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Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes (A Review)
A centerpiece of Mastermind is that the brain operates using two contrasting systems, which Konnikova terms System Holmes and System Watson.
The history of literature is scattered with the male double-act, usually enriched by polarization. There’s Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves and Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho. Comedic duos include Abbott and Costello and Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot; superhero duos percolate comic books - Batman and Robin easily come to mind. I confess that my favorite pair, despite their intellectual shortcomings, is Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber.
None of these, however, offer a better metaphor for how the brain works (and how we ought to use it) than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. And it is with this male double-act that Maria Konnikova, Scientific American blogger and former Big Think blogger, sets out to unpack contemporary psychology in her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.
A centerpiece of Mastermind is that the brain operates using two contrasting systems, which Konnikova terms System Holmes and System Watson. The former is rational, deliberate and conscious; the latter is quick to action and mostly unconscious (readers familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow will recognize that System Holmes and System Watson largely correspond to System I and System 2). Most of us operate on System Watson: we stereotype, we’re quick to judge, we’re nudged by unconscious cues, our attention is limited and confirmation bias plagues our attempts at objective analysis - you almost want to conclude that since our irrationalities are predictable and systematic, we might as well sit back and shoot from the hip.
That’s where System Holmes comes in. Embracing System Holmes helps us decide rationally, think scientifically and avoid the deep and systematic cognitive biases that distort the way we think about the world. Why? The key to System Holmes is mindfulness. As Konnikova writes, “The problem isn’t a lack of attention so much as a lack of mindfulness and direction. In the usual course of things, our brains pick and choose where to focus without much conscious forethought on our part. What we need to learn instead is how to tell our brains what and how to filter, instead of letting them be lazy and decide for us, based on what they think would make for the path of least resistance.”
Consider, for example, how Holmes deduces that Watson has been in Afghanistan:
Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly Afghanistan.
This is classic Holmes thinking: rational and grounded in empirical observation.
Another hallmark of Mastermind is the concept of the brain attic as a metaphor for how we ought to use the brain. For Holmes, a person’s brain attic is a large but finite space. The key is how to organize it. “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out,” Holmes says. “The skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.” According to Konnikova, this comparison bodes well with modern cognitive science and it is useful when it comes to improving our mental lives:
The basic structure may be there for good, but we can learn to alter its exact linkages and building blocks – and that alternation will actually rebuild the attic, so to speak, rewiring our neural connections as we change our habits of thought. Just as with any renovation, some of the major overhauls may take some time. You can’t just rebuild an attic in a day. But some minor changes will likely begin to appear within days – and even hours.
Passages like this make Mastermind sound like a self-help book, but that is an unfair categorization. The pages are filled with provocative psychological research that makes us think twice about human nature; Konnikova’s book ultimately belongs in the science section. The question is if Mastermind is a tribute to Doyle’s crime fiction that draws from psychology or the other way around. Probably the latter, but therein lies its strength: you walk away with a taste of what made Doyle’s writing memorable as well as a lesson from Psychology 101.
Incorporating Doyle’s crime fiction also helps Konnikova avoid writing just-another-psychology-book. If you’ve read How We Decide, Incognito or The Power of Habit a lot of the material in Mastermind will be familiar: most cognition is unconscious, our memory is flawed and cognitive biases making deciding rationally difficult. But I doubt readers who enjoy pop psychology books have a deep knowledge of Sherlock Holmes stories. This is why I enjoyed and recommend the book (I’m sure Baker Street aficionados will also enjoy). Whereas pop psychology books lambast the idea that humans are rational, Mastermind uses one of the great characters in fiction to bring important cognitive science research to life. And instead of giving readers benign advice (think more rationally) Konnikova leaves you with more memorable guidance: embrace your inner Holmes.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?