Whether you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan from the original books and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or perhaps from one of the many adaptations for the screen (both big and small), you’ve likely always been impressed by the detective’s mental acuity and uncanny abilities of observation. Holmes solves crimes other detectives give up on and points out faulty leaps in logic all around him.
Holmes’s mind may seem like nothing more than a fictional creation of an intellect mere mortals like us could never touch. But in psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova’s engaging Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes she argues persuasively that that’s not the case at all. With the right focus, motivation, and lots of practice, any of us can improve our thinking and reasoning to at least approach something a little more Holmes-like and a little less like Dr. Watson. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.
Konnikova begins by describing what Holmes calls the “brain attic,” where we store memories and information in order to retrieve them later when we need them. A messy attic seems the perfect metaphor for a messy mind, one cluttered with useless junk and so disorganized that you can’t find what you need when you need it. For Holmes, letting your “brain attic” end up in disrepair like this sets you up to be a lazy, unimaginative thinker, taking short-cuts where he’d see the long way round to the proper solution. You need to clear things out in order to allow room for insight and inspiration to flourish.
How to start this process, then? It comes down, initially, to making sure you’re noticing the right things, and giving your attention fully to the questions you’re trying to answer or decisions you’re trying to make. You also have to learn to recognize your own mental biases and the many ways these can affect our judgment.
Everyone’s brains use frameworks to filter information – it’s a necessity. Otherwise, we’d be constantly overwhelmed by the amount of information around us. However, not acknowledging this reality and, even worse, never second-guessing why you ended up thinking a certain way about a situation can lead to all sorts of mental mistakes. Holmes himself would make these same mistakes, had he not trained his brain to be attentive and questioning.
Above all, you have to be motivated to change your default mental state of habit and inattention into one of mindfulness. Just reading this book alone can’t get you there, but it’s a start if you’re up for it.
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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