BOOK REVIEW: Mastermind by Maria Konnikova


How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

By Maria Konnikova

Canongate, £8.99 paperback

If you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock and live in the UK, where it’s aired in its entirety, then you’re probably desperate for a Mind Palace to call your own, and have spent hours agonising over how to furnish the space. Why not start by reading Konnikova’s Mastermind? A hit when published in hardcover, it’s out in paperback at the start of this month.

Konnikova has degrees in psychology, and blogs regularly on the subject. Her expertise carries the book, but fear not, for her style is unfussy and accessible. She illustrates her points with anecdotes drawn from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle, scientific studies, and stories from her own life. Her skill is in choosing when to hold back, so those who haven’t read the actual stories on which all the telly and film is based don’t need to worry about spoilers.

She begins by explaining scientific method: “understand and frame the problem; observe; hypothesise (or imagine); test and deduce; and repeat.” Holmes, she says, approaches problems like a scientist, and is good at what he does because he is skeptical and inquisitive. He takes nothing at face value.

Here the glamorous Mind Palace is called a Brain Attic, but it amounts to the same thing – our repository of memories and the basis for the way that we think.

Mastermind contains a great deal about the mechanics of human cognition, with an emphasis on what does and does not promote memory retention. For instance motivation helps, whereas certain descriptive words can hinder because they colour our impressions. Unhappiness and gloom have an intriguing effect on the visual cortex by actually narrowing our vision so that we see less of what’s going on. All of this is interesting, but I found it a tad repetitive, and if I have any complaints it’s that I wanted a bit more of the how to exercises and a bit less of the general knowledge.

Having said that, repetition is quite useful if you’re trying to memorise material, so perhaps that’s the author’s aim.

Konnikova’s key point is that a receptive mind is a quiet mind, a slow mind. There’s a reason why Holmes has “three pipe problems”, why he sits unmoving for hours, and why he plays the violin. All these meditative exercises make it possible for his mind to roam free, wandering through his attic (or palace) picking up on every point, assessing each for relevance, and then examining those that are relevant in an unhurried fashion. Holmes’ great strength is his ability to focus intensely on a single problem, without allowing distractions to invade. His other stellar quality is creativity. “Openness is the hallmark of the creative mind,” and Holmes’s imagination makes him smarter, because he explores each case from “a place of open-minded possibility.”

Sadly we are most of us more like Watson: propulsive, digressive, and keen to reach a conclusion as swiftly as possible. We allow our minds to run around like undisciplined children and have trouble concentrating. Luckily for those who want to tidy up their mind palaces, this book offers tips about getting organised.

Random, non-critical aside: For some reason whenever the book mentioned Holmes I pictured Benedict Cumberbatch, but whenever it mentioned Watson I pictured Nigel Bruce. My subconscious has been busy rearranging seating cards at the dining table inside my Mind Palace!

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