Creating in Flow

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8 Strategies for Thinking More Like Sherlock Holmes

Learn 8 thinking tricks from the ever-popular detective.

woman detective
Two new books purport to demonstrate to us more-or-less-ordinary civilians the brainy machinations of the world's most popular fictional detective.

It's just past the 125th anniversary of the first Sir Arthur Doyle novel to feature the shrewd sleuth Sherlock Holmes. The character gets resurrected time and time again, on television and in movies, and now in these fascinating nonfiction tomes.

One book focuses on Holme's use of science, and is quite detailed. The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics, is by James F. O'Brien, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Missouri State University and a lifelong fan of Holmes, who has given numerous lectures and taught a college course on Holmes and science. For the genuine fan of Holmes as a brilliant thinker and literary creation.

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The other is Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova, who writes the "LIterally Psyched" column for Scientific American and is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University.

A main idea here is that Sherlock Holmes spent his life in mindful interaction with the world. Mindfulness isn't a new concept, writes Konnikova. William James wrote about it more than a century ago, explaining it as a way of returning your wandering attention back to focus on whatever it is you really want to be focusing.

Holmes (yes, he's only a literary device, but that doesn't reduce his usefulness as a guide) made a point of observing constantly, rather than simply seeing. To think like Holmes, we must move, insists Konnikova, from passive absorption to active awareness. She uses many examples from the Holmes' books to elucidate ways to be mindfully observant, providing enough dialogue so that we don't need to have read Doyle's novels at all.

8 STRATEGIES for thinking more like Sherlock:

1. Examine everything with healthy skepticism. Stop and question your own thoughts. By filtering your thoughts, they can't sneakily influence your behavior outside your awareness.

2. Work to overcome your biases, developed-over-a-lifetime. With practice, we can overcome the automatic wiring of our brains to become more objective in our thinking.

3. Observe all first impressions closely. Something superfluous often influences our judgments.

4. Be inclusive. When Holmes examines a note, he not only reads it and looks at it. He smells it, too, and that gives him additional valuable input.

5. Be more engaged. Studies have shown that those who are motivated by their personal engagement in a situation are more likely to make the effort to counteract their autopilot-like initial judgments. We won't engage that fully in everything, but if we want to be more accurate in our thinking, we can manage our wandering minds.

6. Step back. Imaginative thinking is enhanced when we walk away from a problem. The further away from our own perspective, the wider the picture we can see.

7. Continue educating yourself. Holmes choose his habits mindfully, writes Konnikova, each of them aimed at facilitating thought. He found his companion, Dr. Watson, to be stimulating of his own genius. And he took on cases that were a challenge in order to keep learning.

8. Keep a diary. Overconfidence—believing you already know the cause of some problem—can keep you from observing mindfully. Write everything down and then look for patterns, without jumping to conclusions.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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