Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes


Who doesn’t know Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective? Immortalized not only in literature and film, but in TV series as well; over the years played by William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and most recently by Robert Downey Jr, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller.
Have you ever wondered how the brilliant mind of Sherlock Holmes works? As a fan of Holmes myself, I was intrigued when I saw this book. Mastermind, by Maria Konnikova, looks at how we as humans observe, organize information and deduce knowledge while incorporating and applying Holmes’ most famous cases.
Konnikova is a contributing writer for The New Yorker with a Ph.D. in Psychology. Mastermind is her first book and provides a review of the science, research, and luminaries who paved the way in the field of neuroscience and influenced the character of Sherlock Holmes. Don’t worry—the book isn’t a science textbook, I swear. It breaks down the science into a manageable, easy-to-understand language with plenty of examples from Holmes’ cases.
If one wants to develop powers of observation that parallel those of Holmes, one must know what and how to observe, as well as know what details to focus on and which to omit. In order to contrast Holmes and the typical passive observer, Konnikova uses two distinct systems to explain how thought processes work: the Holmes System and the Watson System. While the Watson System is a mindless, jumbled mess, the Holmes System is selective and highly attentive. What distinguishes “the passive observer from the active one, engaged passivity from disengaged activity, is precisely the descriptor…engagement. Flow. Motivation. Interest” (p. 102).
This book explains neuroscience in a way that you don’t need a B.S. in Biological Sciences to understand it. The combination of cases and characters from Doyle’s popular books adds an unexpected and entertaining element to the book. I would strongly suggest reading the book in sections instead of trying to finish it all in one go (which is usually how I do it…ahem… Anyone remember reading Harry Potter til the wee hours of the morning?). Unless you are a dedicated Sherlock Holmes fan, the examples of Holmes’ cases can become very long-winded. With that said, this is an excellent read. Not to mention, Konnikova uses interactive examples and psychology exercises to keep the reader involved.
Take this puzzle: You walk into a room where there’s a candle, a matchbook, and a box of thumbtacks. Your assignment is to attach the candle to the wall…so how do you go about it?
Hint: You can’t tack the candle to the wall (the candle is too thick) or melt the wax to stick the candle to the wall (the candle is too heavy to stick). These ideas are the Watson System talking. How would the Holmes System go about it?
Want the answer? Check out Mastermind by Maria Konnikova for an interesting, educational yet entertaining read.