper insights. Drawing on twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology, Mastermind explores Holmes’s unique methods of ever-present mindfulness, astute observation, and logical deduction. In doing so, it shows how each of us, with some self-awareness and a little practice, can employ these same methods to sharpen our perceptions, solve difficult problems, and enhance our creative powers. For Holmes aficionados and casual readers alike, Konnikova reveals how the world’s most keen-eyed detective can serve as an unparalleled guide to upgrading the mind.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Readers who esteem Sherlock Holmes as superhuman will be pleasantly surprised by Konnikova’s first book, wherein the Scientific American columnist makes good on her premise that the average person can indeed train his or her mind to emulate the thinking style of the iconic fictional sleuth. Partial proof comes, in fact, from his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who in a number of cases used Holmesian deduction to rectify real miscarriages of justice. Starting with Holmes’s concept of the “brain attic,” where care is taken to maximize the use of limited space, Konnikova uses illustrative examples from the original stories to make her points, along the way correcting several misconceptions, pointing out where Holmes went astray, and highlighting his reliance on curiosity and the imagination. She stresses that training one’s brain requires “mindfulness and motivation,” and elucidates the negative effects of continuous partial attention, a hallmark of today’s wired world. (But Konnikova is no Luddite; she observes that while relying on Google can affect one’s ability to remember specific facts, it enhances the ability to know where to find them.) Not for Baker Street Irregulars alone, this fascinating look at how the mind works—replete with real-life case studies and engaging thought experiments—will be an eye-opening education for many. B&w photos. Agent: Seth Fishman, the Gernert Agency. (Jan. 7)
Library Journal
If we are to think like Sherlock Holmes, Konnikova (Scientific American "Literally Psyched" blogger) tells us, we must begin by avoiding snap judgments. Potential readers would do well to heed her advice, as this is not just another "improve your memory" self-help manual. Like her blog posts, this book examines the workings of the human psyche using literary characters as examples. Konnikova focuses on Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes, to explore the scientific reasons behind his extraordinary powers of observation, recall, and deduction. How do we convert our intuitive, reactionary "Watson" system into a more deliberative, thorough, and logical "Holmes" one? Taking numerous detailed examples from the Holmes stories, Konnikova explains how we can influence what we store in our "brain attic," how to nimbly navigate our brain's storage, and creatively fit together the particular pieces of the puzzle. VERDICT Intriguing material and useful advice delivered in an entertaining and original context. Will appeal to Holmes fans and anyone looking to give up distracted multitasking and embrace mindfulness.—Sara Holder, McGill Univ. Libs., Montreal
Kirkus Reviews
A psychologist's guide to mindful thinking in the vein of Sherlock Holmes. "You see, but you do not observe," says Holmes to Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle's story "A Scandal in Bohemia." Once again, the ever-sharp fictional detective explains his habits of thought--constant mindfulness, close observation and logical deduction--to his friend and assistant. Drawing on a lifetime immersion in the Holmes tales and the latest findings of neuroscience and psychology, Konnikova, the "Literally Psyched" columnist for Scientific American, debuts with a bright and entertaining how-to aimed at helping readers engage in the awareness described by psychologists from William James to Ellen Langer. Holmes offers "an entire way of thinking," and not just for solving crimes. With practice, writes Konnikova, Holmes' methodology can be learned and cultivated. Describing the workings of the "brain attic," where the thought process occurs, the author explains: "As our thought process begins, the furniture of memory combines with the structure of internal habits and external circumstances to determine which item will be retrieved from storage at any given point." With clear delight, Konnikova offers examples of Holmes' problem-solving, from how he deduces that Watson has been in Afghanistan (A Study in Scarlet) to his use of pipe-smoking ("a three-pipe problem") as a way to create psychological distance from the conundrum in "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League." She notes that walking and meditation can also be useful exercises for clearing the mind. "The most powerful mind is the quiet mind," she writes. Will enthrall Baker Street aficionados while introducing many readers to the mindful way of life.
The Barnes & Noble Review
He has inspired countless iterations in print and film at the hands of interpreters as diverse as Nicholas Meyer, Michael Chabon, Billy Wilder, Jeremy Brett, and Nicol Williamson. Most recently, we've seen Guy Ritchie's lumbering, noisy feature films go head-to-head with the BBC's superb modern-day Sherlock. Add to the mix Elementary, NBC's wan Sherlock clone, and it's clear that more than a century after he tumbled into the Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes's grip on our imagination remains unshakable.

