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How To Solve Problems Like Sherlock Holmes

A new book says you can train your brain to be a creative problem solver worthy of literature’s most famous sleuth.

Are you a Dr. Watson or a Sherlock Holmes?

If we could choose between a Watsonian and Holmesian mind, I’m sure most of us would prefer Holmes. He’s brilliant and perceptive: the consummate problem-solver. He’s an intellectual badass, capable of reading a complete stranger’s biography based on the guy’s cuff links. Sadly, most of us are like Dr. Watson: perfectly observant and well-intentioned but unknowingly judgmental and blind to the small, critical detail.

An example: At a recent party, I spotted someone across the room to whom I applied a less than charitable label. I knew he deserved this label, because he had chiseled cheek bones, a blow-dried sweep of blonde hair, khaki pants, and Oxfords. He was drinking a Forty, which he waved around like some kind of medal. I had this guy pinned in a second: He was a model-and-bottle type, lived in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, and worked at a hedge fund. Only later did I learn that he was a newspaper journalist, lived in Brooklyn, and studied fine art. He was also a perfectly decent human being.

Sherlock Holmes would never have made a snap judgment like mine, nor would he have overlooked important clues that might have saved me from my prejudice. "Where Watson sees, Holmes observes," says Maria Konnikova, author of the new book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. If Holmes had been my companion that evening, he would have considered the fact that the hosts—a lovely journalist and an educational software sales rep—probably didn’t run in hedge fund, model-and-bottle circles. For starters.

U.S. and U.K. covers

"Holmes employs mindfulness in all his thinking. He lives in the present moment," says Konnikova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia and a columnist for Scientific American. "We say that we do this, but it’s really hard." Still, Konnikova has set out to try. In exploring the thinking of Sherlock Holmes, and plumbing A Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and many other works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she has provided a guide for greater self-awareness, stronger memory, better focus, and enhanced creativity.

Are You a Good Multi-Tasker? (Warning: Trick Question)

Holmes practices mindfulness, which sounds new-agey, but is actually quite practical. Mindfulness means focusing on only one problem or activity at a time. But mindfulness isn’t the opposite of multi-tasking, because there’s actually no such thing. "Our brain cannot do two things at once," says Konnikova. "What we believe is multi-tasking is really the brain switching quickly from one task to the next." And when our brains move so quickly between pursuits, it’s impossible to be truly focused on any single one. "Your attention is a finite resource," says Konnikova. "Even when we’re walking down the street—not on the phone, not listening to music but simply thinking about what we’re having for dinner—we’re not really noticing the world around us."

She points to a study from the National Academy of Sciences, which showed that people who described themselves as heavy media multi-taskers had much more trouble tuning out distractions than light media multi-taskers. They were also worse at switching between tasks. "So even though they were multi-tasking all the time, they were less efficient," says Konnikova. She explains that our minds are programmed to wander, which multi-tasking exacerbates. But concentration is self-reinforcing. The more you do it, the better you get. "The more you learn to filter out irrelevant distractions, the better your brain can monitor [your] environment—both externally and internally." This means that focusing on one activity or thought at a time will help you notice or remember details in your work, the things your read, and the people you talk to. This kind of focus will also make you better attuned to how you’re feeling, physically and emotionally.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson

Want to Remember More? Organize Your Brain Attic

The "brain attic" is Holmes’s analogy for the human mind and how we store information. "The natural tendency is to throw everything up there," says Konnikova. But this leads to mental clutter: information that is useless to us and/or too disorganized to access when we really need it. Knowing what information to store depends on your individual goals. Holmes is the "world’s only consulting detective," which has specific knowledge requirements. As for the rest of us, Konnikova says that we often move through life focusing on the day-to-day without considering our longer-term goals. And if we don’t step back and focus on these, we’ll never know what to remember.

In some ways, how to remember is the easier task. We are more likely to remember something if we connect it to a sensory experience or previous action. "That’s why handwriting is really important if you want to remember something. Motor memory is much better for recall than typing," says Konnikova. Similarly, connecting memories to smells or sounds is tremendously helpful for recall. We remember song lyrics, because music is a natural memory facilitator. "If you could set every line of poetry to music, you’d know it in a heartbeat," Konnikova says. We can’t set every piece of information we take in to music, but we can be mindful of what we’re seeing, smelling, or hearing at the moment that we receive information that’s worthy of our attics.

Want to be More Creative? Take a Brain Break

Holmes plays the violin, because it takes him out of his thinking mind and places him in a purely physical state. "Taking mental holidays can be incredibly productive for creativity and we need work environments which encourage that," says Konnikova. She suggests something as simple as taking a walk in the park during your lunch break instead of eating at your desk. Konnikova has found two reasons for this. First, more hours at the desk can actually make you less productive. Second, studies have shown a link between exposure to nature and increased creativity. She admits that nobody has proven why this link exists, but neuroscientists have found that the brain associates certain colors—green and blue especially—with expansiveness. So perhaps exposure to green grass or a sunny sky relaxes and expands the mind. "Even just looking at nature on your screen saver can help," Konnikova says.

Want to Notice the Important Details? Become an Expert

"Holmes is an expert at person perception," says Konnikova. A great example of this happens during Holmes’s initial meeting with Dr. Watson, in A Study in Scarlet. Based on Watson’s demeanor, his knowledge of chemistry, and the difference in skin color between Watson’s tanned face and pale wrist, Holmes deduces Watson is a military doctor, who recently returned from the Anglo-Afghan war. He takes all of the clues into account, both the seen (Watson’s skin tones) and the unseen (England’s involvement in the Afghan war).

