How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: Lessons in Mindfulness and Creativity from the Great Detective
“A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”
By Maria Popova
“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts,” wrote James Webb Young in his famous 1939 5-step technique for creative problem-solving, “becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.” But just how does one acquire those vital cognitive customs? That’s precisely what science writer Maria Konnikova explores in Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (UK; public library) — an effort to reverse-engineer Holmes’s methodology into actionable insights that help develop “habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.”
Bridging ample anecdotes from the adventures of Conan Doyle’s beloved detective with psychology studies both classic and cutting-edge, Konnikova builds a compelling case at the intersection of science and secular spiritualism, stressing the power of rigorous observation alongside a Buddhist-like, Cageian emphasis on mindfulness. She writes:
The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that, ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.
In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking — something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.
But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal. Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.
But mindfulness, and the related mental powers it bestows upon its master, is a skill acquired with grit and practice, rather than an in-born talent or an easy feat attained with a few half-hearted tries:
It is most difficult to apply Holmes’s logic in those moments that matter the most. And so, all we can do is practice, until our habits are such that even the most severe stressors will bring out the very thought patterns that we’ve worked so hard to master.
Echoing Carl Sagan, Konnikova examines the role of intuition — a grab-bag concept embraced by some of history’s greatest scientific minds, cultural icons, and philosophers — as both a helpful directional signpost of intellectual inquiry and a dangerous blind spot:
Our intuition is shaped by context, and that context is deeply informed by the world we live in. It can thus serve as a blinder — or blind spot — of sorts. … With mindfulness, however, we can strive to find a balance between fact-checking our intuitions and remaining open-minded. We can then make our best judgments, with the information we have and no more, but with, as well, the understanding that time may change the shape and color of that information.
“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Holmes famously remarked. Indeed, much like the inventor’s mind, the problem-solver’s mind is the product of that very choice: The details and observations we select to include in our “brain attic” shape and filter our perception of reality. Konnikova writes:
Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.
Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.
But while our minds might be wired to wander, argues Konnikova, multitasking is a myth that only detracts from our productivity and intellectual efficiency:
As neurologist Marcus Raichle learned after decades of looking at the brain, our minds are wired to wander. Wandering is their default. Whenever our thoughts are suspended between specific, discrete, goal-directed activities, the brain reverts to a so-called baseline, ‘resting’ state — but don’t let the word fool you, because the brain isn’t at rest at all. Instead, it experiences tonic activity in what’s now known as the DMN, the default mode network: the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex. This baseline activation suggests that the brain is constantly gathering information from both the external world and our internal states, and what’s more, that it is monitoring that information for signs of something that is worth its attention. And while such a state of readiness could be useful from an evolutionary standpoint, allowing us to detect potential predators, to think abstractly and make future plans, it also signifies something else: our minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.
The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. While our minds might be made to wander, they are not made to switch activities at anything approaching the speed of modern demands. We were supposed to remain ever ready to engage, but not to engage with multiple things at once, or even in rapid succession.
Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another. Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in that same room. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity. Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time. One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other — or others — more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out. Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.
Indeed, that allocation of attention to one thing at the expense of another produces a phenomenon known as “attentional blindness,” wherein our intense focus on a specific element makes us practically blind to all else. But there is hope in training. Konnikova offers:
The Holmes solution? Habit, habit, habit. That, and motivation. Become an expert of sorts at those types of decisions or observation that you want to excel at making. … If you learn first how to be selective accurately, in order to accomplish precisely what it is you want to accomplish, you will be able to limit the damage that System Watson can do by preemptively teaching it to not muck it up. The important thing is the proper, selective training — the presence of mind — coupled with the desire the motivation to master your thought process.
No one says it’s easy. When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free attention; it all has to come from somewhere. And every time we place an additional demand on our attentional resources — be it by listening to music while walking, checking our email while working, or following five media streams at once — we limit the awareness that surrounds any one aspect and our ability to deal with it in an engaged, mindful, and productive manner.
