Title: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Author: Maria Konnikova
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
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
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