Mastermind | Maria Konnikova

Summary of: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
By: Maria Konnikova


Ever wondered what it takes to think like the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes? In Maria Konnikova’s book ‘Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes’, you’ll discover the key elements to Holmesian thinking, which could help you make better decisions in life. The book delves into the two systems our brain uses for thinking and decision-making: the autopilot ‘System Watson’ and the deliberate, mindful ‘System Holmes’. It further guides you on how to hone your ability to wield this Sherlock-style mindfulness by practicing and optimally aligning your thinking process.

Mastering Decision-Making

Discover the two systems that control your decision-making process, and how to improve it for the better.

Have you ever made a decision you regretted? Or wished you were better at decision-making altogether? The human brain comprises two systems that govern our thinking and decision-making. The first system is autopilot mode, a compulsive system that requires little conscious thought. It’s the answer that comes to mind automatically, often based on intuition or emotion. Unfortunately, this system is responsible for quick and erroneous decisions, leading to regret.

Let’s call this system “Watson,” and it acts much like the brain’s reflexive system. Our brain tends to pick the first answer that comes to mind because thinking requires energy, and our brains prefer saving that energy for more mentally taxing tasks. This system often leads to errors, like the classical riddle of a bat and ball that costs $1.10 where the majority of people tend to answer $0.10 instead of the correct answer of $0.05.

Good news! The brain features a second system, “System Homes,” responsible for effortful thinking. Unlike Watson, System Holmes requires analytical thinking and is more deliberate and conscious when making choices. In other words, this system controls our intuition and emotional aspects, leading to better decisions.

The difference between the two systems is that Watson, the autopilot system, is easy but often wrong, while System Holmes, the analytical system, is more complicated but often right. By learning about the two systems, you can improve your decision-making process, leading to better outcomes.

System Holmes and Mindfulness

The brain has two systems: System Watson and System Holmes. System Watson is the emotional autopilot, while System Holmes is rational and logical, representing what psychologists call mindfulness. To engage System Holmes, it requires a conscious mental effort that demands more energy. However, it is instrumental in making better decisions, exemplifying Holmes’ thinking style. System Holmes enables logical thinking in general and is not only suited to crime-solving. For instance, Holmes deduced Watson to be an army medic who recently returned from Afghanistan by combining his observations with logical reasoning.

Override System Watson

To become a better thinker, we must override System Watson and activate System Holmes. This requires both practice and engagement. Practice and persistence can significantly develop our natural abilities, allowing us to succeed through intensive practice. Engagement and motivation are also vital for improving our thinking skills. We must truly want to think like Holmes and make a constant effort to improve. Recent research shows that engaged people learn better and faster. In one study, participants who learned to juggle had developed their brains in areas that dealt with the retention of visual and motion information. Therefore, becoming a better thinker is not about innate talent, but it’s a matter of how much work we’re willing to put in.

The Brain Attic

Our brain is like an attic with two components – contents and structure. The contents are the experiences, knowledge and information stored in our brain while the structure determines where and how they are stored. To engage our brain effectively, we must transform the contents and structure of our brain. The “main attic” is where we store important information and to do so, we must be motivated and interested. Making information tangible and linking it to our existing knowledge can help us remember important details. Sherlock Holmes links current cases to previous ones, takes in all the details at crime scenes and reads everything about the murder in newspapers to remember crucial details.

Overcoming the Hindrances to Rational Decision Making

Even when we are careful with how we store and organize information in our minds, many factors can affect our decision-making process. Neuroscience research shows that humans rely on heuristics, which are rules of thumb that help us reach decisions quickly. However, heuristics such as the availability heuristic may limit the information we use for decision making. Biases in our thinking, such as the halo effect, also influence our perceptions. Our decisions can also be affected by environmental factors, like the weather. Studies show that we tend to make riskier decisions on sunny days. It’s essential to be aware of these hindrances to rational thinking as we make decisions in our lives.

Steps to Think Like Holmes

When confronting a problem, it’s important to pause and take in the bigger picture before attacking it. This helps in focusing on the goal you want to achieve and aligning the rest of the process with your overarching objectives. Holmes’ way of examining the walking stick left at Baker Street by a health practitioner clearly demonstrates this preparation. On the other hand, Watson jumps right into the process without reflecting, giving rise to emotional stereotypes and biases. Thus, it’s important to frame objectives in a way that’ll help achieve them. When reflecting, be aware of yourself and the environment and ask yourself what you want to achieve. Problem-solving is not about speed but about accuracy, so taking a moment to pause and think is essential preparation for the remainder of the process.

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