Konnikova argues that, not unlike willpower and habit loops, attention is analogous to a muscle that can get strained, but can also be bolstered with training and purposeful repeat use. She goes on to offer four key strategies for optimizing your attention:
- Be Selective
Our vision is highly selective as is — the retina normally captures about ten billion bits per sec of visual information, but only ten thousand bits actually make it to the first layer of the visual cortex, and, to top it off, only 10 percent of the area’s synapses is dedicated to incoming visual information at all. Or, to put it differently, our brains are bombarded by something like eleven million pieces of data — that is, items in our surroundings that come at all of our senses — at once. Of that, we are able to consciously process only about forty. What that basically means is that we ‘see’ precious little of what’s around us, and what we think of as objective seeing would better be termed selective filtering — and our state of mind, our mood, our thoughts at any given moment, our motivation, and our goals can make it even more picky than it normally is.
Our minds are set [for selective attention] for a reason. It’s exhausting to have the Holmes system running on full all the time — and not very productive, at that. There’s a reason we’re prone to filter out so much of our environment: to the brain, it’s noise. If we tried to take it all in, we wouldn’t last very long. Remember what Holmes said about your brain attic? It’s precious real estate. Tread carefully and use it wisely. In other words, be selective about your attention.
At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive: after all, aren’t we trying to pay attention to more, not less? Yes, but the crucial distinction is between quantity and quality. We want to learn to pay attention better, to become superior observers, but we can’t hope to achieve this if we thoughtlessly pay attention to everything. That’s self-defeating. What we need to do is allocate our attention mindfully. And mindset is the beginning of that selectivity.
- Be Objective
It’s psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s theory about believing what we see taken a step further: we believe what we want to see and what our mind attic decides to see, encode that belief instead of the facts in our brains, and then think that we saw an objective fact when really, what we remember seeing is only our limited perception at the time. We forget to separate the factual situation from our subjective interpretation of it.
Setting your goals beforehand will help you direct your precious attentional resources properly. It should not be an excuse to reinterpret objective facts to mesh with what you want or expect to see. Observation and deduction are two separate, distinct steps — in fact, they don’t even come one right after the other.
- Be Inclusive
Attention is about every one of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. It is about taking in as much as we possibly can, through all of the avenues available to us. It is about learning not to leave anything out — anything, that is, that is relevant to the goals that you’ve set. And it is about realizing that all of our senses affect us — and will affect us whether or not we are aware of the impact.
To observe fully, to be truly attentive, we must be inclusive and not let anything slide by — and we must learn how our attention may shift without our awareness, guided by a sense that we’d thought invisible.
- Be Engaged
When we are engaged in what we are doing, all sorts of things happen. We persist longer at difficult problems — and become more likely to solve them. We experience something that psychologist Tory Higgins refers to as flow, a presence of mind that not only allows us to extract more from whatever it is we are doing but also makes us feel better and happier: we derive actual, measurable hedonic value from the strength of our active involvement in and attention to an activity, even if the activity is as boring as sorting through stacks of mail. If we have a reason to do it, a reason that engages us and makes us involved, we will both do it better and feel happier as a result. The principle holds true even if we have to expand significant mental effort — say, in solving difficult puzzles. De- spite the exertion, we will still feel happier, more satisfied, and more in the zone, so to speak.
What’s more, engagement and flow tend to prompt a virtuous cycle of sorts: we become more motivated and aroused overall, and, consequently, more likely to be productive and create something of value.
In a section on the importance of distance in creative thinking, Konnikova echoes previous insights on the need for unconscious processing that allows for ideas to align:
One of the most important ways to facilitate imaginative thinking is through distance. In ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ a case that comes quite late in the Holmes-Watson partnership, Watson observes:
One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage. I remember that during the whole of that memorable day he lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus. For my own part I had none of this power of detachment, and the day, in consequence appeared to be interminable.
Forcing your mind to take a step back is a tough thing to do. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem that you want to solve. But in reality, the characteristic is not so remarkable either for Holmes or for individuals who are deep thinkers. The fact that it is remarkable for Watson (and that he self-admittedly lacks the skill) goes a long way to explaining why he so often fails when Holmes succeeds.
Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision-making. It can come in many forms: temporal, or distance in time (both future and past); spatial, or distance in space (how physically close or far you are from something); social, or distance between people (how someone else sees it); and hypothetical, or distance from reality (how things might have happened). But whatever the form, all of these distances have something in common: they all require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back.
In essence, psychological distance accomplishes one major thing: it engages System Holmes.
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is fascinating from cover to cover — highly recommended.
Public domain images via Flickr Commons
Published January 7, 2013