Interview: Psychologist Maria Konnikova on how we can all learn to think like Sherlock Holmes

IN A Scandal in Bohemia, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories, the world’s most famous detective and Dr Watson share a typical exchange.

IN A Scandal in Bohemia, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories, the world’s most famous detective and Dr Watson share a typical exchange.

Sitting companionably in their armchairs at 221B Baker Street, Holmes lights a cigarette and educates his long-suffering sidekick on the difference between “seeing” and “observing”. He asks him an apparently simple question: how many steps are there up to 221B Baker Street? Watson, who has faithfully trotted up and down these iconic steps “some hundreds of times”, has absolutely no idea.

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Of course he hasn’t. How many of us know the number of steps leading up to our own homes? But the great detective knows the answer immediately (17, in case you’’re wondering). That’s because unlike Watson – and the rest of us – Sherlock Holmes not only sees the world. He observes it.

“It’s such a key moment,” says psychologist Maria Konnikova, who grew up in Moscow and was first read Conan Doyle’s stories in Russian by her pipe-smoking father. She became instantly obsessed with the steps at 221B Baker Street, which led her, at first, to feverishly count steps wherever she went “in case anyone ever called upon me to report”, and eventually to write a book exploring the psychology of Sherlock Holmes’s mind. “Realising that I didn’t know the number of steps in my own house was a revelation,” she continues. “I really related to Watson and it bothered me. I didn’t know the basic details of what was outside my front door. I had never stopped to notice.”

Konnikova’s first book, Mastermind – How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, makes a radical claim. It was inspired by a series of essays in Scientific American entitled “Lessons From Sherlock Holmes”. The book is a kind of self-help manual meets literary appreciation with a bit of neuroscience in which Holmes becomes, amongst other things, a poster boy for mindful meditation.

“He meditates all the time,” Konnikova insists. “In almost all the Conan Doyle stories there is a scene where Holmes is by himself in an armchair with his eyes closed and his fingers pressed together. That is one of the iconic images of Holmes, along with the pipe and the deerstalker, the cloak and the profile. And when he is playing the violin or smoking his pipe, that’s a form of meditation too.”

Using plots and passages from Conan Doyle’s stories and novels, Konnikova – who was mentored at Harvard by renowned psychologist Steven Pinker – argues that we too can learn not just to count steps, but to remember better, perform better, even live better. In other words, we can train ourselves to be less like Watson, more like Holmes.

Conan Doyle, an Edinburgh physician turned writer, based his most famous creation on another doctor: Joseph Bell, a lecturer in medicine at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school. They met in 1877 when Conan Doyle served as Bell’s clerk at the Royal Infirmary. Bell was renowned for his uncanny abilities in observation and it was claimed that he had trained himself to be able to single out any stranger and deduce his occupation and recent past just by looking at him. Conan Doyle later wrote to his muse, saying that “round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man”.

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“It’s important to remember that Holmes was based on a real person,” says Konnikova. “It shows that a Holmesian mind really can exist. Joseph Bell was an exceptional individual but it’s not like he was a superhuman. He was an expert in his field who had really trained his powers of observation. You can see echoes of Holmes in many people who are unusually good at what they do. And Holmes is basically an expert in thinking mindfully. He knows what to look for in a person and how to draw conclusions that require great imaginative leaps but end up being true. It’s not an extra-sensory perception. He has honed this skill over years.”

The historical context is important too. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Conan Doyle was starting to write around the time that experimental psychology was being born,” Konnikova says.

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“It’s important for us to remember that he did have medical training. He understood psychology and the way people worked on a deeper level than most.

“Also, he studied in Vienna, where he would most certainly have come into contact with Freud and the beginnings of psychoanalysis. And across the ocean we have William James, who at the time was trying to set up the first department of experimental psychology in the US at Harvard.

“The mind was this new territory, worthy of exploration. These ideas would certainly have seeped into Holmes.”

