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Review: ‘Mastermind’ by Maria Konnikova

Review: ‘Mastermind’ by Maria Konnikova post image

Title: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Author: Maria Konnikova
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Viking
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Review: Sherlock Holmes is a detective so observant and attuned to his surroundings that his conclusions while solving perplexing crimes seem almost robotic. Yet Holmes’s thinking is far more organic than that, a result of active mindfulness and observation at the service of both imaginative and deductive thinking. And although Holmes is the fictional creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his methods have a strong basis in scientific fact.

In Mastermind, journalist and psychologist Maria Konnikova explores the genius of Sherlock Holmes, relying on the detective’s own metaphor of the “brain attic,” an organized, systematic process for organizing and recollecting the information and observations that made Holmes the brilliant detective of legend. To fully understand Holmes, Konnikova also brings in the latest research in neuroscience and psychology to explore the character’s practices and offer suggestions how us mere mortals can improve our own perceptions to solve problems and enhance creativity.

The most enjoyable part of the book, for me, was the way Konnikova treated Sherlock Holmes as a real person and extensively turned to his behavior and lessons to Dr. John Watson as jumping off points for broader discussions about how our minds work and how we can help them work better. I’m a casual Holmes fan, at best, but he’s certainly an engaging character (as evidenced by the ongoing interest in reinventing him in popular culture) and the book brings out some of his best moments.

I also really enjoyed learning about all of the ways our brains set out to fool us, lulling us into a false sense of security or confidence in our observations that makes us prone to choosing the easy and lazy way out of situations rather than sitting back to adapt a more Holmes-like mindfulness. For example, our eyes take in more than 11 million pieces of data from our surroundings at any given moment, yet we can only process about 40 of them; we are consistently, at best, seeing only a tiny fraction of what is around us… that is astounding, and just one of many “fun facts” I jotted down while reading Mastermind.

Despite those positives, I thought the book felt a bit slight, as if Konnikova was relying too heavily on the metaphor of the brain attic at the expense of more fully explaining the science behind the studies she mentioned. I don’t doubt that Konnikova knows what she’s talking about; I just didn’t feel like I got the depth I was hoping for in the biology or neuroscience. The notes section is also very general – a few books or articles for each chapter, but no specific citations for facts or studies were footnoted in the text, which is a pet peeve of mine in popular nonfiction.

Still, Konnikova’s conclusion, synthesized from the literary lessons of Sherlock Holmes and the conclusions of the latest scientific research is one that is worth keeping in mind:

The most powerful mind is the quiet mind. It is the mind that is present, reflective, mindful of its thoughts and its state. It doesn’t often multitask, and when it does, it does so with a purpose. …

We will never be perfect. But we can approach our imperfections mindfully, and in so doing let them make us into more capable thinkers in the long term.

Related Reading: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Other Reviews: Publishers Weekly | Kirkus Book Reviews | The Guardian | Doing Dewey |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) January 10, 2013, 9:20 am

    I think my brain attic is cluttered with junk. This does sound interesting!

  • Teresa January 10, 2013, 5:40 pm

    Have you seen the new Sherlock series at all? The phrase “brain attic” makes me think of a scene that shows how Sherlock uses his “memory castle” to access the information he needs to figure something out. (And didn’t Joshua Foer talk about memory castles in his book?)

    I’m mostly a Sherlock fan through the new series, and Laurie King’s version of him in the Mary Russell books, but I don’t know that I’d call his mind quiet. Even in the few original Doyle books I’ve read, his mind is always on the move, always restless–but he does always seem fully present, and he’s happiest when he has a problem to focus on, which gets at the purposefulness she talks about.

    • Kim January 16, 2013, 9:01 pm

      I’ve seen the new Sherlock series in bits and pieces, so I don’t remember that reference, but I was CONSTANTLY thinking about Foer’s book while I was reading this one. Konnikova uses the metaphor differently than Foer does, but it still works.

      I think what she meant by quiet isn’t that the mind is inactive, just that it is able to focus and block out the kinds of situations and issues that distract us from concentrating.

  • Christy January 10, 2013, 9:09 pm

    Like Teresa above, I’m mostly familiar with Sherlock from the recent BBC series and from the Laurie King series. Still after either watching / reading them, I often am left with the desire to be incredibly observant. The problem is that my personality makes me very wary of prying, so I’d probably feel guilty if I was so busy noting the details of people’s clothing and mannerisms.

    Your review reminds me a little of a book I read that treated Jane Austen’s books as if Austen meant for them to be instructive books about dating relationships. It was amusing but also so obviously overreaching as far as what Austen’s intent was with her novels. I too love specific citations and notes for science-based nonfiction. Great authors make those footnotes almost as fascinating as the text itself.

    • Kim January 16, 2013, 9:03 pm

      I wanted to be more observant after reading this too, but I think I have a looong way to go before I’d be even close. I don’t have the quiet, present mind she describes.

      Konnikova does spend a little time talking about the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, which I also liked, but you really have to accept the conceit if Holmes as a real person if the book is going to work for you 🙂 It doesn’t seem like as much of a stretch as the Austen book though!

  • Alex in Leeds January 11, 2013, 9:54 am

    Oh, I am rather surprised to read your thoughts on this one. I sort of assumed from the title and blurb that this was a science book hanging off a literary hook packed with plenty of evidence, rather than a taster book more focused on general ideas. I suspect a taster book fills a gap in the market though for those not wanting to tackle something like Pinker.

    • Kim January 16, 2013, 9:04 pm

      That’s a great phrase, a taster book. I think that’s exactly it. The book slides a little more to the practical/self-help/tips side of the nonfiction spectrum than I usually love (which is, I think, probably why the citations are a bit light).

  • jennygirl January 11, 2013, 1:47 pm

    Oh I know my brain is cluttered with crap! But I understand relying too heavily on a “thing” could bring this kind of book down a notch. Still interesting though so thank you!

  • Jae January 11, 2013, 2:51 pm

    What an interesting idea for a book! I think I’ll give it a try and see if it works for me. I’m glad you brought it to my attention! 🙂

  • Belle Wong January 11, 2013, 11:43 pm

    I just bought this book the other day, but haven’t read it yet. I read an article about it on Lifehacker, and thought it sounded interesting. It’s too bad it was on the slight side, but I like the quote you posted. It’s interesting to think of Holmes having a quiet mind, practicing mindfulness so powerfully.

    • Kim January 16, 2013, 9:05 pm

      I think she has a fascinating concept, and there’s a lot of great, practical stuff in the book that I think is worth reading. It just didn’t quite fit my particular nonfiction tastes, you know? I hope you enjoy it!

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey January 13, 2013, 10:46 pm

    I just reviewed this last week and also found many fun facts to jot down 🙂 I’ve added a link to your review and would appreciate it if you’d be willing to add a link to mine.

  • Sheila (Book Journey) January 14, 2013, 9:19 am

    It does sound good! I like books that make me think.

  • Anna January 16, 2013, 4:26 pm

    I REALLY like Sherlock and REALLY like neurobiology, so I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a perfect storm of awesome or too light to be interesting. Thanks for the review, because it has led me in the right direction = library loan. 🙂

    • Kim January 16, 2013, 9:06 pm

      Glad to help! If I was doing to do a sort of Buy/Borrow/Bypass rating on this one, I’d give it a Borrow.