Daily life is constantly full of mysteries, from trying to figure out where you put your keys to figuring out how to manage to cook dinner without a few key ingredients. These are just two of the small problems we face on a regular basis. Each and every minute of the day, we are asking our brains to solve the myriads of puzzles we put to it. Stop and consider what you’ve had to figure out over the past hour, day, or week, and you’ll soon realize that your brain works overtime for you, even when you think you’re not thinking.
In her new book, Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes, science writer and Columbia University graduate student Maria Konnikova takes us through the work of the most famous detective of all, showing how his mental processes rival those of even the most sophisticated computer. She contrasts this “Holmes” system, which is slow, analytic, and supremely logical, with the “Watson” system, named after the lovable but less brilliant Dr. Watson who served as the assistant, recorder, and sounding board of the great detective. Holmes and Watson, ever popular characters who most recently showed up in the CBS series Elementary, not to mention the blockbuster Robert Downey Jr. movies, are the quintessential yin and yan of the mystery world. Though physically strong (maybe not as strong as the Downey character), it’s the mental abilities of Holmes that allow him to ensnare the would-be criminals who escaped the best efforts of Scotland Yard.
Given that Holmes was not a real person, and therefore could be as smart as his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wanted him to be, Konnikova shows us that the elements of his thinking style are ones that characterize the most logical of the real people among us. If you can learn how to use even half of the ones I’ve chosen to summarize here, you’ll find your brain will hum along that much more efficiently to address the mental challenges you face on a daily basis:
- Make the scientific method your own. Uh oh, have I turned you off already? People’s eyes, or at least those of psychology students, often glaze over when they hear about the importance of the scientific method. However, it’s not just something you use in the lab. The scientific method simply means that you observe, objectively, what is going on around you. From there, you develop a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and then revise your hypothesis accordingly. All this means that you need to separate what you wish would happen from what actually happens to you. Even if you don’t like what you see, you’re better off taking an honest look at a situation, and then planning your next steps accordingly. It’s for this reason that, Konnikova claims, Holmes regards the foundation of his work to be “elementary.” You start with the most basic step, observation, and then build from there.
- Be skeptical of your own thoughts. A natural human frailty of thought is to assume that you tend to believe as correct the first solution that comes to your mind. This is called the “confirmation bias.” We jump on the first mental bandwagon to pop into our heads without critically examining it. Yet, our memory is very frail and subject to outside influences, as is well known from experiments on faulty eyewitness memory. Similarly, the first solution you reach for a problem is often the one you hold onto long after it has stopped working. How many times have you continued to take a “short cut” to get someplace even after someone’s proven to you that it’s definitely the long way around? You have to be willing to change to something new when your old ways of doing things are causing you extra time, money, and effort.
- Pay attention to what you’re doing. What we now call “mindfulness” was, to Holmes, an obvious requirement that to get to the bottom of a mystery, you have to examine every detail. We tend to go through life on autopilot, doing everything but paying attention to even our own actions. This is why you lose your keys. While putting them down, you weren’t paying attention to what you were doing. Being distracted, stressed, or just mentally vacant for the moment leads you to these silly and annoying lapses, which you can easily correct by being more attentive in the first place.
- Unitask. We’re certainly familiar with the dangers of multi-tasking, as study after study points out the risks of distracted driving. In a New York Times op-ed that summarizes some of what she writes in the book, Konnikova shows why it’s important to concentrate on one thing at a time, at least when we have the opportunity. We sometimes have no choice but to multi-task, but in order to come up with the best use of our mental powers, we need to give them a chance to work in depth. The unitasking doesn’t just benefit you in the moment, however. Researcher that Konnikova cites in this article shows that older adults who take part in mindfulness training can improve their attentional control on other tasks as well.
