Maria Konnikova: An interview by Bob Morris

Konnokova, MariaMaria Konnikova is the author of the New York Times bestseller, MASTERMIND: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. She writes the weekly “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American, where she explores the intersection of literature and psychology, and formerly wrote the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Observer, WIRED, Scientific American MIND, and Scientific American, among other publications. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and is currently a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Columbia University. Before returning to school, she worked as a producer for the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. She lives in New York City.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write MASTERMIND?

Konnikova: It grew our of a series of pieces I wrote for Big Think and Scientific American, called “Lessons from Sherlock Holmes.” I stumbled on the idea of using the Holmes stories to illustrate a few psychological concepts—and it clicked into place. The more research I did, the more convinced I became that it would make for a good lens for a book on the mind.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Konnikova: I never realized before just how frequently I multitask and how often my focus strays from my writing. Writing MASTERMIND made me confront my media-tetherdness, so to speak.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Konnikova: Surprisingly, it doesn’t. I basically followed my initial outline and proposal.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “mindful thought”?

Konnikova: Mindful thought is just a way to describe presence of mind: a mind that is focused on the present moment and is able to both acknowledge and dismiss any internal or external distractions that may arise.

Morris: You suggest that for Sherlock Holmes, “mindful presence is just a first step.” Please explain.

Konnikova: To Holmes, mindfulness isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means toward the type of clear thinking that allows him to tackle problems, solve cases, catch criminals. Sure, he gets all of the benefits of mindfulness—mental sharpness, emotional benefits, and the like—but they are by-products and not the end goal. Mindfulness is the prerequisite starting point for the type of thinking he needs to engage in to become—and remain—the world’s best consulting detective.

Morris: In various films about Holmes, especially those featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the character Dr. John H. Watson’s primary function seems to provide comic relief. Sometimes he asks questions that many of those who watch the film have. In your opinion, what is his primary function in the works of fiction written by Arthur Conan Coyle?

Konnikova: He is decidedly not comic relief—although you must admit, Holmes’s quips at Watson’s expense are fairly hilarious. Watson is a worthy companion; remember, he is a trained medical doctor and not just a random who-knows-what. He helps Holmes clarify and sharpen his thinking, helps him avoid the pitfalls of reasoning to which even the greatest detective is prone, and sometimes even serves as the source of a key insight (or reprimand) that will solve the case.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between System Watson and System Holmes?

Konnikova: For those who have read Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful Thinking Fast and Slow, the difference is simple. Watson is System 1, and Holmes, System 2. System Watson is the fast, natural, largely effortless, reflexive system. System Holmes is the slow, largely effortful, reflective system. The one frees up our cognitive resources for other things; the other, takes them up for deeper reflection.

Morris: Early in the book, on Page 21 to be specific, you observe, “To Sherlock Homes, the world has become by default a pink elephant world.” Please explain.

Konnikova: It’s my way of illustrating a concept that dates back to the work of philosophers like Spinoza and that has more recently been explored by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In order to understand something, we must first believe it. Only then can we disbelieve. So, if I say “pink elephant,” you must for a brief instant visualize an actual pink elephant, before your brain jumps in to say that that’s a false statement and pink elephants don’t actually exist. The pink elephant is an egregious case; obviously, it is false. But in real life, false statements get past our correction radar all the time: we believe it and then never take the time to disbelieve. And so, our minds become populated by pink elephants. Holmes is skeptical from the get-go. No matter how innocuous something may sound, he questions it with the same severity.

Morris: I have read most of the research results produced by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University and am aware of the need to supplement mindful motivation with brutal training: deep, deliberate “practice, practice, practice” for (on average) at least 10,000 hours under expert and strict supervision. Here’s my question: Is that what is required to master the Holmes methodology? Please explain.

Konnikova: Yes, that is certainly part of it, as I say repeatedly. Nothing comes without practice, and Holmes has been honing his methodology for years and years. We can’t expect to catch up right away. That said, no, we don’t need 10,000 hours to begin to change the way we think and approach the world. We don’t have to become first-class detectives; just more mindful thinkers.

