Learning to think like Sherlock

Arthur Conan Doyle' s novels and short stories about the incomparable detective Sherlock Holmes have never been out of print since their first publication in 1887. Holmes collections abound, as do movies, TV series, video games, hats, pipes, T-shirts and calendars, not to mention non-fiction books dissecting the Holmesian method.

And now here comes one more, of all things, a Sherlock Holmes self-help book. Maria Konnikova's Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes may not make you a master detective, as the publisher notes, but it will teach you how to "observe, not merely see", a prerequisite to thinking like the great man. As Holmes himself says in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, his work centres on "those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province".

If deduction and synthesis are a challenge, learning to observe may be even harder. Konnikova, a science writer based in New York, distinguishes between the Watson system (the natural tendency to believe what we see and hear) and the Holmes system. Teaching the Holmes system is the object of this book.

The first step is to question everything. Citing the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Konnikova points out that for our brains to process something, we must initially, momentarily, believe it. If you hear the term "pink elephant", you picture a pink elephant for a split second before you "effortfully engage in disbelieving" it.

More complicated subjects are far more difficult than pink elephants, of course. Consider the statement "There are no poisonous snakes in Maine". It sounds plausible, and most of us would just let it go. (In fact, it is true.) This tendency, she tells us, is reinforced by what psychologists call the correspondence bias, by which we generally assume that what a person says is what he believes.

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