What of Conan Doyle himself? Did he, like his famous creation, manage to train his own mind? “He both was and wasn’t like Holmes,” Konnikova says. “He did actually practise the techniques that gave Holmes his abilities and ended up being instrumental in establishing a court of appeals because of wrongful convictions that he helped overturn.

“He famously solved two crimes, actually exonerated men, and that meant really taking Holmes’s approach to heart.”

Later in life, however, Conan Doyle turned to spiritualism. He was depressed following the deaths of his wife, son, brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews after the First World War. He joined a paranormal organisation and wrote a book expressing his belief in the case of the five Cottingley Fairies; a famous series of photographs that were later revealed to be a hoax.

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“We have to reconcile Conan Doyle’s Holmesian need for evidence with his more emotional desire to believe,” Konnikova says. “His need for proof abandoned him in the end when he really wanted to believe something. He tried to sustain this hyper-rational Holmesian approach, but he couldn’t.”

So, how does Holmes do it? How is it that the sleuth, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, can examine a walking stick and surmise that its owner is a former Charing Cross Hospital surgeon who moved to a country practice and, what’s more, is a “young fellow under thirty, 
amiable, unambitious, absent-minded, and the possessor of a favourite dog”. Surely there’s more to it than a spot of meditation?

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“If I was going to put it into one word, it would be mindfulness,” Konnikova explains. “Holmes is both aware of his own thoughts as he is having them and aware of what he wants to accomplish. He observes life to the fullest and doesn’t let things pass him by. He has been doing this for years.

“It requires extraordinary self-control, practice, and a desire to keep learning. He takes his time, which is why he refers to a tricky case as a ‘three-pipe problem’ and he doesn’t multi-task. He understands the paradox that if you do less, you do more.”

Watson, on the other hand, rarely pauses for thought. And, according to Konnikova we’re all Watsons with the unrealised potential to turn into Holmes. “We really can make a conscious effort to think more like Sherlock Holmes,” she promises. “We might not become master detectives but we will definitely become better at living our lives.”

The key is in the concept of the brain attic. In the second chapter of Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, the detective tells Watson, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose”. This, it turns out, is a 19th-century description of what neuroscience now refers to as the memory palace. “What Holmes means is that our minds have a finite capacity for storage,” Konnikova explains. “We can’t just stuff everything and the kitchen sink up there, which is why most of us can’t retrieve things when we need them, lose our keys, and end up walking into rooms and not knowing why we’re there. But if an obscure piece of information about jellyfish is required for a case, as happens in “The Lion’s Mane”, Holmes can find it in his brain attic. And that’s because he is constantly ordering and re-ordering it, making cross-connections, and re-labelling files.”

So can Konnikova give me five tips for sorting out my brain attic so I can think more like Holmes? “Number one, turn off the internet when you need to focus and get something done,” she says. “Number two, try not to multi-task. Number three, take a few minutes every day to sit quietly and pay attention to your own thoughts. Number four, give yourself little exercises in observation. And number five, notice what you’re noticing.”

Since she wrote the book, Konnikova has practised Holmesian mindfulness herself. Though she has yet to solve any crimes, she tells me she is much more efficient at work and better at observing people and her surroundings. Her estimation of the master detective has risen too. “Sherlock Holmes isn’t just some emotionally detached cold fish or an extremely clever sociopath, as he is so often depicted,” she says. “What I started to appreciate is how hard he has to work at being Sherlock Holmes. He’s like us, yet he has optimised his mind through exceptional self-control and a desire to keep learning. His skills in person perception are amazing. And he never wants to stop. He never cruises.” And if we see Holmes as the master of mindful meditation as much as he is the master of solving crimes, our understanding of him deepens too. “Sherlock Holmes no longer seems like a hero out of reach,” says Konnikova. “I think this is the reason why he is a more lasting and iconic figure than any other detective. It’s the meeting of the superman and the everyman. At the very least, we can imagine ourselves being more like Sherlock Holmes.”

l Mastermind – How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova is published by Canongate, priced £16.99

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