As a child growing up in Russia, Maria Konnikova loved the Sherlock Holmes mysteries her father read to her.
The iconic sleuth seemed to possess almost supernatural powers of observation, while Watson missed small but vital case-breaking details. “And yet I believe my eyes are as good as yours,” Watson tells Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia.
“Quite so,” replies Holmes. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”
Konnikova, a psychologist and journalist, explores that distinction in her first book, released in January to critical acclaim. In Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, crime fiction meets neuroscience (to engaging effect), as Konnikova guides us through the newest psychological research through the lens of Holmesian philosophy.
It’s not easy to learn to think like Holmes, Konnikova admits. But she makes a strong case that a little practice can build better habits of mind and help us observe more clearly, withhold snap judgements, and even feel happier.
What are the differences between how Holmes thinks and how Watson thinks?
I think the main difference between the two men is best summed up by the exchange in “A Scandal in Bohemia” where Holmes points out that he both sees and observes—whereas Watson merely sees. Seeing is passive; observing, active. Seeing is largely mindless: inputs come at us without much thought on our end. Observing is mindful: we consciously choose to focus our attention on certain elements. Observing is much slower and more reflective; seeing, quicker and more reflexive. Holmes is the observer; Watson, the seer.
Why are most of us Watson thinkers instead of Holmes thinkers?
Simply put, it’s easier. It’s our brains’ default setting. It uses fewer cognitive resources. It’s less thoughtful. We don’t really need to do much to think like Watson: we think like him anyway. Thinking like Holmes requires us to pause and reflect. It requires a much more conscious use of our resources, a more effortful type of processing.
What is “attentional blindness”?
It’s a phenomenon that was popularized by the research of Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris: when we focus our resources too intently on one thing, we may miss entirely something that is right in front of our eyes. Simons and Chabris showed that when people were asked to count basketball passes in a game, they failed to see a person in a gorilla suit who walked onto the court, thumped his chest, and walked off. Their retinas registered the image, but there was no conscious awareness or processing of it. The phenomenon really illustrates how limited our attention is. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of paying attention to another.
What are some biases that distort the ways we think? How can we learn to recognize and overcome them?
There are too many to list, but one of the ones I talk about in the book—and one that is especially central to Holmes’s methodology—is the correspondence bias. In the past, psychologists interpreted this bias as follows: when we meet someone, we tend to attribute any salient characteristics to their personality and not the environment. For instance, we’ll say they are an irritable person, and not that they’ve just been exposed to something irritating.
Now, we know that conception is not quite right. In other cultures, the attribution goes the other way: people will preferentially attribute things to the environment and not the personality. Either way, it is a problematic way of dealing with people. We need to realize that both elements are likely to play a role and gather more evidence before reaching a conclusion. This is something that Holmes does incredibly well. He is aware of the tendency to attribute too rapidly and never makes pronouncements until he has additional evidence on which to base them.
How well can we truly know ourselves and the ways our minds work? Can that knowledge help us to be realistic about our limitations?
There are always limits to our self-knowledge. One of my favorite papers, a classic in psychology, is Nisbett and Wilson’s “Telling More Than We Can Know.” It’s quite eye-opening in its exploration of how little access we have to our own minds.
We can certainly understand more about our cognitive biases—but it’s tough to be completely accurate and tougher still to know our own motivations for doing and thinking much of what we do or think. And no, it isn’t always useful to have more accurate self-perception. Most people experience something known as a positivity bias: we see the world as slightly more positive, for the most part, than it is. People who suffer from depression don’t have that bias. They are much more accurate at assessing their own image and the way others perceive them. So…it may not always be a good thing.
How does experience and competence lead to complacency? What can we do to reverse that?
When we become very good at something, we stop paying as close attention to what we’re doing. It becomes more a matter of habit, be it of thought or action. We start overestimating our own ability relative to the environment – and that’s where we run into trouble. The way we can counteract (if not altogether reverse) that is by constantly challenging ourselves to keep learning and keep improving, even when we don’t think further improvement is possible. It’s important not to let ourselves plateau and coast.
Is it possible to train ourselves to be more mindful and attentive, withhold judgments, and question our assumptions? To tidy up the “brain attic”?
Yes. Concentration is a matter of habit. If we practice it more, it improves. If we don’t concentrate as often, our attention span worsens. Mindfulness and attention are eminently trainable. As for withholding judgments, we can train ourselves to notice how we make them. That doesn’t mean we won’t make them in the future – but we become more liable to correct them accurately instead of letting them remain uncontested.
Did you learn any tricks for keeping a tired mind engaged during a long and tedious task like surveillance?
Try to reframe the task as something that is not tedious. Make it into something exciting, a game, if you will. When Holmes has to watch for hours, he acts the part of a hunter. For him, it’s not a long, tedious interval. It’s an exciting, tense period. Watson, on the other hand, finds it hard to stay focused. It’s all in how you conceptualize it to yourself, in the mindset you take.
You write that one aspect of awareness is learning to quiet the mind when learning new information (such as at a crime scene). What are some strategies for focusing on the new data and filtering out the internal noise?
First, set your goals beforehand. It’s amazing how much our mindset can influence our vision directly. We notice things we’re primed to notice and don’t see others. Second, one thing at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once. Take steps. Take breaks. Take a step back. Recalibrate. And try to standardize your approach as much as possible. In an interview, for instance, always ask the same question first.
How can we (like Holmes) learn to step back and take the “big picture” view of situations?
There are many ways to do this, but they all come down to one thing: realizing that you are emphatically not wasting time when you take a break. Learn to slow down, to resist the pressure to keep moving. Pauses aren’t signs of weakness, but rather of reflection.
In an interview, you might do better to take a moment to think instead of trying to answer right away. In an office, it might be stepping out for a walk around the block. It could also be as simple as closing your eyes for a few minutes and trying to clear your head. We’re so afraid of wasting time that we forget how important it can be to stop for a moment. Those stops are where the big picture is hiding.
Can mindfulness lead to more productive workdays and even happier lives?
Absolutely. Mindfulness has been tied in study after study to improvements in well-being and increases in positive, approach-oriented emotional states. It has also been tied to productivity – and enhancements in our problem solving ability and our creativity.
What fascinated you about this topic?
I began feeling like I always had too many demands on my time and attention, like I was always expected to be connected to everything, to answer email right away, to be available always. And I rebelled against that feeling. It didn’t seem right. It felt counterproductive and overwhelming. This book was my attempt to counteract that.
Book Excerpt: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova
“When Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, he didn’t think much of his hero. It’s doubtful that he set out intentionally to create a model for thought, for decision making, for how to structure, lay out, and solve problems in our minds. And yet that is precisely what he did. He created, in effect, the perfect spokesperson for the revolution in science and thought that had been unfolding in the preceding decades and would continue into the dawn of a new century…
We first learn of the quintessential Sherlock Holmes approach in A Study in Scarlet, the detective’s first appearance in the public eye. To Holmes, we soon discover, each case is not just a case as it would appear to the officials of Scotland Yard—a crime, some facts, some persons of interest, all coming together to bring a criminal to justice—but is something both more and less. More, in that it takes on a larger, more general significance, as an object of broad speculation and inquiry, a scientific conundrum, if you will. It has contours that inevitably were seen before in earlier problems and will certainly repeat again, broader principles that can apply to other moments that may not even seem at first glance related. Less, in that it is stripped of any accompanying emotion and conjecture—all elements that are deemed extraneous to clarity of thought—and made as objective as a nonscientific reality could ever be. The result: the crime as an object of strict scientific inquiry, to be approached by the principles of the scientific method. Its servant: the human mind.”