- Use your imagination. What, you say? Wasn’t point #1 the idea that you should follow the scientific method? No contradiction here. The greatest scientists were the most imaginative when it came to generating new ideas. They allowed their minds to wander all over the place, often drifting far and wide from the original problem they tried to solve. Too often, we get stuck in a “mental set,” or “functional fixedness,” in which we fail to take advantage of new opportunities to approach a problem in an inventive fashion. Once you have that zany new idea, you don’t need to go after it even after it’s a proven flop, though, which is consistent with the idea of using the scientific method. Come up with as many solutions to a problem as you can, and then eliminate them systematically by evaluating them in an objective fashion. Perhaps you’re trying to come up with extra income. Look at all your hobbies, hidden talents, and untapped psychological resources. You may not be able to make a living off of your rusty dancing skills, for example, but perhaps you can pick up some extra cash by seeing if you can assist an instructor at a local community center.
- Learn from your failuresIt’s hard to think about the times when our mental efforts have come up short. We’d all like to forget about the occasions when we jumped to the wrong conclusions, forgot to do something important that ended up costing us time/money/a job, and definitely the times we hurt someone else’s feelings. Rather than sweep these experiences under the mental rug of denial, it’s important to examine them and see how we could act differently on a future occasion. Holmes didn’t seem to make too many mistakes, but Watson made plenty of them, and as Konnikova shows, us, some of his clumsiest bumbles helped Holmes the most.
- Take a mental break. Holmes was known for disappearing into a cloud of pipe smoke when he needed time to mull over a problem. You don’t need to light up a form of tobacco to solve your own mysteries (in fact, you’re better off not doing so), but being able to dissociate yourself from the immediate problem can give you a great deal of clarity. This is particularly true when you’ve got a little extra time before you have to make a decision. The more pressured you feel to decide something, the more likely it is that you’ll rush to a faulty conclusion. Then, as we’ve seen, you’ll stick to that faulty conclusion well after its utility has passed. By putting a moratorium on a decision and giving yourself time and space, there’s a much better chance your solution will work.
- Don’t let your mental attic get cluttered. In addition to drawing lessons from the great Holmes, Konnikova uses the “mental attic” as a device to teach readers about memory. She shows how to stock, explore, navigate, and maintain our knowledge so that we can make best use of it at all times. One of the chief lessons is that you don’t need to remember everything. Although you can benefit from paying careful attention to your experiences, if you try to remember everything you’ll remember nothing. Your working memory is like your consciousness—it’s what you’re thinking at any given moment. If you don’t need that information anymore (such as the temporary password to a new account), there’s no point in retaining it further. The brain is relatively limitless in what it can store, but by clogging your memory up with useless facts, you just make it more difficult to find what you’re looking for when you truly need it.
- Develop your expertise. Holmes called his tremendous ability to draw conclusions an intuition. However, as Konnikova notes, it’s an intuition based on years of acquiring expertise as an astute observer. Think of the judges you’ve seen on reality competition shows who can rate a tango, an exotic appetizer, or the clarity of a singing voice in an instant. That judge didn’t just randomly arrive at a rating; it was based on years of learning the subtleties of the art. Similarly, Holmes could decide in an instant (a nano-instant, in the Robert Downey Jr. version), because he trained himself through years of very refined and thorough study. The more you polish your own mental prowess by practicing the art of attention, the more quickly and accurately you’ll be able to make the decisions in your life.
- Keep educating yourself. Just because you’ve graduated from school doesn’t mean you should stop your formal learning. In fact, here you are on the website of Psychology Today just to keep abreast of the latest in the field. Konnikova points out that it’s never too late to keep learning. Taking a page out of the aging-plasticity playbook, she cites encouraging evidence about the power of older learners (our fictional Holmes was reportedly 48 when he had one of his great revelations). You also don’t have to define education in a traditional way. You are constantly learning, whether it’s navigating your new cell phone or figuring out a new way to chop onions.
Conan Doyle lived well before the advent of cognitive psychology. However, in constructing the inimitable Holmes, he perhaps exemplified the very qualities that we will forever admire in this legendary character. With a little practice in using a few of these mental manipulations, you too will maximize your brain’s very real mental prowess.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013