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. 

Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Maria's Home Page

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)

There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.

Keep reading Show less

Lama Rod Owens – the price of the ticket to freedom

An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.

Think Again Podcasts
  • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
  • "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
Keep reading Show less