Book Review

‘Mastermind’ by Maria Konnikova

Discovering the Sherlock Holmes in all of us

Psychologist and author Maria Konnikova explains Holmes’s thought patterns.
Margaret Singer
Psychologist and author Maria Konnikova explains Holmes’s thought patterns.

Steven Pinker meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this entertaining, insightful look at how the fictional London crime-solver used sophisticated mental strategies to solve complex problems of logic and deduction. Psychologist and author Maria Konnikova (who cites Pinker as a mentor) goes on to explain how we, too, can learn to develop
Holmes’s habits of mind and how that training can help us make better decisions in our own lives.

Konnikova grew up in Russia listening to her father read Sherlock Holmes stories at bedtime, the beginning of her lifelong fascination with both Holmes and the human mind. She organizes her book beautifully, showing Holmes in action from Doyle’s stories and then tracing his patterns and methods of inquiry through the lens of the latest findings of neuroscience and psychology.

One major theme in the book is the importance of knowing yourself and understanding how you think. So the author begins with a look at the concept of the “brain attic,” Holmes’s metaphor for how best to problem solve. The idea is that we are working with large but finite mental space, so we need to sift information, choosing what we keep carefully, and organizing new and stored information thoughtfully so we can retrieve, combine, and recombine knowledge in useful ways. It turns out that “subsequent research on memory formation, retention, and retrieval has . . . proven itself to be highly amenable to the attic analogy,’’ Konnikova writes.


She then entertainingly contrasts Holmes and Dr. Watson, showing that most of us are plodding Watsons. Among the hardest things for us Watsons, notes the author, is to withhold judgment until we’ve analyzed all the evidence.

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“Begin with a healthy dose of skepticism instead of the credulity that is your mind’s natural state,” writes Konnikova. While Watson is quick to jump to conclusions, Holmes forces himself to reserve judgment until he has all the facts, a more effective path. Once people reach a theory, they tend to singlemindedly focus on confirming it regardless of the facts, thus inviting error, explains the author. Holmes “knows that if he comes too quickly to a judgment, he will miss much of the evidence against it and pay more attention to the elements that are in its favor.”

Holmes also cultivates a kind of mindfulness. His methods include sitting in a comfortable leather chair for hours considering alternatives, arranging and rearranging the evidence like puzzle pieces. His mind is fully engaged, as is his imagination, while we Watsons live in an age of limited attention spans: “We constantly make the active choice to disengage,” writes Konnikova, “We listen to our headphones as we walk, run, take the subway. We check our phones when we are having dinner with our friends and family.”

Another mistake we Watsons make, notes Konnikova, is missing the forest because we see only trees. We don’t take a step back to view the bigger picture. Watson dives into a problem; Holmes pauses and reflects. Such distancing allows Holmes to see alternatives and complexities, notes the author. “We must learn to stretch our experience, to go beyond our initial instinct,” Konnikova suggests. “We must learn to look for evidence that both confirms and disconfirms” our own views.

Alas, Holmes’s creator didn’t always follow in his creation’s footsteps. Konnikova explains how Doyle, who believed in the existence of a spirit world, was fooled by staged 1920 photographs showing small, winged fairies. That belief led Doyle to lose his Holmesian skepticism, leading him to write a magazine article proclaiming the existence of fairies that would later prove extremely embarrassing.


This practical, enjoyable book, packed with modern science and real-life examples, shows you how to get your inner Holmes on and is worth at least a few hours of pipe-smoking reflection in a comfortable leather chair.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast