Arthur Conan Doyle s novels and short stories about the incomparable detective Sherlock Holmes have never been out of print since their first publication in 1887. Holmes collections abound,as do movies,TV series,video games,hats,pipes,T-shirts and calendars,not to mention non-fiction books dissecting the Holmesian method.
And now here comes one more,of all things,a Sherlock Holmes self-help book. Maria Konnikovas Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes may not make you a master detective,as the publisher notes,but it will teach you how to observe,not merely see,a prerequisite to thinking like the great man. As Holmes himself says in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,his work centres on those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province.
If deduction and synthesis are a challenge,learning to observe may be even harder. Konnikova,a science writer based in New York,distinguishes between the Watson system (the natural tendency to believe what we see and hear) and the Holmes system. Teaching the Holmes system is the object of this book.
The first step is to question everything. Citing the psychologist Daniel Gilbert,Konnikova points out that for our brains to process something,we must initially,momentarily,believe it. If you hear the term pink elephant,you picture a pink elephant for a split second before you effortfully engage in disbelieving it.
More complicated subjects are far more difficult than pink elephants,of course. Consider the statement There are no poisonous snakes in Maine. It sounds plausible,and most of us would just let it go. (In fact,it is true.) This tendency,she tells us,is reinforced by what psychologists call the correspondence bias,by which we generally assume that what a person says is what he believes.
Holmes s trick is to treat every thought,every experience and every perception the way he would a pink elephant, Konnikova writes. In other words,begin with a healthy dose of scepticism instead of the credulity that is your mind s natural state of being. This requires mindfulness constant presence of mindthe attentiveness and hereness that is so essential for real,active observation of the world. If we want to think like Sherlock Holmes,we must want,actively,to think like him. And practice,practice,practice.
We also have to learn to ignore the superfluous. Holmes famously claimed ignorance of the solar system: What the deuce is it to me? he says in A Study in Scarlet. I consider that a man s brain originally is like a little empty attic,and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.
Of course Holmes has a great deal in his brain-attic,even if it does not include the solar system. On first meeting Dr John H Watson,for example,he runs through a split-second inventory of social,political and geographical facts and announces,You have been in Afghanistan,I perceive. Watson is astonished,and soon the two are inseparable.
Another thing we can learn from Holmes is the importance of continuous self-education. When Watson asks why he persists in pursuing a case that seems solved,Holmes replies: It is art for art s sake. I suppose when you doctored you found yourself studying cases without a thought of a fee? Watson answers,For my education,Holmes. Just so,Holmes replies. Education never ends.