Morris: What is the “brain attic”? Where is it and what is its unique significance?

Konnikova: It’s Holmes’s metaphor for the human mind and how it stores information. We can choose to stock it with junk—but soon, we will find we’ve run out of room, and can’t even find what we’ve put up there. Or, we can be mindful of what we store: use our attic space efficiently and stock it with things that we mean to stock it with, not just any knickknack that happens to come along. But it’s not enough to just store selected information; we need to take care to label it well and integrate it into our attic’s existing contents. That way, we know we will be able to retrieve it at a later point in time.

Morris: What is Motivation to Remember (MTR) and how best to develop it? What is its special significance?

Konnikova: MTR is really precisely what it sounds like: how motivated are you to remember something at the time the memory is being made? The higher the motivation, the more likely you will be to recall it at a later point in time. When we make a conscious effort to remember something and have a reason for wanting to do so, such as personal significance, we improve our likelihood of future recall.

Morris: What does “stocking the brain attic” involve? How best to do that? Is that (or at least should it be) a continuous, never-ending process? Please explain.

Konnikova: I’ve answered the “stocking” bit earlier, in my discussion of the attic itself. As for whether or not it’s a never-ending process, it most certainly is. Our attics are constantly changing. If we don’t continue to stock them mindfully, before we know it, junk will begin to creep in and take over.

Morris: You suggest that engagement stimulates System Holmes. How so?

Konnikova: Engagement is akin to motivation. When we are excited about something, involved in it, motivated to do it, we learn better and function at a higher level. Motivation is a huge part of success; it has even been shown to increase I.Q. scores in high school students.

Morris: There are frequent references to “exclusive focus” throughout your lively and eloquent narrative. Time and again, Homes exemplifies it and I agree with you that it is critically important. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain that importance, in terms of both benefits it affords and problems it avoids.

Konnikova: It goes back to mindfulness. Really, it’s the exact same thing. Be in the moment. Be present. Learn to use your attention mindfully. Don’t split your attention by multitasking. The benefits: all of the benefits that come with mindfulness: sharpness, improved problem solving, better creativity, enhanced emotional state.

Morris: While exploring the human attic in Chapter Four, you suggest that one of the most important ways to facilitate imaginative thinking “is through distance.” Please explain.

Konnikova: We need to learn to always take a step back from any problem, to give ourselves time to reflect before diving in. Mental space is essential for clear thinking, and nothing kills clarity of thought more than a constant rush of busyness.

Morris: All of us live and labor in a world in which there seems to be almost unlimited distractions competing for our attention. There are also countless distractions in Holmes’s world. How does he cope with them? To what extent (if any) can we do so by following his example?

Konnikova: Simply put, he ignores them. He makes a conscious effort to unitask and never let competing demands on his attention draw that attention away from what he is presently doing. We can do the same thing by consciously saying no to multitasking. Instead, we can prioritize, do one thing at a time, and make an effort to avoid needless task-switching.

Morris: When considering premises and assumptions, which do’s and don’ts would Homes suggest that we keep in mind? Please explain.

Konnikova: Always start with an empty slate. Don’t ever presume or assume anything. And realize: you are going to be subjective no matter what. So try to take that subjectivity into account. Learn your own mental foibles and try to control for them.

Morris: In Chapter Six, you observe, “Human learning is largely driven by something known as the reward prediction error (RPE). Please explain, especially in terms of the lessons that can be learned from Holmes as you present him in your book.

Konnikova: We learn when there is a mismatch between what we expect and what happens in reality. Every time there is a mismatch, our brain reacts and learns from the discrepancy. No discrepancy, no learning. Holmes always puts himself in new situations—and new situations are those where the unexpected is most likely to arise. He never stops getting RPEs because he is always finding new games, new tasks, new things to learn.

Morris: While we’re on the subject of learning, of all that you learned from reading the works of Arthur Conan Doyle (in Russian, the language of your childhood), which has proven to be most valuable during the years since then? Why?

Konnikova: Mindfulness, without a doubt. As I say in the introduction, it’s the sine qua non of everything else.

Morris: Here’s another comment that caught my eye: “”We must stop Watson at every point and ask instead the opinion of Holmes.” Is Watson [begin italics] ever [end italics] right?

Konnikova: Yes. Often. There is a reason our brain is almost always in System Watson mode. Otherwise, we would be exhausted. Our mental shortcuts are usually right. We just need to pay attention so that we notice when they aren’t.

Morris: How best to bring one’s habits back from mindlessness to mindfulness?

Konnikova: Practice improving your concentration. Take a few minutes each day for a personal mindfulness practice. Its benefits will translate far beyond those minutes of quiet reflection.

Morris: What are the primary causes of overconfidence and which seems most difficult to avoid or overcome? Why?

Konnikova: Knowledge. The better we are, the more likely we are to be overconfident. But there are certain environments that bring it out; I mention many of the specific characteristics in my book, but the two I would single out here is familiarity and active involvement. When we do something ourselves or when we are dealing with things that are overly familiar, we are far more likely to become complacent and thus, overconfident.

Morris: Is cognitive decline inevitable? Please explain.

Konnikova: No. The brains of older adults continue to learn and change at a deep level. If we keep challenging our minds, we will find them capable of great cognitive feats.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “the dynamic attic”?

Konnikova: One that keeps learning, that never allows itself to gather dust and become stale.

Morris: Watson repeatedly fails to apply what (if anything) he has learned from his close association with Holmes. Why?

Konnikova: Well, for one, he’s fictional (as is Holmes). It wouldn’t work nearly so well if he learned too much. But more to the point, he says it himself: he is lazy. He says he wants to learn Holmes’s way of thought, but he never really applies himself.

Morris: Please explain your choice for the title of Chapter Eight, the final chapter: “We’re Only Human.”

Konnikova: We need to be aware that we are all immensely fallible. Even Sherlock Holmes makes mistakes. We can acknowledge our shortcoming and learn from them—but that doesn’t mean we won’t stop making errors. It’s in how we react to those errors in our own thinking and in others’ that we can set ourselves apart.

Morris: Near the conclusion of that chapter, you observe, “When it comes to the mind, we can all be hunters.” For what? Why?

Konnikova: I mean that as a general mindset. Holmes has the mindset of a hunter. He isn’t hunting for anything in particular, but cultivates that general sense of alertness that characterizes the hunter out on the hunt. Mindset is incredibly important in determining how we view the world and what we take away from it. The way you see yourself has an impact on what you are able to accomplish. The mindset of the hunter is a mindset of mindfulness, alertness, and adaptability: all hallmarks of Holmesian thought.

Morris: Long ago, Henry Ford is reported to have said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” Do you agree?

Konnikova: Yes, I do to a point (which is why he likely inserted the “probably”). Our mindset really does determine how we learn and how well we do.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read MASTERMIND and is now determined to establish and then sustain the core principles of System Holmes at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Konnikova: Institute a culture that values time for quiet and reflection. Make sure everyone actually takes a lunch hour—away from the office. Close doors and cultivate times when employees can be on their own. Do not expect instant email responses unless urgent. Google’s 20% time is a wonderful innovation that we can all learn from. Give your employees time for creativity and play without pressure.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in MASTERMIND, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Konnikova: I’m not sure that my recommendations would differ significantly from those I just made for CEOs more broadly. Give your employees breathing space. Beware open floor plans. Reward initiative. Encourage breaks from work.

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Maria cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website

Her blog at Scientific American

Her Amazon page


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  1. […] of all, some written Q&A’s that I did for the Baker Street Beat, Robert Morris’s Blogging on Business, and the Page 99 […]

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