With all the attention that has surrounded Sherlock Holmes because of film and TV adaptations in the past few years, it would be understandable if you assumed that Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes was a quickie book designed to exploit a fad.
But you would be wrong. Author Maria Konnikova, a doctoral student in psychology at Columbia University, grew up hearing the Conan read to her by her father. She is thoroughly familiar with the Canon, and quotes with equal ease from Arthur Conan Doyle and dozens of psychologists and researchers.
The result is an amazing book: insightful, entertaining, practical, solidly grounded in research, and well-written.Ms. Konnikova teaches us teaches us how to switch from what she calls System Watson to System Holmes by employing:
- continuous education
This book is solidly grounded both in quotes from the Canon and from the writings of psychology. Which came first? That is, did you look for scientific confirmation of Holmes’s techniques or did you look to Holmes for application of the research?
I was writing an unrelated piece about mindfulness and needed to find an example that would illustrate what I meant in the most accessible way. My mind happened to seize on a childhood memory: my father reading Holmes to us in the evenings. Specifically, I remembered the exchange from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” where Watson doesn’t know how many steps lead up to 221B Baker Street—and Holmes chastises him for merely seeing and not observing. When I reread the conversation, it matched my message far better than I could have imagined. I started rereading all of the stories and realized just how psychologically perceptive Arthur Conan Doyle’s observations were. And that’s how the idea for the book came about.
You note (p. 3) that humans are not made for multi-tasking, thus the need for mindfulness. I’ve seen it alleged that the brains of the younger generations have been rewired by electronics for multi-tasking. Is there any scientific evidence of this claim?
Not that I know of. Our brains can be more or less effective at task-switching, but they cannot multitask, in the literal sense of doing multiple things at once. We can also become more adept at noting extraneous information instead of suppressing it, and that can help maintain the multitasking illusion as well. (Though it does make us worse at other sorts of attentional tasks.)
You’ve been acquainted with Sherlock Holmes since you were a child. When did you realize that his methods could have real-world applications?
When I decided to write the book! To be quite honest, I am not a life-long Holmesian. I loved the stories as a child, but that was that. I hadn’t revisited them for something like 15 years before that “Scandal in Bohemia” breakthrough moment. Now, of course, is a different story.
How do you yourself think like Sherlock Holmes? In other words, how do you apply the techniques in your book?
I’ve tried to embrace the ability to appreciate the present moment more than I’ve been in the habit of doing. I am far more aware of my distractibility and daily battle against multitasking and I try to consciously counteract those tendencies. I use Internet-blocking software when I write. I try to really observe my surroundings. I also try to be more aware—and wary—of first impressions. It’s tough going, though.
What can a reader expect to be able to do after finishing the book?
Be more aware of our cognitive limitations—and how hard it is to keep our biases in check. Be more conscious of the need for mindfulness, and have some tools at our disposal for being able to cultivate mindful habits of thought.
According to the biography on the book, you are a doctoral candidate in psychology. What’s the topic of your dissertation?
I work on self-control and risky financial decision making. Not anything that is related to the book, I’m afraid! Although, I do look at overconfidence. Are people who are high in self-control also more likely to be overconfident under certain circumstances?