Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

Confession time:  I am a self-diagnosed Trekkie.  That is, I compulsively enjoy and consume media related to Star Trek and the universe therein.  And while I am much more a fan of The Next Generation than The Original Series, I’ve occasionally fantasized about what it would be like to be Vulcan:  to exist in a default state of rationality, analyzing situations for optimal solutions regardless of their likeabiliity.

Unfortunately, Vulcans are a fictional race set in a fictional universe.  Fortunately, there is a human example that closely embodies the Vulcan traits, albeit a fictional human set in a slightly fictional universe:  one Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  His famous powers of deduction (not to be confused with deduction in the context of formal logic) set him apart from the rest of us mere mortals, endowing him with unsurpassed abilities to gather information, analyze situations, and solve mysteries.

What allows Holmes to do this is the subject of Konnikova’s Mastermind.

To summarize the book with inappropriate brevity, it goes like this:  Sherlock Holmes is a regular dude who just so happens to have practiced mindfully directing his attention for the majority of his life and uses this skill at understanding mysteries.  This means he observes details with minimal subjective interpretation (the difference between describing someone has “looking mad” versus “their eyebrows were furrowed”). With this learned ability, he is able to intuit scenarios others do not by not jumping the gun with unfounded inferences.  He references this information against his artfully curated “mind attic,” or mental space of  memories, that is stocked only with intentionally placed memories .  By keeping his mind full of only potentially useful information, such as past criminal activity and, oh, say the prior probability for the occurrence of almost any event ever, he appears to have an inhuman capacity for retaining information.  All throughout these processes, Holmes actively counteracts inherent flaws in human thinking (known as biases).  The end result is an impeccably solved mystery every time.

To summarize even more briefly:

[(Situation + Context) * Methodical Reasoning] / Human Bias = Logical Deduction

What I appreciate most about this book is the author’s focus on the power of bias in decision making.  Konnikova takes pains to lay out example after example of how anything from someone’s attractiveness to current weather can have strong influences on our perceptions and decisions.

Fun sidetone:  most have heard of that fact that weather can affect one’s disposition, that sunny weather makes people perceive themselves as happier and vice versa.  Konnikova writes about another study of how cloud coverage had a significant affect on college admissions:  for every standard deviation in cloud coverage on a day that a student visits a college, there was a 9% increase in the likelihood of that student enrolling, i.e. the cloudier it was, the likelier it is that the student chose to attend.  This was partially attributed to an increased focus on the school’s more objective qualities like academics.

Not only does Konnikova detail many sources of bias, she gives advice on how to counteract that bias to reach an optimal decision.  For example, when discussing first impressions, Konniva tells us to ask “what has influenced my first impression — and has that first impression in turn influenced others?”  Or for more general circumstances, asking two simple questions may allow us to reason more effectively:  is something superfluous to the matter at hand influencing my judgement at the given moment?  (undoubtedly, yes)  How do I adjust my perception accordingly?

Because, sadly, we are not Vulcans.  Our mental processes are not geared toward logic and efficiency but, to paraphrase Lil Wayne, acquiring currency and procreating.  But by intentionally directing one’s attention and understanding ourselves with our human heuristics, we can work toward becoming our pointy-eared friends.  Or Sherlock Holmes.  Whatever floats your boat.


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