Thoughts on ‘Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes’

In the prelude of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova tells how, when her father read her and her siblings “A Scandal in Bohemia,” she was inspired to count the steps in every staircase she encountered so that she could prove she’d “observed” and not just “seen.” That kind of thinking – the ability to call to mind any needed fact, the flash of insight into a person from a glance at their shoes and their fingertips – is the kind we associate with Sherlock Holmes. However, Konnikova argues that this isn’t the right way to go about the observational approach advocated by Holmes and uses the stories to illustrate her arguments.

I’ve loved the Sherlock Holmes stories for years but know very little about the actual processes involved in thinking, so I was predisposed to like Mastermind from the start. It delivers a very enjoyable reading experience, particularly for the layman in psychology. Konnikova’s writing is clear and engaging, and she does a great job of moving from concept to example as outlined in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The book is actually structured around the famous “a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic” simile made by Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, with such chapter titles as “Stocking the Brain Attic: The Power of Observation” and “Maintaining the Brain Attic: Education Never Stops.”

Despite the subtitle, the book isn’t really a self-help book, which Konnikova says in her prelude. She describes it as taking “Holmes’ methodology to explore and explain the steps necessary for building up habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.” She does this by going back and forth between the Sherlock Holmes stories and various psychological studies, with examples of the thought processes she’s describing both from Sherlock Holmes and hypothetical situations. In particular, Konnikova emphasizes the factors that play into our perceptions and trains of thought. Though there are many, she’s always clear that we have the final say in the choices we make.

From the standpoint of a Holmes fan, it’s really nice to see her examination of Holmes and Watson’s different ways of thinking; it’s clear that Watson is not an idiot to Holmes’ genius, but a person who thinks and acts the way most of us do on a daily basis. That said, anyone with a background in psychology will find this book lightweight in the extreme. Since I lack that background, this didn’t bother me; I found it a really entertaining introduction to aspects of the mind that I’ve never considered before.

However, there are two flaws that leaped out at me, one minor and the other glaring. The minor one is that while we may be able to improve our awareness and understanding in ways that evoke Holmes’ thinking, Mastermind never goes beyond explanation of process. I’d have preferred more concrete takes on thinking like Holmes in an age of personal computers where the lines between professions are changing constantly. Some of the hypotheticals touch on this, and Konnikova stresses the need for constant practice to improve our observation, but I still would have liked more acknowledgement of the differences between our world and that of ACD’s Holmes.

But the greatest flaw is that Konnikova never acknowledges the limitations of Holmes as an illustration of thinking. Any chance the state of Holmes’ mind could be less than ideal is ignored, as is the toll that thinking in a Holmesian manner can take. Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of a lot of speculation regarding whether or not he has a disorder, well before BBC Sherlock’s “high-functioning sociopath.” There is a point near the beginning of Mastermind where Konnikova notes that using “System Holmes,” as she refers to the more deliberative system of the mind, “is much more cognitively costly.” But she never examines what this cost would look like, even though a quick look through the original stories reveals Holmes’ cocaine habit, his spectacular crashes into boredom and inactivity, and his going without food or sleep for ridiculous stretches when consumed by a problem. Superherolike though his powers are, Holmes has some serious issues intertwined with them, and leaving them out is a significant omission if you’re going to talk about the benefits of adopting his ways.

That said, I would recommend Mastermind for any fan of Holmes and Watson, particularly if you’re interested in seeing how a Holmesian mind might work and find the psychology field intimidating. Holmes is compelling in large part because he represents abilities we possess to varying degrees, and Konnikova’s book is a great primer into how we can tap into those abilities ourselves. And it’s a fun angle for revisiting 221 B Baker Street, which is always worth the time.

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