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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. By Maria Konnikova. Viking. $26.95. 273 pp.


When Maria Konnikova was a child, her Russian father read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories to her (in Russian, of course), and she was fascinated. Now that she is grown up and a doctoral candidate in psychology, she has turned that fascination into a sort of instruction manual, teaching those who want to learn how to think like the most famous detective of all time.

So how do you think like Sherlock Holmes, how do you “infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other,” as Holmes once said?

Well, it isn’t easy. For one thing, feelings and associations can get in the way, sending thinkers far from their goals. Unlike Dr. Watson, “Holmes knows . . . that if he focuses on a pleasant feeling, he will drop his guard. He knows that if he lets an incidental physical feature get to him, he will run the risk of losing objectivity in the rest of his observation. He knows if he comes too quickly to a judgment, he will miss much of the evidence against it and pay more attention to the elements that are in its favor.”

So, in scientific deduction, thinkers, like detectives, must go slow, must not jump to conclusions, must not allow feelings to color thinking. Moreover, they must use all their senses, but not let any one sense dominate.

Of course, scientific deduction isn’t possible without being aware of one’s goals and understanding one’s limitation. So the first question to ask is—what do I wish to accomplish. Such an answer “ . . . will put you well on your way to knowing how to maximize your limited attentional resources.” And when we realize we can’t trust our own judgments, our judgments get better. But this is contrary to what actually happens with most people, and, it seems, especially with experts.

Yes, over-confidence is a hazard for stock brokers, doctors, just about everybody; as Konnikova says, “ . . . the better we’ve become [at something], the more we’ve learned, the more powerful is the urge to just rest.” To be lazy. Indeed, “[s]tudies have shown that with experience overconfidence increases.”

So, here is the Holmes method:

  1. Know Yourself – And Your Environment: pause and observe first, pause again, and don’t infer unless you have to.
  2. Observe - Carefully and Thoughtfully: don’t limit yourself to the objects you are observing but also be aware of their context.
  3. Imagine – Remembering to Claim the Space You May Not Think You Need: Holmes “reflects and he plays around with options. He questions and he considers. Only after will he start to form his conclusions.”
  4. Deduce – Only from What You’ve Observed and Nothing More: Here is Holmes’s deduction process—“Objective fact, to a consideration of multiple possibilities, to a narrowing of the most likely ones. No extraneous details, no holes filled in by an all too willing imagination.”
  5. Learn – From Your Failures as You do From Your Successes: Stereotyping has the power to lead one to error as does improperly framing the problem from the start. Be aware, keep exercising your mental powers and learning, but don’t be overconfident or lazy.

And finally, it is necessary to practice as practice “. . . is the only thing that will allow us to apply Holmes’s methodology in real life, in the situations that are far more charged emotionally than any thought experiment can ever lead you to believe.” To put it all in a nutshell, to think like Holmes, adopt the mindset of the hunter. (Why do you think Holmes wears that deer stalker hat?) The hunter, like the great detective, is alert, focused, yet energetic, always ready to spring into action. The most important idea of the book, Konnikova says, is that “. . . the most powerful mind is the quiet mind. It is the mind that is present, reflective, mindful of its thoughts and its state.” That is the hunter as he or she awaits the prey.

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