Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

by Maria Konnikova


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The New York Times bestselling guide to thinking like literature's greatest detective. "Steven Pinker meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" (Boston Globe), by the author of The Confidence Game

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143124344
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/31/2013
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 89,773
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind and The Confidence Game. She is a regular contributing writer for The New Yorker, and has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times, Slate, the New Republic, the Paris Review, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, the Boston Globe,  the Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and Smithsonian. Maria graduated  from Harvard University and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.

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

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“An entertaining blend of Holmesiana and modern-day neuroscience.”
New York Times
“Maria Konnikova, a science writer and graduate student in psychology, has crafted a clearly written guide to the mysteries of logical deduction.”
Dallas Morning News
“Steven Pinker meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this entertaining, insightful look at how the fictional London crime-solver used sophisticated mental strategies to solve complex problems of logic and deduction… This practical, enjoyable book, packed with modern science and real-life examples, shows you how to get your inner Holmes on and is worth at least a few hours of pipe-smoking reflection in a comfortable leather chair.”
Boston Globe
“The book is part literary analysis and part self-help guide, teaching readers how to sharpen the ways they observe the world, store and retrieve memories, and make decisions.”
Scientific American
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is fascinating from cover to cover — highly recommended.”
—Brain Pickings
“Your favorite mental short-cuts and slip-ups are all here. But Ms. Konnikova finds an ingenious delivery system. Holmes and Watson, she shows, respectively personify our rational and intuitive modes of thought. In story after story, taking the time to think carefully allows Holmes to school his slack-jawed sidekick.”
The Wall Street Journal
“The book is part literary analysis and part self-help guide, teaching readers how to sharpen the ways they observe the world, store and retrieve memories, and make decisions.”
Scientific American
“The fast-paced, high-tech world we inhabit may be more complex than Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street, but we can still leverage the mental strategies of the renowned reasoner…Forcing the mind to observe, imagine and deduce can make the brain more precise—important for solving cases or simply staying sharp as we age.”
Psychology Today
“Devotees of Arthur Conan Doyle’s conundrum-cracker will be thrilled by this portmanteau of strategies for sharpening cognitive ability... A few hours in Konnikova’s company and, along with Holmes, you might intone, ‘give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere’ (The Sign of Four, 1890).”
“Have you ever thought about how your mind organizes information? Have you ever wished you could access that data more quickly? Could recollect it easier? Or have you simply wanted to think more clearly at key moments?... This book is an absolute must if you're in the market for training yourself to think more like Sherlock Holmes.”
“A bright and entertaining how-to aimed at helping readers engage in the awareness described by psychologists from William James to Ellen Langer.”
Kirkus Reviews
“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.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“A delightful tour of the science of memory, creativity, and reasoning, illustrated with the help of history’s most famous reasoner, Sherlock Holmes himself. Maria Konnikova is an engaging and insightful guide to this fascinating material, which will help you master your own mind.”
—Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
“Far from elementary, Maria Konnikova’s new book is a challenging and insightful study of the human mind, illustrated with cases from the career of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes himself would have been proud to author this fine work!”
—Leslie S. Klinger, New York Times-best-selling author/editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
“Maria Konnikova’s bright and brilliant new book is nothing less than a primer on how be awake, a manual on how to work ourselves free of our unconscious biases, our habitual distractions, and the muddle of our everyday minds. Holmes fan or not, the reader will find Mastermind to be bracing, fascinating, and above all — and most important — hopeful.”
—Daniel Smith, author of Monkey Mind
“Since my earliest days as a reader I dreamt of being more like Sherlock Holmes and failed miserably whenever I tried. Needless to say, MASTERMIND is the book I didn't realize I was waiting for. Maria Konnikova has crafted a surprising and ingenious book that lets us all come closer to Holmes's genius, giving a gift to all readers interested in Conan Doyle, mysteries and scientific thinking as well as those who simply want to be more self-aware about the inner workings of our minds.”
—Matthew Pearl, New York Times-bestselling author of The Dante Club
“‘You know my methods,’ Sherlock Holmes once said to Dr. Watson. ‘Apply them!’ Science writer Maria Konnikova has made those instructions the inspiration for what turns out to be a delightfully intelligent book. Using Holmes and Watson as both muse and metaphor, she shows us some of modern psychology’s most important lessons for using our minds well. I probably won’t be able to solve murders after having read Mastermind, but I will have much to reflect on.”
—Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh and Parasite Rex

Reading Group Guide

"To observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you’re seeing" (p. 87).

Sherlock Holmes captivated readers’ imaginations from the moment A Study in Scarlet was first published in 1887. Like millions of other fans, Maria Konnikova grew up in awe of the iconic detective’s astute powers of observation and extraordinary deductive abilities. Now, Konnikova, a psychologist and writer, unpacks the secrets behind Holmes’s seemingly inimitable methods to show how even the dullest Watson can elevate his thinking to the highest levels.

