A review of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
by Maria Konnikova
ISBN 978-0-14-312434-4, US $16.00, CAN $18.00

Mastermind is psychological self-help book, a study of the mechanics of thinking, and a literary tour of the stories about Sherlock Holmes. Primarily, it is a book on aspects of mindfulness. Sherlock Holmes is a literary character who is well-known in detective culture and he is always praised for his skills at “noticing everything” and “deductive reasoning.” Konnikova shows, however, that those skills do not fully describe Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. In fact thenway Sherlock is described is often reductivist because those who suppose they understand Holmes are often not really understanding the very character they praise. Using scenes from the stories, Konnnikova shows the reader that thinking like Sherlock Holmes requires a much more complicated mental training and awareness. It is not that Sherlock Holmes notices everything but that he understands the importance of what he notices and understands where he has shelved it in his mind.

This book is essentially about gaining insight into how to renew one’s mind by understanding how cultural baggage, personal history and the biological neuroscience of the brain works — sometimes detrimentally– to mindfulness.

To explain the art of thinking, Konnikova uses the metaphor of the mind as an attic in which memories are filed away. The metaphor works well. The reader will readily understand that attics contain important and less important memories and that some places in the attic are more accessible than others. There is also the problem of remembering where one has placed certain items — memory retrieval. But there is much more to learning how to think than how one deals with memories. There is encoding, overconfidence, mindful distraction, the inner storyteller, distancing, probability, appropriateness, adaptability, and observation among other aspects.

Konnikova has written a witty conversational book that explains the mind. It is conversational and accessible but it is not an easy self-help read. There are mental strategies some readers might not wish to try — for cultural or personal reasons– and there is the central issue of Sherlock Holmes. Although Sherlock is everywhere in western culture, some readers may not have read the Conan Doyle stories referenced in these pages. They might find the book is not what they expected or they might think the quotations amount to literary analysis. Yet, although the book references and discusses Sherlock Holmes, it can be a good read if a reader is willing. This book would be a good addition to psychology, creative writing, or criminology courses. It is also a good read for those who love Sherlock Holmes or who wish to understand how the brain works.

About the reviewer: Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, Christian non-fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her fantasy fiction novels, Wind Follower and The Constant Tower are published by Wildside Press. Her short story collection is Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction by Carole McDonnell. Her self-published books are My Life as an Onion, A Fool’s Journey Through the Book of Proverbs, Oreo Blues, and Seeds of Bible Study: How NOT to study the Bible. She can be found at http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/