But why? It can't be entirely on literary merit; the Holmes canon of fifty-six short stories and four novels by Arthur Conan Doyle can be wildly uneven. (Try reading The Valley of Fear, or most of the stories from His Last Bow, for that matter. Holmes was never quite the same after he emerged from the falls.) Many of the stories lack suspense, at least by twenty-first-century standards. So why do we keep returning to 221B Baker Street?

"You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive" is the observation that launched a thousand films, sequels, and imitators. The first words (after "How are you?") that Holmes says upon meeting Watson in A Study in Scarlet have become the template for all that follows: A display of extraordinary, apparently superhuman deduction, seemingly arbitrary but, upon closer inspection, the result of the methodical assemblage of a handful of details. Other men see; Holmes observes. And who among his fans has not, even briefly, imagined that we, too, might observe as Holmes does?

Maria Konnikova takes this impulse and gives us hope in her first book, Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes, although the book might be more accurately titled How Sherlock Holmes Thinks like Sherlock Holmes. Readers looking for a prescriptive program to turn them into Holmesian cogitation machines may come away disappointed. But those seeking to understand the neurological and psychological underpinnings of the great detective's mind will find a knowledgeable guide in Konnikova.

She deploys two useful metaphors as the scaffolding upon which she builds her examination. First there's the Holmes system and the Watson system of thinking. System Watson is characterized by "lazy thought habits — the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance." System Holmes, on the other hand, is "a world where every single input is examined with care and healthy skepticism." Throughout the book, several well-known scenes from the stories are effectively parsed through the lenses of System Holmes and System Watson.

Konnikova also devotes considerable time to the notion of a "brain attic," a term used by Holmes himself in A Study in Scarlet. She examines both the attic's structure and contents through a series of chapters — Stocking the Brain Attic; Exploring the Brain Attic; Navigating the Brain Attic; Maintaining the Brain Attic — that look in detail at aspects of memory formation, retention, and retrieval. She is particularly astute in her examination of the role of imagination and creativity, traits that seem, on the surface, to be superfluous to Holmes's strictly logical approach but turn out to be crucial.

Konnikova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University, knows her Holmes well and deploys the stories effectively to illustrate her more technical points. She also includes numerous recent psychological case studies, most of which reiterate the importance (and difficulty) of being mindful, being aware of bias, and holding back instinctive responses. System Holmes, in a nutshell.

Although English is not her native language, she writes it fluently. She is not, however, a memorable stylist, and Mastermind has its longueurs, especially in the Brain Attic chapters; long passages of dry, technical language, perhaps inevitable given the subject matter but not easy to wade through:
In other words, the neural loci for evaluating logical implications and those for looking at their empirical plausibility may be in opposite hemispheres — a cognitive architecture that isn't conducive to coordinating statement logic with the assessment of chance and probability.
Konnikova has, however, saved her best for last. The book comes together beautifully in the penultimate chapter, in which we get to the main event — the deductions themselves — as she unpacks the memorable opening of The Hound of the Baskervilles through the prism of all the science she has previously examined. Examining a walking stick left behind by a missed caller, Watson develops an entirely erroneous picture of the man, fueled by his own biases and associations, whereas Holmes, sticking to Konnikova's system and utilizing his formidable brain attic, captures Dr. James Mortimer down to the size of his dog. It's a bravura turn.

