Sunday, August 4, 2013
Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
I have been massively excited to read this since I learned of its existence about six months ago, and it did not disappoint. Essentially, Konnikova uses the world of Sherlock Holmes to talk about how our minds work, how they err and how to train them to be better - drawing not only from Arthur Conan Doyle's works (and life) but from philosophers, psychologists and other great thinkers.
Konnikova uses the science of memory, perception and reasoning to demonstrate how our brains work and how Holmes is able to use his to its full potential - as well as noting the mistakes he makes. Once she lays the foundation of the science, she builds on this in a more philosophical fashion, pointing out what the facts imply and how we can use them to our advantage. For example, she makes a point I've tried to make before - efficient use of memory does not entail remembering every minute detail of everything you come across, it means remembering exactly what is necessary to get the job done. For Holmes this meant remembering which book to look in for an obscure fact, not the fact itself; for us this means knowing enough keywords to Google it. Ryan Holiday has an excellent post on this subject.
If you read my other blog you might have noticed that it (and the book I'm writing) cover a lot of the same ground as Mastermind. Konnikova may have taken a different approach to me, but we are still covering many of the same topics to many of the same ends, so there is a lot of overlap - we even seem to share a fascination with Richard Feynman, who was not a psychologist but whose ideas on thinking, and what it means to truly know something, are invaluable. This familiarity with the source material is kind of a double-edged sword when it comes to reviewing the book because on the one hand I'm reasonably well-qualified to say how well she's packaged the science for the masses, but on the other hand it's very tempting to armchair-quarterback the book and say "Well, this is how I would have done that."
On the first count I'll say this - she is a bit constrained by the terms of her metaphor and this does mean a few of the finer details are glossed over, but that is an extremely tiny nitpick. She has basically nailed it, with an extremely easy-to-digest style that is still vigilant about remaining accurate. On the second count - okay, yeah, I did find myself wishing that she had covered the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a counterbalance to the section on Overconfidence Bias, but that is literally the only thing I would have done differently, and that speaks volumes.
(I am happy to report, however, that I won't have to abandon my book for fear of it being too similar, as mine will be a lot broader and slightly more technical than this ended up being. Which is a relief.)
If you're a thinker, you will love the insight into how your mind works. If you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you will love the insight into how his mind works. And even if you've never been especially interested in either, this is an incredibly fun, easy way into a topic that I think everyone should at least know the basics of - we need to know how our brains work if we're to use them properly. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, so definitely give it a look.