Review: “Mastermind” by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind by Maria Konnikova
Sherlock Holmes is arguably one of the greatest minds that never was. His detective prowess, an invention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has intrigued and entertained millions since it first appeared in 1887. Now that great abductive apparatus, Sherlock’s brain, has itself been put under the microscope. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes(Viking, 2013) is a creative fusion of Holmes’ adventures and an analysis of the inner workings of his brain—and ours. Maria Konnikova, a popular psychology writer for Scientific American, provides color commentary of some of Holmes’ most famous cases with the latest research in psychology and cognitive science.

“In order to think like Sherlock Holmes,” she writes, “we first need to overcome a sort of natural resistance that pervades the way we see the world.” It’s like we have two “systems” running in our brains. The default system, she calls the “Watson system,” is lazy and reactionary, always taking the path of least resistance. The “Holmes system,” by contrast, is “slower, more deliberate, more thorough, more logical—but also much more cognitively costly.”

Mastermind is packed with insights on how our brains work. Some of the things I took note of:

  • We are predisposed to accept whatever information we receive as true. We must, at least temporally, believe something is true before we can question it. (p. 18) How often do we question what we hear or read?
  • We know only as much as we can remember at the time we need it. (p. 32) This obvious truth struck me as a compelling motivator to work on my memory. What’s the point of learning if it can’t be recalled?
  • Our minds wander by default (p. 68) They are constantly looking for something worthy of attention. Multitasking overloads the brain and reduces productivity.
  • Our moods literally affect what we see (p. 72). We take in more visual information when we are in a happy mood than a sad one.
  • If everything seems perfect, it’s likely we’ve made an auto-pilot prejudgement. (p. 88) Overcoming judgment bias requires a critical examination of the issue, best facilitated by writing down our thoughts.
  • Creativity can be taught, but it requires that we believe we are capable of being more creative in order for it to be learned (p. 115). No more excuses that you can’t be creative.
  • Distancing is an important discipline in fostering breakthrough thinking about a problem or situation (p. 129). A walk, or leisurely activity, unrelated to the problem at hand, and for which no mental exertion is required, often stimulates clarity of thought. How much time do you take for distancing?
  • The more information we have about something, the more likely we are to be overconfident in our decision (p. 174). Are you constantly on the look-out for more information about a decision?

And I could go on (I literally took eleven pages of notes from this book). Apart from reading all the fascinating tid-bits of research, Konnikova’s book gave me an appreciation for Holmes’ creator that I never had before. Doyle was ahead of his time, employing through narrative so many of the principles that cognitive research is now unearthing.

Now it’s time I unearth some of his classics for my own reading.

Are you a Sherlock Holmes fan? Do you find yourself emulating his approach to problems?

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2 thoughts on “Review: “Mastermind” by Maria Konnikova

  1. Fascinating comments, Leary!

    I’m in grad school and studying theological method this spring semester. One of the main concepts we are dealing with has to do with world-views, pre-suppositions and pre-dispositions to truth. Sometimes I find the study of theology blurs the line between doctrine and philosophy, and your first insight from this book proves that again. Your second comment about our memory reminds me of a book that’s on my ‘must-read’ list by Donald Miller called “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”. In one chapter (that I read an excerpt from), Miller talks about how we forget most of what we’ve experienced and done in our lives – and how tragic he thought that was.

    At any rate, great insights, my friend! This book has been added to my ever growing ‘must-read’ list. I just wish I could read my theology course books faster. 🙂


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