Konnikova reserves the last chapter for the cautionary tale of Doyle and the Cottingley fairies, in which the creator of fiction's greatest exemplar of rational thought failed to follow his own precepts and was taken in by a photographic hoax dreamed up by two young girls. System Watson is, in the end, the one likely to master us all.

Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, is at work on his second novel.

Reviewer: Mark Sarvas

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143124344
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 12/31/2013
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 98,124
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Maria Konnikova’s articles have appeared online and in print in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Slate, the New Republic, the Paris Review, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, the Boston Globe, the Observer, the Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and the Scientific American, among numerous other publications. Maria blogs regularly for the New Yorker and formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched” column for the Scientific American and the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.

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Table of Contents

Prelude 1

Part 1 Understanding (Yourself) 7

Chapter 1 The Scientific Method of the Mind 9

Chapter 2 The Brain Attic: What Is It and What's in There? 25

Part 2 From Observation to Imagination 61

Chapter 3 Stocking the Brain Attic: The Power of Observation 63

Chapter 4 Exploring the Brain Attic: The Value of Creativity and Imagination 110

Part 3 The Art of Deduction 155

Chapter 5 Navigating the Brain Attic: Deduction from the Facts 157

Chapter 6 Maintaining the Brain Attic: Education Never Stops 186

Part 4 The Science and Art of Self-Knowledge 209

Chapter 7 The Dynamic Attic: Putting It All Together 211

Chapter 8 We're Only Human 227

Postlude 250

Acknowledgments 261

Further Reading 263

Index 267

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted January 21, 2013

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newb

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 28, 2013.

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes is as popular today as when he was created back in the late 19th century. This comes as no surprise, of course, since there is just something about Holmes' peculiar qualities--his keen observation, clever imagination, and incisive reasoning capabilities--that is both awe-inspiring and inspirational. We admire Holmes for cutting through the errors of thought that are so common to us in our daily lives. And yet we recognize that there is nothing in Holmes' thought that is entirely out of reach for us. Indeed, his qualities are not so much superhuman as human plus: human qualities taken to their extreme. Still, human qualities taken to their extreme are intimidating enough, and we may find ourselves doubting whether we could ever really think like Sherlock--even if we put our minds to it. But for cognitive psychologist Anna Konnikova, we should think again.

    Holmes' prowess, Konnikova argues, rests no so much in his mental powers as in his mental approach. Specifically, Holmes has succeeded in making his thought methodical and systematic--essentially bringing the scientific method and scientific thinking to his detective work. This is an approach to thinking which, Konnikova argues, we can all practice. More importantly, it is an approach to thinking that can extend well beyond sleuthing. Indeed, it is a general approach that can help us get at the truth in virtually any arena, as well as help us solve virtually any problem. It is simply a matter of bringing a little science to the art of thought--and it is this very thing that Konnikova aims to help us achieve in her new book 'Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes'.

    Holmes' approach seems straightforward enough; however, it is easier said than done. Indeed, our minds can and often do go wrong at any one of the steps. Konnikova construes it like this: our minds have two distinct modes of thought. The first of these modes operates quickly and automatically. It is our default mode, in that it is the one that we rely on as a matter of course. While it may be quick and effortless, it is also very error-prone. Our second mode of thought is slower and more deliberate. It has the potential to be far more accurate than our default mode, but it takes effort, and this is effort that we often aren’t willing to expend. Still, Konnikova contends that activating the second mode is worth the effort. What’s more, the more we employ this mode, the more habitual and the less effortful it becomes (Konnikova refers to the 2 modes as our Watsonian and Holmesian systems).

    Readers of Kahneman's 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' will no doubt recognize many of the phenomenon and psychological experiments talked about here. However, unlike in Kahneman's book, Konnikova makes much more of an effort to explain how we can overcome the errors of our Watsonian system. I found these efforts to be worthwhile for the most part. Also, I found Konnikova's style easy enough to follow; however, I would not say that I was a huge fan of it: it comes across as patronizing at times, and she does engage in a fair bit of repetition. Still a good and worthwhile read. A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 28; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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