Lessons in Mindfulness from Sherlock Holmes

How can we train our brains to think like Sherlock Holmes? We need to develop the core skill of mindfulness.

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes doesn't suffer fools gladly, but at least he is polite about it. If his behavior appears antisocial, we have to forgive him for it. After all, Sherlock is simply trying to optimize his brain, and the people around him aren't always helpful to that end.


What's the Big Idea?

We have to remember that Holmes, like the rest of us, was born like Watson, observes Maria Konnikova, author of the terrific new book Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes probably started out in life "with a greater potential for certain elements of observation," Konnikova tells Big Think, "at the beginning, he probably thought more like Watson because that’s more of our natural state. And he’s able to attain what he does because he’s become an expert of sorts at observing."

So how can we train our brains to think like Holmes? This question occupies Konnikova's book, and her answer can be summed up in one word: mindfulness. Mindfulness is "staying in the present moment and learning how to concentrate and how to focus your mind so that it really can avoid any distractions, can avoid anything that might kind of get it off track, Konnikova tells us. 

This "scientific method of mind" makes use of the brain as an "attic" in the sense that the space in the brain is a finite resource. To think like Sherlock you need to optimize your mental resources and then figure out how you can take the things you've stored and access them in a way where you can "see the bigger picture and not just these random components" that you put there.

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

Sherlock Holmes is what you would describe as a lifelong learner. The scientific method doesn't have an end. "It’s going to be a constant feedback loop," Konnikova tells us. Sherlock approaches a situation with a prepared mindset, but his method requires thousands and thousands of hours of practice. Our brains have an extraordinary ability to grow and expand. The key to thinking like Sherlock is to train your brain in ways that expand your imagination.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

A mediocre scientist, Konnikova argues, is one who fails to imagine new and different possibilities. Holmes, on the other hand, has learned to look at data and recombine it in ways that will suggest new possibilities. "Is my mind still open?" Holmes asks. "Does this data somehow make me think of new ideas? Think of new approaches? Think of things that I hadn’t thought of in the past?"

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less