As super-human as Holmes’s abilities may seem on the page, Konnikova explains that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his iconic creation upon a real-life surgeon of his acquaintance, Dr. Joseph Bell. “It was said that Dr. Bell could tell from a single glance that a patient was a recently discharged noncommissioned officer in a Highland regiment, who had just returned from service in Barbados” (p. 12).

Decades before psychology became an established science, Holmes—like Dr. Bell and Conan Doyle himself—sought to apply the rigors of the scientific method to human behavior. Where the genial Dr. John Watson embodies our innate credulity, Holmes is the skeptical observer who dispassionately considers all of the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

Konnikova writes that each of us is capable of espousing Holmes’s practice and thereby develop the “muscle that you never knew you had—one that suddenly begins to ache, then develop and bulk up as you begin to use it . . . with practice your mind will see that the constant observation and never-ending scrutiny will become easier” (p. 21).

There is more to Holmes’ success than mere skepticism and scrutiny, however. Adopting the detective’s own analogy from A Study in Scarlet, Konnikova introduces the idea of the Brain Attic, the place where we both store and process information. Since space is limited, Holmes disposes of anything he believes to be irrelevant to solving crimes. Famously, Holmes claims to be ignorant of the fact that the Sun is the center of our solar system. Yet, he “makes a conscious, motivated choice to remember cases past; one never knows when they might come in handy” (p. 29).

Recent studies have shown that our own opinions and performance can be shockingly susceptible to outside influences. “The white coat effect” (p. 84), for example, induces erratic vital signs in perfectly healthy individuals who visit a doctor’s office for a physical. While “the stereotype threat” (p. 255) causes test takers who must note their gender or ethnicity before the test to perform either better or worse depending on his or her respective cultural stereotype. Holmes, however, guards against all outside factors by knowing “the biases of his attic like the back of his hand” (p. 47).

A columnist for Scientific American, Maria Konnikova applies her knowledge of twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology to reveal the strategies behind Holmes’s legendary deductive powers. Filled with entertaining references to his adventures on both the page and the screen, Mastermind will captivate and inspire readers who yearn to think clearer, achieve more, and unleash their inner Holmes

Maria Konnikova blogs frequently for the New Yorker. She formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American. Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, The Paris Review, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Observer, Salon, WIRED, and Scientific American MIND, among other print and online publications. A graduate of Harvard University, Konnikova received her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. She lives in New York City.

