Maria Konnikova – How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

January 14, 2013

Our guest this week is Maria Konnikova, who is the author of a simply fascinating new book about training your mind so you’re as sharp as the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

It’s entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

In addition to her new book, Konnikova writes the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American, and is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University.

She’s also written for The Atlantic, Slate, The New York Times, and other publications. Mastermind is her first book.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, January 14th, 2013. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots, if you haven’t yet, please follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and also on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. This week, my guest is Maria Konnikova. She’s the author of a simply fascinating new book about training your mind. So you’re literally as sharp as the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. It’s entitled Mastermind How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. In addition to her new book, Konnikova writes the literally psyched column for Scientific American. And she’s a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia. She’s also written for The Atlantic Slate, The New York Times and other publications. Mastermind is her first book. Maria Konnikova, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

It’s a pleasure to speak with you. 

It’s a pleasure to have you. And your new book is fascinating. It uses the example of Sherlock Holmes. And this is the actual literary version, not the movie version, where he fights in the ring to teach us how to be more mindful of what’s how we’re thinking, how our brain is working, and how you start out with something as simple as a series of stairs on a staircase. Tell us about that. 

Sir, those stairs are actually what inspired the book. It’s an exchange that happens between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in one of the first stories that Canada wrote, a scandal in Bohemia. And they’re sitting in the living room talking. And Holmes asks Watson if he knows how many steps lead up to 221 B Baker Street. And Watson has no idea. He just draws a complete blank. And Holmes tells him, well, I know there are 17 steps. And Watson’s Bartholdi says, while I have eyes and my eyes are just as good as yours. But as Holmes quickly points out, the eyes and vision, that’s not the problem. The issue is, are you only seeing or are you seeing and observing? So Watson just sees the world and Holmes both sees and observes. And I remember when I first heard this, I was eight years old or so my dad read us the Sherlock Holmes stories. And this just really struck me when I was little. It was mind boggling because I realized that I was exactly like Watson. I had no idea how many stairs led up to my house. I didn’t know how many steps led up anywhere. So I became quite frantic. I thought I was missing out on something very important and started counting and trying to memorize the number of steps everywhere. So I clearly at that age, I missed the point because I was cluttering my mind instead of doing what Holmes actually meant, which was to be mindful and to observe the world. 

Because in that exchange, he really captures the essence of both his approach and how his approach differs from the usual kind of Watsonia, an approach which is the difference between seeing and observing or mindlessness and mindfulness really taking in the world around you. 

Mm hmm. And one of the points of your book is we’re all sort of running around as Watson’s of cats. So. So what I found difficult about it, though, is that it’s so hard not to be. I mean, how it seems like you have to be this sort of like constantly contemplative monk in order to catch yourself and all the things that your mind is unconsciously doing. 

You know, it is incredibly difficult. I’m not going to lie and say that this is something that is the easiest thing in the world. But I don’t think we need to become contemplative monks. Shirley Scheier comments night. He might have some monkey own tendencies, but he does interact with the world. I think it’s a question of choosing when we want to engage and realizing what is important for us. 

So when is it important for us to be mindful? When do we really want to make sure that we are taking in the world? And what is it okay to kind of just sit back and let our minds relax? Because kind of Watson’s mindless approach is our default state for a reason. It’s easier and it makes us much more efficient. It’s really hard to be like homes all the time unless less like homes. You’ve done this your whole life. And for you, this has become the status quo. Otherwise, I think you need to pick and choose your battles. I certainly don’t follow my own advice. A lot of it. I am I’m very guilty of multitasking on many an occasion. I don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. 

And I do find, you know, that no matter how much research I do, no matter how much I know about the benefits of mindfulness and the benefits are just vast, I often find myself not practicing what I preach and checking my phone, thinking about something else, you trying to fit in more things that I really should. So you make a very good point. It’s hard. It’s hard not to do that. 

Yeah, well, we we caught you because we set up this interview through Twitter and I sent you a tweet and you responded almost instantly saying, oh, I got you in the act. Well, there’s many, many questions, many directions that this leads. 

