Monday, January 7, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes”

Maria Konnikova; Publisher: Viking (U.S.)/Canongate Books Ltd. (U.K.) (January 2013)

“I am inclined to think –” said I.

“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently. (VALL)

Not long after I began reading Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova, I found myself having to attend an all-staff meeting at my office. This wasn’t unusual, occurring at least once a week, and often lasting anywhere from one hour to as many as three hours in duration. Typically, I will take a cup of coffee or a bottle of water with me, but as this meeting promised to be much shorter than a usual one, I decided to hold off. As I was seated in the conference room, waiting for the meeting to begin, my supervisor sat down next to me. She looked over at me with a strange expression. “Why do you have a coaster in front you?” she asked. I looked down only to discover that she was right – I had arrived for the meeting and mindlessly grabbed a coaster for the cup of coffee I did not have – but usually did. I had been on auto-pilot, moving thoughtlessly through my actions without giving the slightest thought to what I was doing.

Cover artwork of U.S. edition
Konnikova would say that I was using my Watson system of thinking, and with good reason. I wasn’t far along in her book before I realized how many things I did mindlessly, distractedly, how little thought I sometimes put into my daily life. I actually became very concerned as I progressed through the book – forget trying to think like Sherlock Holmes, I just wanted to correct what I began to think were terrible deficiencies with my brain. In one instance, Konnikova off-handedly mentions learning to drive, which, for me, set off a train of thought – beginning with a memory of a friend learning how to drive a manual transmission in the middle of a particularly brutal winter – and spiraling down a rabbit hole of related remembrances until I ended up in a rather dark corner of my memory, deeply depressed and resentful of Konnikova’s book for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend. But that was my Watson thought system in action again. “Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves,” Konnikova says, “operating by the lazy thought habits – the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance – that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring” (18).

It would be an easy thing to say that the Holmes system of thinking is just the opposite of the Watson one – that it is unnatural and difficult, and that anyone who wishes to acquire it will have to spend the rest of his or her life doing so. But it’s not that simple, nor is the outlook that grim for someone who wishes to think like Sherlock Holmes. There is hope for people like myself, who have been running on autopilot for years and who sometimes experience terrifying and inexplicable thought processes. Thinking like the Great Detective is not just about thinking harder – spending hours with your eyes narrowed in endless concentration until you develop a monstrous headache – nor is it just about learning expansively. Even Sherlock Holmes didn’t know everything, Konnikova points out. Did he not have to look up information about the villainous jellyfish in “The Lion’s Mane”? For once, he did not have the material at his fingertips – but he knew where to find it. To think like Sherlock Holmes is to think with awareness.

Cover artwork of U.K. edition.
Konnikova provides a perfectly plotted map to the brain of Sherlock Holmes – that previously undiscovered country so often remarked upon. Each road and pathway charted in wholly accessible detail, making it possible for her readers to retrace and recreate, to redesign their own minds in the model of the Great Detective. If Holmes’s mind was akin to an attic, as has so often and so famously been stated, then like any attic it must have a framework, and the framework can be replicated, in theory. Within the pages of Mastermind are the instructions on how to create, stock, explore, navigate, and maintain a Brain Attic of one’s own. And it’s all just so marvelously comprehensible. Pulling evidence not just from the Canon, but also from 21st century psychological studies and neuroscience, a book this entrenched in scientific theory could have easily been a difficult, tiresome slog. Instead, Mastermind proves fresh and vital, pertinent to readers of all ages, because as Konnikova points out – it’s never too late to learn something new (really, science has proven it).

There is no limit to the instances that Konnikova could have referenced from the Canon – from Holmes’s first impression of Dr. Watson (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”) to the Doctor’s mostly incorrect deductions based on a walking stick left behind at Baker Street in The Hound of the Baskervilles (and Holmes’s much more correct ones) to the changes in the Detective’s deductive system as seen in “The Yellow Face” and then later in “The Red Circle” (demonstrating the growth and flexibility of his process). Konnikova doesn’t waste a single one. She even adroitly uses examples from the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, such as his role in the case of George Edalji (a perfect demonstration of how the creator influenced his creation) and in the instance of the Cottingley Fairies (showing how even Doyle had human failings, capable of the same mental weaknesses as the rest of us). Mastermind shows that the intellect of Sherlock Holmes was indeed as limitless as Sherlockians always thought it would be, but as Konnikova demonstrates, the limitlessness of the Great Detective’s mind is not predictive of the untapped resources of our own.

“See the value of imagination,” said Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze”. “It is the one quality which [Inspector] Gregory lacks. We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified. Let us proceed.” Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is not a lecture, nor a series of cleverly reiterated Canonical tales – it is a book built to grow on, for forward movement, for proceeding. But even that is not necessarily enough if one truly wants to think like the Great Detective. “Education is all well and good, but it needs to be taken from the level of theory to that of practice, over and over and over – lest it begin to gather dust and let out that stale, rank smell of an attic whose door has remained unopened for years” (221). There was once a time when a coaster unaccountably at my seat would have thrown me entirely off track, and I would have found myself trapped in an endless cycle of wandering into rooms and forgetting what I wanted, opening up a blank document and no longer remembering what I wanted to write, and dialing a phone number without a clear sense of what I wanted to say. But awareness of the thought process is the first step, and awareness of my own mindlessness helped break me from the cycle. In short, to think like Sherlock Holmes, one must first know that they are thinking.

“How absurdly simple!” I cried. (DANC)

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  1. A decade or two ago, the publisher might have urged a title such as, "Zen & Sherlock Holmes," or "The Tao of Sherlock Holmes." It seems that it equates Holmes's faculty of attentive discernment with mindfulness. As you conclude, mindfulness is a necessary first step--but it is not what makes us marvel at Holmes the thinker.

    Thanks for another deeply thoughtful approach to an interesting book!

  2. You know what really got me about this book--that Holmes and Watson really do exactly what she says they do. It makes me wonder what formal training in reasoning Doyle had--Bell notwithstanding--and how conscious he was of how he presented his characters' strengths and foibles. Did it flow naturally as he wrote, or did he plan it out in some fashion? It makes me wonder, and appreciate his mastery of his craft. These are not at all just pulp.