Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes


“I am inclined to think— ” said I.
“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

I have to be careful what I say here because Watsonian thinkers like me and—unless you’re Sherlock Holmes—you will be prone to jump to the all the wrong conclusions. Is it sunny where you are? Or raining? Have you just been for a long walk in the country or had a bath? It all counts you know. If there’s one single thing I came away with from this book is that we’re incredibly untrustworthy creatures. Even when we’ve seen things with our own eyes. Do you realise just how little your eyes actually see? “Strange how the brain controls the brain!” mused Holmes in the short story 'The Adventure of the Dying Detective'.

I suppose I should’ve applied the Holmesian method when approaching reading this book but I’m afraid I made up my mind about it within a few seconds. Some of my initial impressions proved to be right but I’ve no reason to pat myself on the back; even lucky guesses can be right every now and again. My initial opinions were heavily influenced by Canongate’s marketing and art departments. They presented a book to me that had a cartoon on the cover and a fun title. It wasn’t called something like Grounding Cognition: The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language and Thinking (yes, it’s a real book); it was called Mastermind. The author graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government but there are no letters after her name or the cover, perhaps to make her seem more approachable. The real clincher was the subtitle because surely no one would write a heavyweight treatise around a fictional detective. This was popular science, science for the rest of us, probably of more appeal to the Holmes fan than anyone with a serious interest in the human mind. I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover—which I did later on—that the book began life as a series of blogs for Big Think.

On reading the book I was proved right. The book’s heavy on the Holmes, not so heavy on the science, and, rather than use Holmes to illustrate the science, it does tend to use the science to explain how Holmes works (and Watson doesn’t), all of which makes it a very entertaining read, although the author can actually be (bearing in mind the book’s only about 250 pages long) a bit long-winded at times; she tends to make her point and then underscore it a couple of times when once would suffice. Some of the material was familiar to me and as I don’t read a great many nonfiction books I can only assume that it was from my recent reading of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. The book is, however, under no delusions it’s more than what it is and at the end of the book there’s a Recommended Reading List where those whose interests have been piqued can shoot off and bury their heads in weightier tomes.

Holmes was not real. Just saying. I’m sure there’re people out there who think he was. And that King Arthur was too. Holmes was, however, based on a real person, two actually according to Konnikova:

Holmes’s very name speaks at once of an intent beyond a simple detective of the old-fashioned sort: it is very likely that Conan Doyle chose it as a deliberate tribute to one of his childhood idols, the philosopher-doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a figure known as much for his writing as for his contributions to medical practice. The detective’s character, in turn, was modelled after another mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon known for his powers of close observation. It was said that Dr. Bell could tell from a single glance that a patient was a recently discharged noncommissioned officer in a Highland regiment, who had just returned from service in Barbados, and that he tested routinely his students’ own powers of perception with methods that included self-experimentation with various noxious substances.

And, of course, we shouldn’t discount Doyle himself who applied similar deductive reasoning in real life to secure the release of George Edalji who’d been sentenced to seven years of hard labour for supposedly mutilating a pony. Holmes is an ideal, a freak even, and as the author points out a man who has trained himself over decades to think in a decidedly unnatural way. Like everyone else he was born a Watson but chose to transform himself into a Holmes. (Not actually sure where Mycroft—Sherlock’s smarter brother—fits into any of this because he’s never mentioned.)

O'BrienOn checking James O’Brien’s book The Scientific Sherlock Holmes it does seem, however, that there were others who also may have been an influence like Sir Henry Littlejohn who was one of Doyle’s medical school instructors. In addition to lecturing at the medical school, he was Police Surgeon in Edinburgh. A forensic expert, he frequently served as an expert witness at trials. And one mustn’t forget the writer Edgar Allan Poe:

[W]hile Doyle may have wanted to compliment his old mentors Bell and Littlejohn by naming them as models for Sherlock, it was Poe who influenced Doyle most when he took up his pen to become a writer. – James O’Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, p.15 (the link contains a lengthy excerpt from the book)

O’Brien provides several examples to substantiate his claim. I cite this only to show that Konnikova isn’t always as thorough as she might be in providing evidence to back up her claims.

[O]ur minds aren’t meant to think like Holmes by default. But on the other hand, new thought habits can be learned and applied. Our brains are remarkably adept at learning new ways of thinking—and our neural connections are remarkably flexible, even into old age.

I’m not actually sure I’d want to become a Holmes but I think it is helpful to understand what it means to be a Watson. In this respect the book provides us with some surprising—and disappointing—truths about ourselves. For example:

When we think as a matter of course, our minds are preset to accept whatever it is that comes to them. First we believe, and only then do we question. Put differently, it’s like our brains initially see the world as a true/false exam where the default answer is always true. And while it takes no effort whatsoever to remain in true mode, a switch of answer to false requires vigilance, time, and energy.

Why is it so hard to pay attention?

[O]ur minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.

And as for multi-tasking?

The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. 

