How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — And Have a Better Life

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

He's not just a snacky master of deduction. Sherlock Holmes also has some profound psychological lessons to teach. Learn from the brilliant detective's strategy of mindfulness in this excerpt from psychology researcher Maria Konnikova's new book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

The Two M's: Mindfulness and Motivation

As Holmes reminds us, "Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it." But it's also more than mere fancy. In essence, it comes down to one simple formula: to move from a System Watson to a System Holmes-governed thinking takes mindfulness plus motivation. (That, and a lot of practice.) Mindfulness, in the sense of constant presence of mind, the attentiveness and hereness that is so essential for real, active observation of the world. Motivation, in the sense of active engagement and desire.


When we do such decidedly unremarkable things as misplacing our keys or losing our glasses only to find them on our head, System Watson is to blame: we go on a sort of autopilot and don't note our actions as we make them. It's why we often forget what we were doing if we're interrupted, why we stand in the middle of the kitchen wondering why we've entered it. System Holmes offers the type of retracing of steps that requires attentive recall, so that we break the autopilot and instead, remember just where and why we did what we did. We aren't motivated or mindful all the time, and mostly, it doesn't matter. We do things mindlessly to conserve our resources for something more important than the location of our keys.


But in order to break from that autopiloted mode, we have to be motivated to think in a mindful, present fashion, to exert effort on what goes through our heads instead of going with the flow. To think like Sherlock Holmes, we must want, actively, to think like him. In fact, motivation is so essential that researchers have often lamented the difficulty of getting accurate performance comparisons on cognitive tasks for older and younger participants. Why? The older adults are often far more motivated to perform well. They try harder. They engage more. They are more serious, more present, more involved. To them, the performance matters a great deal. It says something about their mental capabilities-and they are out to prove that they haven't lost the touch as they've aged. Not so younger adults. There is no comparable imperative. How, then, can you accurately compare the two groups? It's a question that continues to plague research into aging and cognitive function.

But that's not the only domain where it matters. Motivated subjects always outperform. Students who are motivated perform better on something as seemingly immutable as the IQ test-on average, as much as .064 standard deviations better, in fact. Not only that, but motivation predicts higher academic performance, fewer criminal convictions, and better employment outcomes. Children who have a so-called "rage to master"-a term coined by Ellen Winner to describe the intrinsic motivation to master a specific domain-are more likely to be successful in any number of endeavors, from art to science. If we are motivated to learn a language, we are more likely to succeed in our quest. Indeed, when we learn anything new we learn better if we are motivated learners. Even our memory knows if we're motivated or not: we remember better if we were motivated at the time the memory was formed. It's called motivated encoding.


And then, of course, there is that final piece of the puzzle: practice, practice, practice. You have to supplement your mindful motivation with brutal training, thousands of hours of it. There is no way around it. Think of the phenomenon of expert knowledge: experts in all fields, from master chess players to master detectives, have superior memory in their field of choice. Holmes's knowledge of crime is ever at his fingertips. A chess player often holds hundreds of games, with all of their moves, in his head, ready for swift access. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson argues that experts even see the world differently within their area of expertise: they see things that are invisible to a novice; they are able to discern patterns at a glance that are anything but obvious to an untrained eye; they see details as part of a whole and know at once what is crucial and what is incidental..


Even Holmes could not have begun life with System Holmes at the wheel. You can be sure that in his fictional world he was born, just as we are, with Watson at the controls. He just hasn't let himself stay there. He took System Watson and taught it to operate by the rules of System Holmes, virtually hijacking the natural order of things by imposing reflective thought where there should rightly be reflexive reaction.

For the most part, System Watson is the habitual one. But if we are conscious of its power, we can ensure that it is not in control nearly as often as it otherwise would be. As Holmes often notes, he has made it a habit to engage his Holmes system, every moment of every day. In so doing, he has slowly trained his quick-to-judge inner Watson to perform as his public outer-Holmes. Through sheer force of habit, he has taught his instant judgments to follow the train of thought of a far more reflective approach. And because this foundation is in place, it takes a matter of seconds for him to make his initial observations of Watson's character. That's why Holmes calls it intuition. Accurate intuition, the intuition that Holmes posseses, is of necessity based on training, hours and hours of it. An expert may not always realize consciously where it's coming from, but it comes from some habit, visible or not. What Holmes has done is to clarify the process, break down how hot can become cool, reflexive become reflective. It's what Anders Ericsson calls expert knowledge: an ability, born from extended and intense practice and not some innate genius. It's not that Holmes was born to be the consulting detective to end all consulting detectives. It's that he has practiced his mindful approach to the world and has, over time, perfected his art to the level at which we find it.


At their first case together draws to a close, Dr. Watson complements his new companion on his masterful accomplishment: "You have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world." A high compliment indeed. But in the following pages, you will learn to do the exact same thing for your every thought, from its very inception-just as Arthur Conan Doyle did in his defense of George Edalji, and Joseph Bell, in his patient diagnoses.

Sherlock Holmes came of age at a time where psychology was still in its infancy. We are far better equipped than he could have ever been. Let's learn to put that knowledge to good use.


Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from MASTERMIND: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Copyright © 2013 by Maria Konnikova.