But I actually want to step back and get a little more background first, because we’re one of the things I thought reading your book is it’s hard to read it outside of the current context in which it exists, which is one in which culturally, suddenly people are really fascinated with. Sherlock Holmes is like a big revival. You have the movies, you have the BBC series. You have a CBS series. Why is everybody dig in Sherlock Holmes so much right now? 

I think that every generation tends to rediscover homes for themselves. If you looked at the history of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, you find just like clockwork. There’s really a Sherlock Holmes that generation after generation adapts and it’s a different one. You know, it might be Basil Rathbone, it might be Benedict Cumberbatch. It depends on when you were born. But Holmes is someone who really appeals to almost any age. And what I love about the modern adaptations, as they do, put Holmes in a modern context. And they show that one of the reasons that he is so particularly appealing right now is because we do have, I think, this tendency to to multitask and to really be very dependent on technology in a way that differs from the Victorian era when Sherlock Holmes was created, was born. And Holmes is this. He’s a figure who provides an antidote to that constant connectedness. He’s someone who can show us how to manage our resources, how to be independent in a world where that independence is hard won. One of the things I really like about the modern BBC adaptation is that Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch never multitasks. 

He has a cell phone, but he hardly ever uses it. He only does so when he needs it. He’s incredibly up on all the latest technologies and he uses them all the time. But you’ll never see him, you know, walking and texting. You’ll never see him thinking and tweeting. He is very true to the spirit of the original homes. 

I want to remind our listeners that Maria Kotoko of his new book, Mastermind How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is available through our website Point of Inquiry dot org. 

Now, the original author, Sherlock Holmes, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself was, you know, tried to practice some of these techniques in his court investigations, sometimes not so well as we’ll talk about later. But I mean, did he understand much of anything of the science that you’re now unpacking in the book? 

Or was he just intuiting something? 

I think it’s a combination of the two. The majority of it is intuition in the sense that we didn’t know a lot of the science, even 10, 20 years ago. 

Mindfulness research, attention, research, research on what multitasking is and how it manifests itself in the brain of what our brains default network is. What does it mean to pay attention? This is really new research. And so even some even a psychologist working much later in time than Arthur Conan Doyle. Wouldn’t have been able to anticipate a lot of what we know. 

But on the other hand, Canada was trained as a doctor and he did receive scientific training. And Sherlock Holmes was based on an actual historical figure. Dr. Joseph Bell and his methods came from the methods of that doctor. They weren’t something that Conan Doyle invented out of the blue. 

So I think there is this combination of having the necessary background and having a very firm grounding in the science in order to then be able to intuit things that he didn’t know. And I don’t know if he was aware of just how accurate he was, how accurate his intuitions were, or if it just flowed and made sense to him because of his grounding in science. I’m not sure what the answer to that is. 

Well, Holmes certainly is. 

You say an icon of of sort of scientific way of thinking, scientific revolution. Do you think that’s why he’s appealing right now? Or is it more this sense? I mean, you keep mentioning the word multitasking. Is it more the sense that we’re overwhelmed? 

And he feels like an antidote, a different way of being. 

I think it’s probably the former. Even though I would like to believe that it’s the latter. I think it is because of the scientific way of thinking. Homs embodies a way of thinking that we can all aspire to. One of the things I love about Sherlock Holmes is he isn’t a superhero. He is just like us. He’s fallible. He makes mistakes. He acknowledges that he makes mistakes and that he’s probably not like some of us because it’s very hard to acknowledge when you’re wrong. He corrects himself. He learns he is overconfident. He suffers from hubris. He has errors in his logic. He’s not always right. And when he does explain his methods to Watson, these are methods that we can follow. So Sherlock Holmes has a sense of teen ability that a lot of other fictional characters don’t. We look at him and we think, hey, I can do that, too, because there is this logical set of steps and there are these things that I can do so that I can be more like Sherlock Holmes. There is a logical progression. Just like with the scientific method. Anyone can design a study. It might not be a groundbreaking study if you don’t have the necessary background to do that. But you can certainly design a simple experiment. And I think if you apply that to thinking into the mind like Sherlock Holmes does, he can follow these specific steps and be closer to that ideal thinker that Sherlock Holmes is. 

