Fair warning: Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes will make you want to go back and re-watch all of the episodes from the most recent BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Perhaps one of my first realizations from this book came from seeing just how faithful the series apparently is to the original novels, which makes author Maria Konnikova’s insights all the more profound. While you likely won’t come away from a single reading of Mastermind with the scores of rapid-fire deductions depicted on television to impress your party guests, you can certainly work on developing the methods the same type of observational and decision-making skills that helped Holmes to pursue his enemies. From filtering out unnecessary information from your sensory input to reflecting on a problem long enough to develop true insight, Holmes’ methods move from the superhuman to actually achievable through the course of the book. Yes, the fictional Holmes is likely the best at these methods, but you can look for your own improvement.
Some of the most interesting stories from the book came from the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle developed the investigative method Holmes used to solve his crimes and even used the same mode of thinking to help two men accused of real crimes. Yet towards the end of his life, Doyle was tricked by two girls into believing that fairies were real (yes, the little winged features of fantasy). After all, the girls supposedly had proof: photos documenting their encounters. In an era that vastly preceded Photoshop, Doyle figured that the girls could not have forged the photos. He even went so far as to have photography experts (even folks from Kodak) verify that the film had not been tampered with.
The film had not been altered, but the photography experts all agreed that the imagery depicted could not be possible.
Unfortunately, the author could not claim the same level of effectiveness for his scientific deduction as he had in prior cases. The girls later revealed that the scenes from the photos were, in fact, fake. The film was unaltered, but the girls were skilled at making dolls and cutouts that looked like fantastical creatures -- skilled enough in fact to fool would-be believers.
Everyone falls prey to shortcuts in decision-making —- even Doyle and Holmes. While Holmes was able to set his errors straight in a matter of a few pages, we (and Doyle) do not always that quick realization.
Here’s where Konnikova’s analysis of the master detective comes in handy for the rest of us. She points out the shortcuts we don’t even realize we’re making and offers us the chance to take our time, consider our options fully, and make a decision.