Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Book cover: Mastermind by Maria KonnikovaSherlock Holmes mysteries are famous for their big reveal at the end, when Holmes connects all those seemingly random clues into a cohesive narrative and solves the crime. Suddenly, everything is so obvious. The audience can’t believe they didn’t figure it out themselves.

Holmes does’t have any magical gifts that made him freakishly smarter than everyone else. Rather, he has a finely honed skill set that took years of practice and constant upkeep. And, as Maria Konnikova asserts in Mastermind, you too can train your brain to work in a similar fashion.

It’s an interesting premise for a book. Konnikova, a journalist and doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University, splits her examples for the way the people think into categories: System Watson and System Holmes (you can guess where most people fall). Each chapter progresses through different functions of the “brain attic,” a metaphor taken from a Holmes quote: “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.” Most people tend to fill their brain attic with lots of random information — which is not necessarily a bad thing — and are content to stop there. This is where you run into problems: you hurriedly make decisions and you’re confident that you know what you know, even if you happen to be completely mistaken. Holmes, however, never rushes to conclusions. Every piece of information and every possible outcome is examined. He takes the time to smoke a pipe or two (or three) so that he can consider his evidence in a relaxed state.

As Konnikova progresses through the different areas of the brain attic, she splits the book into four sections: Understanding (Yourself), From Observation to Imagination, The Art of Deduction, and The Science and Art of Self-Knowledge. She often has short exercises for the reader to complete and uses examples from the Sherlock Holmes canon to illustrate her points. The book is also filled with scientific and psychological tidbits that are broken down in relatable ways. A lot of it is common sense — take your time, pay attention, double-check your evidence, etc. — but as the exercises serve to underscore, people tend to throw common sense out the window and are complacent in their System Watson ways.

Sometimes the book is a little repetitive, but the information is always easily digestible. That said, there is a lot of information to consider, so this isn’t a book you can quickly skim through (nor should you, as one of the main lessons you’ll take from it is don’t rush). Sherlock Holmes fans will love all the references to the books, movies, and television shows. With a little practice and diligence, maybe you’ll soon find yourself thinking along the lines of Mr. Holmes.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes was released on January 3, 2013 by Viking Adult, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA).

Goodreads | Amazon
I read it as a(n): Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Pages: 288

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9 comments

  1. Eva

    I’m rather curious about this one. At the risk of sounding like a puffed up ass, I think I already tend more towards Holmes than Watson (although that’s a rather long continuum, imho), but it’d be fun to see new approaches. I also think it could be v annoying; did the author’s tone ever alienate you?

    • Melissa

      Oh, I’m definitely Watson! I did a couple of the exercises (and failed), then gave them to my brother (who figured them out). I was just left going “wooooow, I’m dumb.” lol!

  2. Niranjana

    I read a (not-very-positive) review of this one in the Guardian, where the reviewer felt the book had force-fitted Holmes into a book about cognitive neuroscience. And now I’m even more wary about picking this up because it seems kind of mean to Watson…

    • Melissa

      My exposure to him is more pop culture-y (I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes book), so I have no idea how much force-fitting went on. She picks specific scenes or quotes from different books to introduce concepts, so I can see how force-fitting could happen.

  3. Pingback: MASTERMIND debuts (and stays) on NYT Bestseller list–and other updates | Maria Konnikova

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