Isn’t it the case, though, that I mean, I just tried to think of when I’m ever like Sherlock Holmes, as you describe him. And I did think of an example and I’ll tell you what it is, but it also made me think that, well, that’s only in one really isolated case, because I’ve trained myself and there’s one particular area. But but but being able to do it across all of life is what’s so hard and just the area. Just briefly, I mean, I used to be a bird watcher. I’m not anymore. But my brain is trained so that when I’m walking around, I see things that other people aren’t seeing. I see birds other people are seeing. I see them in trees. You know, I see them out. The winner of the metro perched on an abandoned railway bridge. I mean, in the rest of the world’s going on and nobody’s noticing. And that’s because I built up this whole way of looking at things. But it’s just in that one area. 

And then and then I’m as busy and not noticing things as anybody else in so many other areas. 

I think that’s an excellent example. And it really shows the main point that I make about Sherlock Holmes, which is that he’s an expert. He has trained himself. So just like you’re an expert in bird watching, Sherlock Holmes is an expert basically at People at the World. He’s an expert detective. And so he has realized, you know, what do I need to succeed at what I want to do, which is to be the best consulting detective the world has ever seen. For that, he needs to understand people. He needs to be able to tell the most, may know details of anyone, of any kind of conversation, any situation in any setting, because he’s looking at murders. So he isn’t Sherlock Holmes in the way that we think of it 24/7. He’s perfectly capable of not noticing that it’s raining outside. Sometimes he forgets and he doesn’t realize that Watson has been gone for the day and he’s had a conversation with him while Watson is at his club somewhere in another part of London. So he does also turn on and off this power. It’s very selective. I think that Holmes does realize that our attention is incredibly finite. And what you’ve noticed in your experience with birds is that once you train your attention, once you train yourself in one area, you start seeing the world differently from someone who is a non expert. So you will notice the bird that I won’t notice. You’ll hear the bird that and I won’t even real. Is that a bird is singing. And what’s more, you’ll see the bird differently from me. Because you’ll know about the bird. So you’re much more likely to be able to identify it, to tell me lots of things about it. 

And you will see other details because you’re looking at it with an expert eye. And I am looking at it with an amateur eye and building up this expertize is what Holmes is about. We need to choose those areas that matter to us. Where do we want to become experts? I’m sure that you that I’m sure that it took you some time to be to become a bird bird expert. 

I don’t think you just woke up and said, hey, I’m going to study birds. And the next day you were able to see the world. It was probably a longer process than, you know, it takes you know, it takes time. 

It takes enthusiasm. What’s interesting is I don’t have the enthusiasm, but I still have the habit. So I guess I guess what part of what this is, is you need the constant consciously train yourself to be attentive to all these details and aspirational in an area where you want to be better. And so you have to kind of take control of it. But that requires a lot of foresight. 

Yes. Does require foresight. But you also mentioned something very important, which is habit. So now this is a habit. You no longer think about birds. You’re no longer a bird watcher, and yet you still see all these things. And does it seem effortful to you when you do that? 

No, it’s pretty. It just happens. I don’t even know why it is anymore. I still kind of appreciate it, but I don’t make a lot of effort. Just half. 

Well, that’s the thing. But at the beginning, I’m sure that it was difficult, only effortful. And so at some point, the switch happens. You know, from the moment when it was really hard and you had to devote a lot of your resources to that, to the moment where it’s second nature to you. So you don’t even know why you noticed this bird. But, you know, it’s there and you can tell me everything about it. Now, imagine if you could do that about other things as well. And then it no longer takes the effort. It’s no longer taking up your resources. It only takes up your resources when you’re learning when it’s still difficult. So one of the reasons that Sherlock Holmes was able to do what he does is he he has made a lot of these things effortless by this point in time. 

Let me remind the listeners again that Maria Konnikova, his new book, Mastermind How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, is available through our Web site, Puttnam Inquiry dot org. 