Q. There are countless other detectives who were popular in their time but have since become historical footnotes. Yet, Sherlock Holmes has joined the pantheon of literary immortals. To what do you attribute his enduring appeal?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Holmes was based on a real person, Dr. Joseph Bell. Readers may not know the background—and, indeed, may think that Holmes is entirely a product of Conan Doyle’s imagination—but that genesis goes a long way toward explaining the character’s realism and his enduring appeal. We don’t just see Holmes in action and marvel at his super-human feats; we look at him and think, “Hey, I could do this, too.” It all makes sense.
Holmes takes care to explain his reasoning, and we can relate to it because the steps are taken straight from life: Conan Doyle used the real reasoning of a real person, and placed it in a fictional character. This makes Holmes more believable and more empathetic than many of his rival detectives.
Q. Did Holmes have any part in your decision to study psychology?
Yes and no. Yes, in that my love of fiction and of seeing the intricacies of the human mind and human interactions play out on the page were a definite inspiration in my desire to study psychology in greater depth. No, in that it wasn’t a conscious link, from point A to point B. Holmes was but one of many fictional heroes who pushed me in the same psychological direction.
Q. Partway through your book, you reveal that your first encounter with Sherlock Holmes was listening to your father read Russian translations of the stories. Did your appreciation of them change when you read them in English? Which do you prefer now?
My appreciation did indeed change, but I think that has more to do with growing maturity than with the language per se. I was able to see things as an adult that I had missed as a child; in the years between my Russian and English experiences of Sherlock Holmes, I had learned to be a much deeper reader. It’s hard to separate that change from the change in language. I still love both versions—the Russian translation is wonderful—but read the English far more frequently.
Q. Of the many actors to play the great detective, who best captures the qualities of astute thinking and ever-present mindfulness that you write about in Mastermind?
That’s an impossible question. The way I see it, each actor captures some element of Holmes—and each approximation ensures that Sherlock Holmes will continue to live on in the popular mind. If any given version gets one more person to pick up the books and embark upon a relationship with reading and stories, that version becomes inherently  worthwhile. And all three modern leading men—Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jonny Lee Miller (in alphabetical order, lest anyone think I’m playing favorites)—certainly go a long way to prolonging Holmes’s wide appeal. I love them all for it.
Q. You write, “In general, I think it’s safe to suppose that Watson sees the world as a friendlier place than does Holmes” (p. 53). Does a Holmesian outlook necessarily make one more cynical towards humanity? Would it be fair to say that Watson is, in general, a happier person than his friend?
Not necessarily. It’s not the Holmesian outlook as such that is the cause of cynicism; it is the specific experience of Sherlock Holmes, who is a criminal detective and deals with the underside of humanity on a regular basis. A Buddhism monk can be Holmesian and happy at the same time. It’s not about the outlook; it’s about the background.
Q. Does the Internet make it easier or more difficult to maintain a well-organized Brain Attic?
Both. Easier, in that we don’t have to remember as much information as before—we can easily access it so can save our brain attics for more important things. More difficult, in that it’s also more likely that random junk will make it’s way into our precious mental space without us realizing what’s happening. But as long as we remain aware and mindful, we can minimize that negative element and maximize the greater freedom—and nearly endless storage space—that the Internet provides.
Q. Towards the end of the book, you explain that Holmes often “needs Watson’s presence” (p. 195). Do you think that Holmes became a better detective after he met Watson?
Yes, without a doubt. You can see Holmes growing from story to story, honing his craft and his thinking, both. With Watson at his side, he must constantly polish his logic and make sure that everything is properly worked out; it needs to be clear enough in his mind that he can easily explain it to his friend. That sort of constant feedback enables growth and ever-increasing maturity in his thinking. Watson’s other—no less essential—role is to keep Holmes grounded and humble. Watson makes sure that that the detective doesn’t grow overly complacent or too self-satisfied. It’s important to have that sort of external check, especially if you’re someone with an ego as large as Holmes’s.
Q. How has your own critical thinking improved after researching and writing Mastermind?
I’m much more aware of my mind-wandering, multitasking tendencies and have become better at focusing on one thing at a time and on managing my distractions. I couldn’t begin to imagine, before researching and writing Mastermind, just how prone I was to task-switching—and to trying to do two things at once. I never thought it was a problem, but when I actually adopted the techniques I describe in the book I became far more productive and much clearer in my thinking.
Q. In your opinion, what is the one thing that most holds us back in our pursuit for greater mindfulness?
While it’s hard to single out just one thing, if I had to pick, I think our desire for speed is the greatest impediment to mindfulness in the modern world. We want to get things done faster, be everywhere faster, cram more in—faster. We forget to take a breath, whether it’s by eating lunch at our desks or toggling vigorously between some crazy amount of Internet tabs that are open at the same time or by scheduling that phone call for our morning commute just so there’s no down time at all. What we don’t realize is that this quest for speed actually slows us down. We exhaust ourselves and don’t give our minds a chance to refresh, to reflect, to think. It’s amazing what can happen if you take a moment to just do . . . nothing at all.
Q. A recent study showed that reading literary fiction increases empathy and social perception. Do you think that mysteries can increase a reader’s powers of observation and problem-solving skills?
Honestly, I don’t think the link is that direct. I think it may have more to do with the fact that the types of people who like mysteries probably also like puzzles and problems. So, the two may go hand in hand more than the one improving the other.
Q. You are still in the process of earning your Ph.D. at Columbia, but you have already made quite a name for yourself as a writer and columnist. Do you have plans for another book?
I actually completed my Ph.D. last spring and am now writing full-time. So, yes, I so indeed have plans for another book—multiple other books, in fact. I’m currently working on a non-fiction book and a novel. But I can’t say more about the content at this point!

  1. Since it would be a Watsonian misstep to assume that all readers of Mastermind are fans of Sherlock Holmes, what was it that drew you to read Konnikova’s book?
  2. Part one of Mastermind is titled “Understand Yourself.” How well do you know what’s stored in your Brain Attic? Is there something you wish that you could add—or remove?
  3.  When you looked at the photographs of the two men on page 43, did you “vote” for the candidate on the left? Why or why not?
  4. Holmes sometimes smoked a pipe—or three—to create “psychological distance between himself and the problem at hand” (p. 132). What do you usually do when you need to switch gears and address a problem from a fresh angle?
  5. If you are old enough to remember a time before the Internet, do you feel that greater connectivity has enhanced or diminished your productivity and clarity of thought?
  6. Do you find that you are more likely to make a mistake when you are feeling insecure or when you are feeling overconfident?
  7. Konnikova examines a number of ways in which our minds subconsciously lead us astray, including omission neglect, the availability heuristic, and the misinformation effect. How has reading Mastermind given you greater insights into your own and others’ behavior?
  8.  Has Mastermind inspired you to try and become a better thinker? Will you begin to keep a “decision diary” (p. 224) or take any other active steps to become more mindful?
  9.  After everything that Konnikova writes about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s considerable powers of observation and deduction, it’s surprising to learn that two young girls managed to hoodwink him. What is your biggest blind spot?
  10. Discuss two instances of personal failure, one of which you viewed “as a learning opportunity” and one which you considered “a frustrating personal shortcoming that cannot be remedied” (p. 253). Do you agree with Carol Dweck’s theories about the fluidity of intelligence and the importance of mindset? Are you more of an incremental theorist or an entity theorist?
  11. What are some of your favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, and why? Discuss some of the adventures that Konnikova does not mention and how they either bear out or refute her analysis of the detective’s techniques.
  12. What was the most surprising thing you learned from Mastermind? Would you recommend the book to others?

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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
popscipopulizer More than 1 year ago
*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.
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