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Monday, November 18, 2013

A New Course of Study: Your Own Mind!

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,
by Maria Konnikova
NY: Penguin, 2013
$16 pbk.

First Impressions:

When it comes to stories of the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, you’re either a fanatical follower or you’d pick up almost anything else before the desperation of a rainy evening alone in someone else’s remote cabin would tempt you to open A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four. Holmes fans simply cannot get enough of the master, while the rest of us politely cover our yawns when when a fan mentions his name. Yes, I admit it: I’m in the latter group. I don’t even like the movie versions much.

But hand me a book on how the mind works, and I’m as eager as a puppy with a new toy. Hand me Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or anything by Temple Grandin, and I’ll be opening the book while you’re still talking. How we human beings perceive and remember and reason and draw conclusions, including our making of egregious errors, never fails to fascinate me. The promise of Maria Konnikova’s book on the mental processes of Sherlock Holmes is that we, the readers, can learn to remember better, think more clearly, thinking less like Dr. Watson and More like Sherlock Holmes. Okay, I'm in.

Because who – I ask you, who? -- wants to stand there like a chump (or like Dr. Watson), mouth hanging open, in reverent awe of Mr. Holmes? Don’t we want to come up with the solution to the mystery? I’m not out to collar murderers, but I would certainly like to know where the charger to my cell phone is hiding or figure out where the Farberware Dutch oven has disappeared to.

The “scientific method” of observation, though, doesn’t sound like my way of being in the world. It sounds so cold, so detached, so objective. Quite anti-social, in fact, don’t you think? The skepticism the author cites as fundamental to scientific observation reminds me of Descartes’ radical doubt thought experiment. Is it really possible – would it even be desirable – to go through every minute of every day doubting before believing? What could that possibly mean?

When the author makes the distinction between fast and slow thinking, I’m more comfortable. My husband says of my decision process in general, “She grinds exceeding slow, but she grinds exceeding fine.” I’m a slow thinking by nature. But not always, of course, slow enough: the default setting Konnikova calls “System Watson” is always poised to jump in quickly. Like the left brain when the person holding the pencil is asked to draw a house, “System Watson” is there jumping up and down and waving its hand in the air and saying, “I have the answer!” The left brain wants to draw “what it knows” without bothering to see what’s in front of the eyes at that moment, and “System Watson” wants to go only on the evidence of its eyes in that moment, without reference to further observation or salient memories.

My favorite way of conceptualizing Konnikova’s “System Holmes,” in fact, is to think of it as the calm, quiet, open receptiveness of meditation. In our drawing class, we learned techniques to frustrate the noisy, know-it-all left brain so it would get out of the way and let us draw what we were seeing – really to let us see. Holmes uses ‘seeing’ in a pejorative sense, but in the lexicon of drawing class Holmesian ‘seeing’ is ‘knowing,’ the left brain running forward with answers before true observation has taken place.

Here’s a true story: I had been looking for my “lost” cell phone charger for two or three days before I started reading Mastermind. Arriving at page 22, I closed the book, sat calmly for less than 60 seconds, got up and went right to where the charger had been all along.

What’s the secret? My parents had emphasized throughout my childhood and adolescence that “retracing your steps” from the last place you can picture in memory having the lost object was the key to finding it. That isn’t a new idea to me. Purging the search of panic and frustration, setting aside judgment (e.g., “I’ve already looked there; it can’t be there”), I’m discovering, is as important as the retracing of steps.

Caveat!!! Beware!!! Konnikova does not promise instant results. She might even be dismayed by my story of finding a lost object before finishing the first chapter of her book! To improve our thinking, we need, she says, to be interested and motivated. She also emphasizes that it will take practice, practice, practice to retrain our minds. Interest, motivation, practice? That sounds like learning to draw, too! I’m hooked!

Summary and Conclusions

I finally had to give up hope of keeping the pages of this book pristine. If a book is to be more than entertainment for the time it takes it read it, if it is to be a tool, I have to make it my own in some way. A library book, then, would be bristling with Post-Its, and those slips of paper would have scribbled notes on them, and there might be additional folded sheets of paper inside with more notes and page numbers. With a paperback book of my own (this applies generally to nonfiction), I may begin with Post-It notes, but the more there is to remember and keep straight, the more likely I am to make, first, discreet little dog ears, then light pencil check marks in the margins, and finally – throwing all caution to the winds – underlining madly. My copy of Mastermind went through all these stages.

