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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Title: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Author: Maria Konnikova
Published: December 31, 2013

I picked up Maria’s book after reading nearly every column she’s written for the New Yorker. She does a tremendous job of applying scientific discoveries to practical, real-world use cases. I’ve quoted her articles several times in some of my published pieces including my article on reading retention.

Her book, Mastermind, was yet another shining example of how Maria can combine science and real-world application to help you improve your thinking in some way. Drawing upon stories from the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, Maria provides detailed instructions on how to improve your thinking. She touches on how to become a better observer and how to draw upon past experiences and elements in your “brain attic” (a collection of experiences and facts similar to Mozart’s bag of memories) to form better conclusions. The end goal is to ultimately make better decisions and avoid mental biases like the Availability Heuristic and the Confirmation Bias.

One aspect of the book that I found interesting was Maria’s instructions on how to separate yourself from your work. In a world of constant connectivity, being able to take a step back and involve yourself in something else has a direct correlation with your happiness and how well you’re able to solve problems. According to Maria, the best activities have the following attributes:

It needs to be unrelated to what you are trying to accomplish (if you are solving a crime, you shouldn’t switch to solving another crime; if you are deciding on an important purchase, you shouldn’t go shopping for something else; and so on).

It needs to be something that doesn’t take too much effort on your part (if you’re trying to learn a new skill, for instance, your brain will be so preoccupied that it won’t be able to free up the resources needed to root through your attic; Holmes’s violin playing—unless you are, like him, a virtuoso, you need not apply that particular route).

It needs to be something that engages you on some level (if Holmes hated pipe smoking, he would hardly benefit from a three-pipe problem; likewise, if he found pipe smoking boring, his mind might be too dulled to do any real thinking, on whatever level—or might find itself unable to detach, in the manner that so afflicts Watson)

If you’re interested in the science of thinking and how your brain formulates opinions and decisions, I’d highly recommend giving Mastermind a look.

Reading Notes

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.

“Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.”

The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course.

Neisser noticed how he could look out a window at twilight and either see the external world or focus on the reflection of the room in the glass. But he couldn’t actively pay attention to both.

Or, to put it differently, our brains are bombarded by something like eleven million pieces of data—that is, items in our surroundings that come at all of our senses—at once. Of that, we are able to consciously process only about forty.

When psychologist Peter Gollwitzer tried to determine how to enable people to set goals and engage in goal-directed behavior as effectively as possible, he found that several things helped improve focus and performance: (1) thinking ahead, or viewing the situation as just one moment on a larger, longer timeline and being able to identify it as just one point to get past in order to reach a better future point; (2) being specific and setting specific goals, or defining your end point as discretely as possible and pooling your attentional resources as specifically as you can; (3) setting up if/then contingencies, or thinking through a situation and understanding what you will do if certain features arise (i.e., if I catch my mind wandering, then I will close my eyes, count to ten, and refocus); (4) writing everything down instead of just thinking it in your head, so that you maximize your potential and know in advance that you won’t have to try to re-create anything from scratch; and (5) thinking of both repercussions—what would happen should you fail—and of positive angles, the rewards if you succeed.

Study after study has shown that for many people, the mere fact of entering a doctor’s office and seeing the physician—hence, the white coat—is enough to significantly alter vital signs. Pulse, blood pressure, even reactions and blood work can all change simply because you are seeing a doctor.

To observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you’re seeing.

In fact, research has shown that the memories associated with smell are the most powerful, vivid, and emotional of all our recollections.

Take the well-known default effect: more often than not, we stick to default options and don’t expend the energy to change, even if another option is in fact better for us.

There are even studies that show that wearing a white coat will make you more likely to think in scientific terms and be better at solving problems—the coat likely activates the concept of researchers and doctors, and you begin to take on the characteristics you associate with those people.

Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision making.

Children who use psychological distancing techniques (for example, visualizing marshmallows as puffy clouds, a technique we’ll discuss more in the next section) are better able to delay gratification and hold out for a larger later reward.

(On creating distance from your work)
It needs to have several characteristics: it needs to be unrelated to what you are trying to accomplish (if you are solving a crime, you shouldn’t switch to solving another crime; if you are deciding on an important purchase, you shouldn’t go shopping for something else; and so on); it needs to be something that doesn’t take too much effort on your part (if you’re trying to learn a new skill, for instance, your brain will be so preoccupied that it won’t be able to free up the resources needed to root through your attic; Holmes’s violin playing—unless you are, like him, a virtuoso, you need not apply that particular route); and yet it needs to be something that engages you on some level (if Holmes hated pipe smoking, he would hardly benefit from a three-pipe problem; likewise, if he found pipe smoking boring, his mind might be too dulled to do any real thinking, on whatever level—or might find itself unable to detach, in the manner that so afflicts Watson).

The tendency toward an egocentric bias in satisficing is especially strong when a plausible answer is presented early on in the search process. We then tend to consider our task complete, even if it’s far from being so.

By the end of the study, those who had received additional training showed a leftward shift in asymmetry, which means a move toward a pattern that has been associated with positive and approach-oriented emotional states—such states as have been linked repeatedly to increased creativity and imaginative capacity.

Yes, it may seem like a waste to spend any time at all doing, well, nothing that looks productive. But spending those minutes in the space of his mind will actually make Dalio more productive, more flexible, more imaginative, and more insightful. In short, it will help him be a better decision maker.

Psychologist Ethan Kross has demonstrated that such mental distancing (the above scenario was actually taken from one of his studies) is not just good for emotional regulation. It can also enhance your wisdom, both in terms of dialectism (i.e., being cognizant of change and contradictions in the world) and intellectual humility (i.e., knowing your own limitations), and make you better able to solve problems and make choices.

Human learning is largely driven by something known as the reward prediction error (RPE). When something is more rewarding than expected—I made the left turn! I didn’t hit the cone! in the case of learning to drive—the RPE leads to a release of dopamine into the brain.

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