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Mastermind

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

By Maria Konnikova
18-minute read
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind explores Sherlock Holmes’s unique approach of observation, imagination and deduction, and illustrates how anyone can harness his method to improve their thinking and decision-making skills. To this end, the book presents a variety of simple strategies, drawing on scientific research in psychology and neuroscience, and numerous examples from the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

  • Anyone curious about the method behind Sherlock Holmes’s way of thinking
  • Anyone wanting to learn the basics about how people think, what influences thought processes, and the pitfalls involved in decision making
  • Anyone interested in learning how to cultivate rational, reflective and mindful thinking habits

Maria Konnikova is a Russian-American writer and journalist with a background in psychology, creative writing and government. Her contributions have appeared in numerous publications, such as the New Yorker, Scientific American, the New York Times and others.

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Mastermind

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

By Maria Konnikova
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
Synopsis

Mastermind explores Sherlock Holmes’s unique approach of observation, imagination and deduction, and illustrates how anyone can harness his method to improve their thinking and decision-making skills. To this end, the book presents a variety of simple strategies, drawing on scientific research in psychology and neuroscience, and numerous examples from the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

Key idea 1 of 11

System Watson in the driver's seat: Most of the time we are reflexive and mindless.

At some point, we've all wished we were capable of making better decisions. But have you ever wondered how your decision-making skills might be improved? 

To improve these skills, you first need to consider that the brain comprises two systems that govern our thinking and decision making.

The first of these systems is a kind of autopilot – a compulsive system that requires little conscious thought.

You can see this in the way the majority of people approach the following problem: 

A bat and ball together cost $1.10. Taken separately, the bat costs $1 more than the ball.

What does the ball cost? 

If you immediately answered $0.10, you were in autopilot mode – and quite wrong. The correct answer is, in fact, $0.05.

So, why do we make this obvious mistake? 

The brain's autopilot system is its default mode, which means that we tend to pick the first answer that comes to mind – the answer that appeals to our intuition. This is because conscious thought requires energy, so our brains turn most of our thoughts into routines and habits that are less mentally taxing. 

While this system is useful, it also has negative consequences for our decision making, often leading to quick, erroneous judgments based on our emotions and intuition. 

Let's name this autopilot system “Watson,” after the fictional character Dr. John Watson – Sherlock Holmes' partner in the detective stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Why? Because Dr. Watson acts much like the brain's reflexive system. For instance, in one case where Holmes and Watson travel to the countryside to investigate a murder, Watson notes the “ideal spring day” and the “fresh and beautiful” scenery. Rather than being alert and cautious, Watson allows his compulsive system, and thus his emotions, to take over. The result is that he sees everything in a positive light – an inappropriate mindset for a murder investigation. 

However, the good news is that the brain has a second system – “System Holmes” – which we'll learn all about in the next blink.

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