So from the perspective of our listeners, at least many of them, I know they’re thinking one thing or at least is something I was thinking when I was reading it, which is that we have this great paragon of dispassionate, critical thinking and weighing all the evidence and not falling for your own biases. Sherlock Holmes. And then we have the guy who created him, Conan Doyle, who falls head over heels for pseudoscience and fantasy late in his life, becoming a devotee of spiritualism and believing in, you know, fake fairy pictures. And you talk about this in the book. 

I mean, and having a real life Sherlock Holmes, Harry Houdini kind of embarrass him in spiritualism by proving that all this stuff is a sham. When they’re making these noises in dark rooms and stuff like that, it’s just people knocking on the table. 

How is it possible to have homes created by someone who turns out to be credulous? 

I think it’s highly possible for that to happen in the sense that even someone like Holmes might be led to believe to think in things that today we would find totally crazy. Conan Doyle really did think that he was being scientific when it came to spiritualism and when it came to fairies. The thing is, personally, he was suffering through a huge crisis. You know, a lot of his family died in the war. And I think he really wanted to believe that this was true. And so his bar of proof, he didn’t follow his own creations advice. He set the bar lower instead of higher. 

There is this wonderful moment in the Hound of the Baskervilles where Holmes says something about the paranormal hound and Watson asks and wait. So you’re willing to believe that this hound is otherworldly? That it’s not that it’s not real. That it’s the devilish creation. And Holmes says that while yes and no, I’m not going to be closed minded about it. I’m going to leave myself open to that possibility. But the burden of proof is going to be incredibly high. And I’m going to look at every single other possible option before I settle on that one. 

So I’m going to make sure that I really dig deep because this it’s much more likely that it’s not the devil, but that it’s the agents of the devil, which is man. And that’s what Arthur Conan Doyle should have done with the fairies, because that’s on the same level. Or he should have looked at absolutely everything else. And he did it. He really wanted to believe that this was true, not something that we all do. We really when we want to believe something in something known as a confirmation bias, we look for confirming evidence. And it’s much more difficult for us to find disconfirming evidence, things that go against our mind when it’s already made up. But I’d also like to cut Conan Doyle a tiny bit of slack here when it comes to spiritualism, not when it comes to the fairies. The fairies were pretty egregious. That’s a lot of a lot of experts at the time called him out on it. But when it comes to spiritualism, we’re talking the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. Spiritualism is a very new phenomenon. And people like William James, who is the father of modern psychology, endorse it and think that spiritualism is the future of psychology. So you have someone who is kind of the the founder of. Most of what we now look at as cognitive as social psychology. Who also believes in spiritualism. So we need to take it in context. It’s easy to think of Conan Doyle as totally wacko. But back then, we were discovering new things all the time. You know, things like the X-ray that seemed like magic because people didn’t realize that unseen energy forces existed in the world. So this was a time of a lot of scientific discovery. And I don’t think it’s that crazy that Conan Doyle sided with someone like William James in thinking that spiritualism might be a possibility. 

No, fair enough. I mean, but but also at the same time, just, you know, shout out to one of our skeptic heroes, Whodini. I mean, there were people who totally could see that their people were being hoodwinked. I mean, and it wasn’t hard for them to prove it. 


And I think Conan Doyle did think that some of these mediums were fakes. He just thought that there were also real ones. So he refused. He thought that Houdini was too close minded. One of my favorite stories that I didn’t include in the book. I think I might have included it. 

And the version that was twice as long that my editor wanted to hide under the desk was a story one Conan Doyle was asked to speak to the spirit, to the spiritualist, to the magicians gathering in the United States. So he came to the US and he unveiled this magical saying it was pictures of moving dinosaurs. So he turned off the lights and there were real dinosaurs in the room. And all these magicians were just floored. They had no idea what this was. He said that it was proof that dinosaurs existed, that he was able to call them back from the dead. What this really was, was video footage based on one of his books that had just been filmed. And these were fake dinosaurs. This was a movie. Movies didn’t exist really then. 

