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.

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