"Experts actually see the world differently than non-experts," says Konnikova. "If you’re an expert at card magic, you’ll feel things in the cards that a normal person can’t feel: are they new, have they been properly stored, how much does the paper stock weigh, and how many cards are in your hand at any given point."

But Holmes is also an expert at identifying his own biases—i.e. the memories in his brain attic that might influence his perception of a person or situation. As Konnikova writes: "Holmes knows that if he lets an incidental feature"—say a Forty and Oxford shoes—"get to him, he will run the risk of losing objectivity in the rest of his observation. He knows that if he comes too quickly to a judgment, he will miss much of the evidence against it."

Maria Konnikova

Not that this kind of person perception is easy to learn. Thinking like Holmes at the party a few weeks back would have required me to scour my mind for every previous experience that could possibly affect my view of the other guests. (In retrospect, I remember some unpleasant high school experiences with preppy Forty drinkers who grew up to be hedge fund managers.) Holmes doesn’t have to scour and search his brain attic to recall such memories. He’s sufficiently practiced at mindfulness that he simply sees and knows.

I asked Konnikova if researching and writing Mastermind has taught her to think like Holmes. Does she practice mindfulness and memory storage and person perception with a Holmesian devotion?

"I make it a practice not to judge someone before I speak with them and get to know them. But can I tell you who someone is by looking at cuff links? No."

If you’d like a good taste of Sherlock Holmes, Konnikova recommends Silver Blaze, The Red-Headed League, and the Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

[Image: Flickr users Asim Bharwani, and Kit]

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  • Brian

    Being a long time Holmes story fan, and a Buddhist, agree with much of the thoughts here.  Focus and concentration are the core of mindfulness; and are crucial for mental productivity and acuity.

    But would caution the author that her statement: "a lovely journalist and an educational software sales rep--probably didn’t run in hedge fund, model-and-bottle circles. "; is still indicative of a judgmental and exclusionary attitude. A journalist or educational software sales rep can't be friends with someone in the financial industry?  Why limit oneself to a small circle of associates that think and behave exactly like you do? Holmes certainly did not. :-)

  • wrylyfox

    I would take issue with the assertion that humans cannot multitask.  While we may have only one brain, there is ample evidence that areas of it can be specialized functions and operate at the same time.  Like talking and seeing.  There is no evidence that this does not apply to the analytical problem solving areas of the brain.   Likewise microchips now have many core processers that operate simultaneously... even to make robots walk, talk, and see simultaneously.

  • Jeff

    The evidence would show otherwise.

    First, human brains are not like microchips - and you would be wrong to make that comparison.  One reasons humans build robots is precisely because they can operate at a different level than human minds.

    Second, while we can multitask at functions that have become learned behavior (walking and chewing gum for example) we can't use our analytic minds to concentrate and think deeply about two things at the same time.  Try watching a movie and reading an article or doing some basic arithmetic.  Studies will show that you recalled less, performed worse or understood/missed key parts/scene than someone who concentrated on one task at a time.  In short, multitasking is a myth.

    And please don't text and drive.

  • Jean Rafenski Reynolds

    Readers new to Holmes are always directed to read "The Speckled Band." Beware - it contains two glaring mistakes. Snakes can't hear a flute (they're deaf), and they don't drink milk. Pick another story to get a a true picture of Holmes's (and Doyle's!) brilliance.

  • ellennaylor

    Another reminder to stay focused and not multi-task. Also to take breaks during the work day that truly get you to escape--like music does. It doesn't take long. I like to take exercise breaks. It takes discipline to take those breaks at the right time, and that varies by person. 

  • Denise

    Articles/books like this disappoint me.  Nothing new.  Just a nice way to make it sound new by associating with Sherlock Holmes.

  • rarnedsoum

    Thank you.
    I do this a lot.
    Its nice to see that there is a way to describe how one thinks, after decades of not being able to explain and understand the thought process that I use.
    I am going to read your book.

  • Arumai Selvam

    Be it Watson or Holmes both analyzed a problem. Most of the times a situation is labeled as a 'problem' and often is not. They are pseudo problems.

  • Terrence Andrew Davis

    Religion comes from occult, not philosophy.  Tongues is spirits; Ouija is spirits; cracking open a book is spirits.  First do an offering.  Like Cain, if you don't succeed try something else.  God says, "morning pet listening left maliciously unmeasurable imperfect
    uprightness presence satisfy I'm_not_sure 92 styled don't
    spiritually fashioned proceed desiring speakers qualities
    continency star-gazers phrases abroad crazy doer here_now
    cane phantom vocal superstitious warned varies by echoed
    whom contentiousness fault compound fellow-conspirators
    Scotland goodly imaginary dreams King_Midas Hear stopped
    endureth jeer unteach weltering "

  • $20522863

    The working title for my mystery novel is, "The Case of the Naked Mole." In it I employ,  the "floating eye" technique of observation which often leads to  intuitive deductions. "The Greek had a word, 'metis,' conjectual or tactic knowledge, constantly shifting, ambigious, comes from a source that is not readily identifiable." (Knowledge, Management, and Society) Anti-Logic, no? 

  • Sally

    The most recent incarnation of Sherlock renamed the episode as "A Study in Pink", not "A Study in Scarlet".

  • Aaron Evans

    Your problem was you had your stereotypes conflated.  The vacuous life of ease where appearance and connections matters most is more representative of the "journalist" class than the "wall street" class.  Your observations were fine, your understanding is what was lacking.

  • Jeff

    See also:  The Representativeness Heuristic.  Holmes would be smart enough not to fall for it.

  • Jibberjabber

    Umm, hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Holmes and Sherlock are fictional characters.

  • rarnedsoum

    Life imitates art.
    Art imitates life.
    Think deeper to understand the concepts presented.