And this was completely new technology and no one had seen anything like this. And so they were taken in by this sort of hoax that Conor Doyle wanted to wanted to use to illustrate to them that we really are the victims of our own knowledge and that it’s hard for us to believe something that we haven’t previously experienced. 

So he was just trying to make a point here. Magician, stay open minded. You guys are the ones who specialize in tricking us. And yet here I, humble Rader, have tricked you. 

Well, but again, I don’t want to be a dad or. But again, he should have. He should have been less tricker. 

Boland’s the loser. Now, I’m trying to I’m not trying to excuse Conan Doyle. He fell far short of his Sherlockian idea. And Sherlock Holmes would have set task task and would not have been very happy was Sir Arthur for believing in fairies and for embracing spiritualism. 

I just I want to say, as you know, we shouldn’t be quite as harsh on him as we tend to be. But that’s fair. There is also no reason to make excuses for him because there were a lot of forward thinkers and a lot of very smart people at the time who realized that all of this was just bogus. 

So, again, with with Holmes and him being so scientific in his thinking and a lot of the book, you talk about essentially controlling your mind in such a way or being conscious of it, maybe it would be a better way of putting it so that, you know, that it’s doing what we might call biased things and that it’s built, too, but that if if you are aware it’s doing it, you do have some measure of ability to check it. 

I mean, that’s good. But at the same time, it seems like the consensus of what the scientific method is and isn’t nowadays suggests that one person can only do so much. 

You really need a community of people checking each other, which is a different a different approach. 

I guess I think that those are getting at to slightly different points. So one person definitely isn’t enough when it comes to kind of bigger things, when it comes to checking out concepts, checking out new intuitions, when you’re talking real scientific experiments, when you’re talking real data, when you’re talking real conclusions. But you can apply that same approach and that same logic to yourself. 

And in that sense, you are enough because you’re the one who knows who’s capable of knowing your own biases best in a way, even though you really don’t know them very well. But you can try to at least observe your own behavior and see try to see why you’re acting the way you are. Chances are you’ll often be wrong, but at least you’ll know you’re biased. 

So there it’s it’s it’s a balance between realizing that you’re always going to have these biases and realizing that there’s some certain things that you really can’t control. But also doing your best to correct for them and to try to understand why exactly it is that you’re thinking what you’re thinking, why exactly it is that you’re acting the way you’re acting, why you’re judging someone in a certain way, why you’re feeling a certain way, why you’re suddenly hungry. Is there some subliminal advertising? Maybe you know why? Why certain things happen to you. Of course, your point about the community comes back here in the sense that all of the findings that I talk about, those are all made out of experiments on, you know, hundreds and thousands of people. And we’ve observed these same biases over and over. So we can say it’s probably safe to say that it’s going to apply in a certain way to you. So you take all of the data from all of these different studies and then you apply them to yourself personally. And you probably have to make some sort of an adjustment because every single person will be a little bit different. 

I want to remind our listeners one more time that Maria Konnikova is new book Mastermind How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is available through our website Point of Inquiry dot org. So, I mean, I think your book really resonates. 

I get the sense that it is resonating. 

And if I have to hazard, you know, one reason the people of Sherlock Holmes and understanding how he thinks it is, it is this idea that we’re living we’re constantly being barraged in a kind of by information insanity. 

We can’t we can’t get away from it. 

What would it really mean? Mean is it even possible for people to take up an example like Holmes and and try to quiet down their minds? 

I mean, do you see anybody really stepping out of the world in this way? I mean, is it even possible today? Did you just fall too far behind? 

I think so. I think it’s I think it’s quite possible to start moving in that direction. My favorite example, and I mentioned this in the book is Ray Dalio, who’s the head and founder of Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world, and he meditates every day. So he takes some time each morning. Sometimes he’s able to devote more time and he does it at home. Sometimes he does it sitting at his desk. And it’s only a few minutes. 

