3/7/2013 - Sherlock Holmes is more than a hundred years old, but the curmudgeonly sleuth has been reincarnated more times than Madonna. Most recently, Gregory House of television’s House, M.D., is said to have been based on him, appropriate since Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a Scottish physician. And both Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, in their recent portrayals, have contributed a brooding sexiness that guarantees his continued appeal. The newest incarnation is on Elementary on CBS, featuring Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock in present day New York.
Brilliant, then, is Maria Konnikova’s decision to capitalize on the detective’s popularity, freshly fueled by the BBC drama Sherlock and Cumberbatch, its star. (If you haven’t heard of the actor, you will: There are 41,000 devoted “Cumberbitches” on Twitter.)
There’s no indication that Konnikova is one; she’s a Harvard graduate studying for a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University, no slouch in the brain department herself. In Mastermind, she proposes to make us all think a little more clearly, to operate more like Holmes, less like his amiable sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Even those possessed of average IQs can change our habits of thinking to produce dramatic advances in brainpower, Konnikova posits. “Your brain can be one quick study if it wants to be,” she promises.
Konnikova grew up listening to tales of Holmes’ fantastic capabilities, read by her father at bedtime. There were plenty of stories from which to choose: Conan Doyle introduced the fictional detective in 1887 and featured him in four novels and 56 short stories. That Konnikova knows the body of work is clear; Mastermind quotes liberally from the stories and books, as well as the TV show. She uses the interaction between the detective and his assistant to define two systems of thinking: Holmesian and Watsonian.
“Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits — the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance — that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of the Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we’ll be once we’re done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives — and in doing so break the habits of our Watson system once and for all.”
To lead us poor Watsons out of the land of fuzzy, rote thinking, Konnikova first explains how we think and remember — or don’t remember, as the case may be. We only truly know what we can remember, of course, and the key to Holmes-like awareness is filing information in our “brain attic” so that it can be summoned readily. Our brains file and discard much information automatically, without conscious effort. But we can make our attics more organized and accessible by deliberately making associations to previous memories, and most importantly, by cultivating motivation to remember. Motivation and interest are keys to the attic. Yes, this seems intuitive, and much of this material is, but Konnikova makes it seem pressing and fresh.
The enemies of clear thinking include instinct, emotion and multi-tasking, the latter of which actively impairs the focus that Holmesian thinking requires. Attention is both limited and finite, Konnikova says, and when we pay attention to everything, we pay attention to nothing. Our eyes receive 10 billion bits of information per second, edit them, and pass on to the brain 11 million snippets of data. “Of that, we are able to consciously process only about 40,” Konnikova writes. And how we process that information is influenced by disparate things like moods and weather.
The essence of the Holmes system is the development of good habits that overcome our natural mental inertia, the wandering state that lets us go 10 minutes, or an hour, or 10, on autopilot, without true awareness. We may see inattentiveness as a personal failing, but it’s actually a natural state, our brain’s default position. This logy state even has a name: the Default Mode Network, and evolutionarily, it plays a role. It allows us a break from energy-sucking hyper-awareness, yet allows the mind to monitor our surroundings for any approaching threats that need us to snap back rapidly to full attention. (Fun fact: When our brains are at peak awareness, working at full throttle, our pupils dilate just like they do when we stare at someone to whom we’re attracted. So, maybe the person gazing at you with full pupils loves you passionately, or maybe they’re feverishly doing equations in their left brain.)
Like a wandering mind, Mastermind at times repeats itself, and, as noted, many of its recommendations are intuitive. Anyone unfamiliar with Sherlock Holmes might want to make his acquaintance before picking up this book; without knowledge of the detective and his gifts, Mastermind might be a study in perplexity. But longtime readers of Conan Doyle will enjoy it and possibly emerge a little brainier, and the Cumberbitches will be positively enraptured. B+