Mastermind: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 26th, 2013 by bobmorris

MastermindMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Maria Konnikova
Viking/The Penguin Group (2013)

How the Science of Deduction and Analysis can make sense of “a pink elephant world”

Frankly, I have never read another book quite like the one Maria Konnikova has written. Almost immediately after I began to read it, I thought of the television series, The Mentalist, whose lead character (Patrick Jane, played by Simon Baker) is a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation. Each week, he demonstrates the intellectual curiosity as well as observation and analytical skills for which Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is renowned. Both possess a “mastermind,” one that has been highly developed over an extended period of time during a wealth of experiences with the best and worst of human nature. Its most dominant characteristic is “mindfulness.”

As Konnikova explains, “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 poor 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.”

Cleverly, to make several key points, Konnikova juxtaposes two stereotypes from Conan Doyle’s characters: “System Watson” and “System Holmes.” The former personifies “our naive selves, operating by the lazy though habits — the ones that come naturally, the so-called path of least resistance — that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring.” As for the latter, System Systems, it “treats every thought, every experience, and every perception of the way [Holmes] would a pink elephant. In other words, begin with a healthy dose of skepticism instead of credulity that is your mind’s [and Watson’s] natural state of being. Don’t just assume anything is the way it is [or seems to be]. Think of everything as being as absurd as an animal that can’t possibly exist in nature.”

These are among the dozens of passages I found to be of greatest interest and value, also listed to suggest the range of subjects covered during the course of the book’s narrative:

o Pitfalls of the Untrained Brain (17-21)
o A Prime Environment: The Power of the Incidental (49-54)
o Paying Attention Is Anything but Elementary (67-74)
o The Four Elements of Mindfulness (76-108)
o Learning to Overcome Imaginative Doubt (115-128)
o Sustaining Your Imagination: The Importance of Curiosity and Play (150-152)
o The Difficulty of Proper Deduction: Our Inner Storyteller at the Wheel (160-168)
o The Improbable Is Not Impossible (177-184)
o Bringing Habits Back from Mindlessness to Mindfulness (193-197)
o Learning to Spot the Signs of Overconfidence (201-205)
o System Holmes: A Five-Step Process (213-222)
o The Mindset of a Hunter (240-249)

In Chapter One, Konnikova cites a reminder from Holmes worthy of our consideration. “Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to attain the highest possible perfect in it.” That said, Konnikova has convinced me that in order to move from a System Watson to a System Holmes, one must combine highly developed Mindfulness (in the sense of constant practice of mind) and highly developed Motivation (in the sense of active engagement and desire). “To think like Sherlock Holmes, we must want, actively, to think like him.” Those who are self-motivated always outperform those who aren’t…and such motivation requires both desire and effort.

I now intend to re-read this book again because I am determined to increase and strengthen my understanding of the scientific method, guided and informed by an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that Maria Konnikova provides. More specifically, “to understand and frame the [given] problem; observe; hypothesize (or imagine); test and deduce; and repeat.” It’s time, now, to conclude this brief commentary and resume my search for pink elephants.

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