The book might have been written differently, and then I might not have resorted to underlining, or at least not as much, but Konnikova makes no allowances for chatting or tweeting attention spans. This is a book, with paragraphs are long and discursive. There are occasional section headings but no numbered or bulleted lists and no graphic displays illustrating the “brain attic” in states of order vs. disarray. Shorter and fewer sentences, with more signage along the way, may have improved this book’s chances at bestsellerdom. It would certainly have made it faster and easier to read. – But would it have made the book better?

What might first seem an unfortunate shortcoming can appear as a virtue in a different light. Just as there is no shortcut to thinking like Sherlock Holmes (you don’t read this book one evening and wake up a problem-solving genius the next morning), just as leaping to conclusions can prevent consideration of important evidence, and just as stopping to reflect on how much we actually know (as opposed to everything we’re tempted to think we know), just so a book that forces thinking to slow down and forces it over the same ground again and again may be the book best suited to fulfilling the author’s promise to her readers: You can improve your thinking, but you must be interested and motivated, and it will take practice, practice, practice.

 Many of the problem-solving pitfalls cited in Mastermind will be familiar to readers of literature going back to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s work on heuristics and biases in the 1970s and 1980s, work that has been amplified since by many other scholarly studies and popular books. Konnikova’s genius, if you will, is not only to draw all this work together but to present it in a familiar literary frame, so that the well-known characters of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes exemplify, respectively, error-prone and largely accurate and error-avoiding thought. Examples from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories that illustrate her points are well chosen.

I have a few minor quibbles. One concerns deductive logic. Konnikova is accurate when noting that formal logic is something different from what Holmes means by deduction. She is on less firm ground when explaining formal logic, which is not, as she seems to say it is, limited to Aristotelian syllogisms. The syllogism is one but not the only valid deductive form. In the same chapter she gives an example of an invalid form without explaining why the true statement in the conclusion cannot be relied on, only saying there is a problem with the reasoning. If formal logic is to be brought in at all, a paragraph or two might be added to clarify the difference between valid and invalid forms. Otherwise, it were better left out entirely.

Will this book find the audience it deserves or only the audience deserving of the book? “I’m not always known for my conciseness,” the author admits candidly in her Acknowledgements. But I have already admitted myself that too concise a Holmesian program might lead astray more minds than it improved.

Do Arthur Conan Doyle readers grab at studies by Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely? Maybe not, and this may be exactly the strength (in addition to the charm) of Konnikova’s book. A new audience for works on reasoning!

-- And then, on the other hand, maybe it will nudge me in a direction I’ve long resisted, back to Sherlock Holmes! 


Kathy said...

I've not been much of a Sherlock Holmes fan, like you, but this book does sound promising. (Would probably skim over the part about syllogism, though.) It sounds like many of her premises are ones I've discovered through meditation, although don't ask me to explain how.

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, I took a volume of Sherlock Holmes stories home last night but didn't get into it, as I am still very engrossed by William Least Heat-Moon's latest. (See other post.) I completely get your discovery through meditation, which quiets the brain's jumping-up-and-down monkey-chatter.

Tangentially, let me add that I take "left" and "right" brain talk metaphorically. I'll leave brain physiology to others, but it's pretty clear that we have different modes of thinking, label them how you will.

Dawn said...

I have also never been a Sherlock fan. I've never been a fan of any British feeling work...I don't connect somehow. Wonder if I should try again. But there is so little time and so much I AM interested in.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I know what you mean. I was an anglophile when very young but have gotten so far over it I have to be careful not to be phobic.

Then, last night and this morning I was reading some Sherlock Holmes stories, and they seemed -- well, obvious! Bruce, my bookstore helper, tells me that's because they are from the Victorian era. Be that as it may, Holmes fan or not, I think a lot of folks will find MASTERMIND worthwhile reading, because real life, involving real people, without an author planting clues for us along the way, can be prettyt darned baffling.