How’s your eyesight? Fine, you say. Think again:

Our vision is highly selective as is—the retina normally captures about ten billion bits per second of visual information, but only ten thousand bits actually make it to the first layer of the visual cortex, and, to top it off, only 10 percent of the area’s synapses is dedicated to incoming visual information at all. Or, to put it differently, our brains are bombarded by something like eleven million pieces of data—that is, items in our surroundings that come at all of our senses—at once. Of that, we are able to consciously process only about forty. 

I could go on. And, indeed, the book does. Plenty of scientists are referred to along the way. To illustrate that first point about us always believing the first thing we hear (which my wife insists she does not) the author references Daniel Gilbert a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University:

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes it this way: our brains must believe something in order to process it, if only for a split second. Imagine I tell you to think of pink elephants. You obviously know that pink elephants don’t actually exist. But when you read the phrase, you just for a moment had to picture a pink elephant in your head. In order to realize that it couldn’t exist, you had to believe for a second that it did exist.

I’m not saying she’s wrong but I couldn’t find out exactly where Gilbert makes this assertion. But, of course, we Watsons don’t mind. If she says it’s true then it will be. People don’t make up stuff, do they? (Actually Jonah Lehrer did but none of the scientific reviewers I’ve read have suggested such a thing with regards to Konnikova.)

Holmes’s technique is an approach born out of the scientific method so a more serious consideration of the material might’ve been entitled How to Think Like a Scientist (Author Chad Orzel is currently writing such a book) and Konnikova does take us through what would be required of us to modify our thinking in that way. On ScienceBlogs Orzel explains the scientific method as follows:

Stripped to its essentials, science is a four-step process: you look at something interesting in the world, you think about why it might work that way, you test your idea with further observations and experiments, and you tell everybody you know what you found.

Holmes no doubt would chide him for that loose definition. To take the first point: we look at things all the time but do we truly observe them? It’s not enough to look; we have to look with intent:

        The steps to 221B Baker Street. How many were there? It’s the question Holmes brought before Watson in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia…’ As Holmes and Watson sit in their matching armchairs, the detective instructs the doctor on the difference between seeing and observing. Watson is baffled. And then, all at once everything becomes crystal clear.
         “When I hear you give your reasons,” [Watson] remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”
         “Quite so,” [Holmes] answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
         “How often?”
         “Well, some hundreds of times.”
         “Then how many are there?”
         “How many? I don’t know.”
         “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

Of course only being able to see forty bits of information per second doesn’t help. Or am I making excuses for Watson? (This from the man who lived in a flat for several years and never noticed there were butterflies on his curtains.)

Really what Konnikova does in this book—and does reasonably well—is take all the advice that Holmes gives Watson and backs it up with science. She explains why Watson—our reliable proxy—is the way he is and how far he/we would have to go to shake off what’s become second nature to us. There’s precious little advice on how to stop being who we’ve been for decades and are very comfortable being. It’s not that kind of book and so in that respect the title is a little misleading but we don’t care; we were entertained for a few hours and we’re happy with that plus we’ve learned that we’re prone to priming, stereotyping, confirmation bias, the conjunction fallacy, probabilistic incoherence and the default effect… to name just a few. It’s scary really. In layman’s terms we need to think twice before doing anything basically. Including, apparently, thinking. And do look twice before you cross the road.

fairyI particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Cottingley Fairies. Today we see these photos for exactly what they are but what’s so amazing is how easily Doyle was duped. The answer is a simple enough one: he wanted them to be true. When our brains have that obstacle to overcome no amount of evidence will even be enough and to be fair to Doyle he did try to be scientific.

And have we come that much further today? In the United States, as of 2004, 78 percent of people believed in angels.

Oddly enough I don’t find it so odd that people might believe in angels—no doubt my religious upbringing has much to do with that—but fairies? Nah.

I’ll leave you with a wee video where Konnikova talks about the book and covers all the stuff I never got round to talking about above. Actually she does a pretty good job of summarising the whole book in nineteen minutes:


KonnikovaMaria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City, where she works on an assortment of non-fiction and fiction. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and is currently a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Columbia University. Before returning to school, she worked as a producer for the Charlie Rose show on PBS. Her writing has appeared online and in print in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and Scientific American, among numerous other publications. Maria blogs regularly for The New Yorker and formerly wrote the Literally Psyched column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog Artful Choice for Big Think

Most mornings, Maria can be found in a yoga studio. Most afternoons, she can be found writing, reading, or conducting definitive explorations into the workings of the human mind. She lives in the West Village with her husband. Her second book, on the psychology of the con, is scheduled for publication by Viking/Penguin in the winter.


Gwil W said...

What does Holmes say about the missing Malaysian plane? I I'd like to know that. I suppose he surmise that the plane was last heard of heading NW in the direction of the Indian subcontinent, that it had enough fuel to get there, that it was piloted by someone who knew what they were doing and come to a logical conclusion that doesn't bear thinking about.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s a farce, isn’t it, Gwilliam? I’m not sure Holmes would have much more to say than that because for all his talents he did require clues and there have been precious few of those forthcoming.

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