But he realizes that taking that time out is going to make him much more. Make his brain much snappier, make his cognition much sharper throughout the day. And so for him, that’s not time wasted. That’s time invested. That’s something that Sherlock Holmes teaches us, that all this time, all this so-called nothingness is really something that’s going to make you so much more productive that it’s totally it’s totally worth the time out. It’s not going to set you behind. 

It’s going to enable you to complete everything that you need to do much faster. And a few minutes, you know, five minutes, ten minutes, even two minutes each day. 

I don’t think there’s a single person who’s too busy to do that, to just sit quietly, you know, close your eyes and try to dismiss any distractions and just try to focus your mind and remember what it’s like to be alone with your thoughts. Remember what it’s like to concentrate. It’s an ability that I fear we’re losing more and more because we never have to do it. There’s always so much going on that we’re never in the same boat that we were that we would be. You know, in the 17th century, when there’s no electricity, there’s nothing to do. 

And you have to be alone in the evening and you have to figure out some way of just being with yourself. Now, we can always do something. There’s always the second that there’s downtime, we can feel that downtime. And I think it scares us to have those moments of quiet. 

But instead, I think we should cultivate them because research shows that even as little as a few minutes each day can already make our brains start looking like that of expert meditators who spent years of their life doing this. 

And I guess maybe just to underscore that, I mean, meditation has a little bit of sort of woo woo connotations to it still. But I gather you’re saying that, you know, the science that you talk about in the book does suggest that this is going to help you get your mind more trained to actually focus and perform. 

Mm hmm. I think there’s work that shows that it improves your concentration, it improves your memory and improves your imagination and creativity. It also improves your health and your happiness. 

Wouldn’t just getting a good night’s sleep do just as much or more? 

Oh, a good night’s sleep is absolutely essential as well. We should never underestimate that. I don’t think it would do more, but it would certainly do just as much. The two in combination. That’s that’s priceless. And one thing Robert Downey Junior gets right about Sherlock Holmes with all of his fight scenes as Holmes exceptional athlete. I mean, yeah, he’s in great shape. He Russel’s he’s a fencer. He does all sorts of martial arts. I mean, there seems to be nothing he can’t do. And that’s that’s another component of physical fitness. You can’t underestimate the importance of being in good physical health for mental health. So I think sleep, physical fitness, those are my two things that we should add to our two hour equation, because ultimately, reading the book, I just found myself thinking that it’s really all about energy. 

I mean, the brain is built as a, you know, organ that consumes a lot of it. So it had to be, quote unquote, designed by evolution so that they can conserve it. So all these automatic, unthinking things that we do or just the low energy things and the high energy things are the ones that take effort and consume more calories. And so what you’re trying to do is realize that there are all these defaults that might lead to bad places if you’re tired or if you’re not bothering to think about. I mean, ultimately, what you’re trying to do is harness the energy that you have. 

Yes, I think that’s totally right. And one of the other things I would add to that is that when we think we’re multitasking, we’re really switching very quickly between different tasks and tasks. Switching is incredibly taxing cognitively. If you wanted to talk about one thing that expands the most energy for our brains, it’s switching between tasks. So multitasking exhausts our resources much more quickly than anything else. And then even if we do want to try to pay attention to one thing afterwards, we’re not going to be as good. 

Well, I think this all is very well as a timely and inspiring for those of us who definitely live the life of being. Let’s just say we’re all on Twitter all the time. 

So that even I responded to your tweet within seconds of yourself. 

It wasn’t seconds, but it was fast. And I would unfortunately, I would do the same. So. So that’s why I think the book is so important. 

Plus, trichomes is cool. So thank you so much for writing it and for being with us on the show. 

Thank you. I really enjoyed it. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry during the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us and leave your comments at point of inquiry, dawg. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can tweet at us at Port of Inquiry and you can find us on Facebook and leave your comments at slash point of inquiry. If you enjoyed this episode, please remember these shows are made possible by donations from listeners like you to the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization. So whether you can afford ten dollars a hundred, you can go to our website Puttnam Inquiry dot org and make a contribution today. The views expressed on board of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

One of inquiries produced by atomizing and amrs New York and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney