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Mastermind Reader’s Guide

By Maria Konnikova

Mastermind by Maria Konnikova


Questions and Topics for Discussion

“To observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you’re seeing” (p. 87).

Sherlock Holmes captivated readers’ imaginations from the moment A Study in Scarlet was first published in 1887. Like millions of other fans, Maria Konnikova grew up in awe of the iconic detective’s astute powers of observation and extraordinary deductive abilities. Now, Konnikova, a psychologist and writer, unpacks the secrets behind Holmes’s seemingly inimitable methods to show how even the dullest Watson can elevate his thinking to the highest levels.

As super-human as Holmes’s abilities may seem on the page, Konnikova explains that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his iconic creation upon a real-life surgeon of his acquaintance, Dr. Joseph Bell. “It was said that Dr. Bell could tell from a single glance that a patient was a recently discharged noncommissioned officer in a Highland regiment, who had just returned from service in Barbados” (p. 12).

Decades before psychology became an established science, Holmes—like Dr. Bell and Conan Doyle himself—sought to apply the rigors of the scientific method to human behavior. Where the genial Dr. John Watson embodies our innate credulity, Holmes is the skeptical observer who dispassionately considers all of the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

Konnikova writes that each of us is capable of espousing Holmes’s practice and thereby develop the “muscle that you never knew you had—one that suddenly begins to ache, then develop and bulk up as you begin to use it . . . with practice your mind will see that the constant observation and never-ending scrutiny will become easier” (p. 21).

There is more to Holmes’ success than mere skepticism and scrutiny, however. Adopting the detective’s own analogy from A Study in Scarlet, Konnikova introduces the idea of the Brain Attic, the place where we both store and process information. Since space is limited, Holmes disposes of anything he believes to be irrelevant to solving crimes. Famously, Holmes claims to be ignorant of the fact that the Sun is the center of our solar system. Yet, he “makes a conscious, motivated choice to remember cases past; one never knows when they might come in handy” (p. 29).

Recent studies have shown that our own opinions and performance can be shockingly susceptible to outside influences. “The white coat effect” (p. 84), for example, induces erratic vital signs in perfectly healthy individuals who visit a doctor’s office for a physical. While “the stereotype threat” (p. 255) causes test takers who must note their gender or ethnicity before the test to perform either better or worse depending on his or her respective cultural stereotype. Holmes, however, guards against all outside factors by knowing “the biases of his attic like the back of his hand” (p. 47).

A columnist for Scientific American, Maria Konnikova applies her knowledge of twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology to reveal the strategies behind Holmes’s legendary deductive powers. Filled with entertaining references to his adventures on both the page and the screen, Mastermind will captivate and inspire readers who yearn to think clearer, achieve more, and unleash their inner Holmes

Maria Konnikova blogs frequently for the New Yorker. She formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American. Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, The Paris Review, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Observer, Salon, WIRED, and Scientific American MIND, among other print and online publications. A graduate of Harvard University, Konnikova received her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. She lives in New York City.

Q. There are countless other detectives who were popular in their time but have since become historical footnotes. Yet, Sherlock Holmes has joined the pantheon of literary immortals. To what do you attribute his enduring appeal?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Holmes was based on a real person, Dr. Joseph Bell. Readers may not know the background—and, indeed, may think that Holmes is entirely a product of Conan Doyle’s imagination—but that genesis goes a long way toward explaining the character’s realism and his enduring appeal. We don’t just see Holmes in action and marvel at his super-human feats; we look at him and think, “Hey, I could do this, too.” It all makes sense.
Holmes takes care to explain his reasoning, and we can relate to it because the steps are taken straight from life: Conan Doyle used the real reasoning of a real person, and placed it in a fictional character. This makes Holmes more believable and more empathetic than many of his rival detectives.
Q. Did Holmes have any part in your decision to study psychology?
Yes and no. Yes, in that my love of fiction and of seeing the intricacies of the human mind and human interactions play out on the page were a definite inspiration in my desire to study psychology in greater depth. No, in that it wasn’t a conscious link, from point A to point B. Holmes was but one of many fictional heroes who pushed me in the same psychological direction.
Q. Partway through your book, you reveal that your first encounter with Sherlock Holmes was listening to your father read Russian translations of the stories. Did your appreciation of them change when you read them in English? Which do you prefer now?
My appreciation did indeed change, but I think that has more to do with growing maturity than with the language per se. I was able to see things as an adult that I had missed as a child; in the years between my Russian and English experiences of Sherlock Holmes, I had learned to be a much deeper reader. It’s hard to separate that change from the change in language. I still love both versions—the Russian translation is wonderful—but read the English far more frequently.
Q. Of the many actors to play the great detective, who best captures the qualities of astute thinking and ever-present mindfulness that you write about in Mastermind?

That’s an impossible question. The way I see it, each actor captures some element of Holmes—and each approximation ensures that Sherlock Holmes will continue to live on in the popular mind. If any given version gets one more person to pick up the books and embark upon a relationship with reading and stories, that version becomes inherently  worthwhile. And all three modern leading men—Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jonny Lee Miller (in alphabetical order, lest anyone think I’m playing favorites)—certainly go a long way to prolonging Holmes’s wide appeal. I love them all for it.
Q. You write, “In general, I think it’s safe to suppose that Watson sees the world as a friendlier place than does Holmes” (p. 53). Does a Holmesian outlook necessarily make one more cynical towards humanity? Would it be fair to say that Watson is, in general, a happier person than his friend?
Not necessarily. It’s not the Holmesian outlook as such that is the cause of cynicism; it is the specific experience of Sherlock Holmes, who is a criminal detective and deals with the underside of humanity on a regular basis. A Buddhism monk can be Holmesian and happy at the same time. It’s not about the outlook; it’s about the background.
Q. Does the Internet make it easier or more difficult to maintain a well-organized Brain Attic?
Both. Easier, in that we don’t have to remember as much information as before—we can easily access it so can save our brain attics for more important things. More difficult, in that it’s also more likely that random junk will make it’s way into our precious mental space without us realizing what’s happening. But as long as we remain aware and mindful, we can minimize that negative element and maximize the greater freedom—and nearly endless storage space—that the Internet provides.
Q. Towards the end of the book, you explain that Holmes often “needs Watson’s presence” (p. 195). Do you think that Holmes became a better detective after he met Watson?
Yes, without a doubt. You can see Holmes growing from story to story, honing his craft and his thinking, both. With Watson at his side, he must constantly polish his logic and make sure that everything is properly worked out; it needs to be clear enough in his mind that he can easily explain it to his friend. That sort of constant feedback enables growth and ever-increasing maturity in his thinking. Watson’s other—no less essential—role is to keep Holmes grounded and humble. Watson makes sure that that the detective doesn’t grow overly complacent or too self-satisfied. It’s important to have that sort of external check, especially if you’re someone with an ego as large as Holmes’s.
Q. How has your own critical thinking improved after researching and writing Mastermind?
I’m much more aware of my mind-wandering, multitasking tendencies and have become better at focusing on one thing at a time and on managing my distractions. I couldn’t begin to imagine, before researching and writing Mastermind, just how prone I was to task-switching—and to trying to do two things at once. I never thought it was a problem, but when I actually adopted the techniques I describe in the book I became far more productive and much clearer in my thinking.
Q. In your opinion, what is the one thing that most holds us back in our pursuit for greater mindfulness?
While it’s hard to single out just one thing, if I had to pick, I think our desire for speed is the greatest impediment to mindfulness in the modern world. We want to get things done faster, be everywhere faster, cram more in—faster. We forget to take a breath, whether it’s by eating lunch at our desks or toggling vigorously between some crazy amount of Internet tabs that are open at the same time or by scheduling that phone call for our morning commute just so there’s no down time at all. What we don’t realize is that this quest for speed actually slows us down. We exhaust ourselves and don’t give our minds a chance to refresh, to reflect, to think. It’s amazing what can happen if you take a moment to just do . . . nothing at all.
Q. A recent study showed that reading literary fiction increases empathy and social perception. Do you think that mysteries can increase a reader’s powers of observation and problem-solving skills?

Honestly, I don’t think the link is that direct. I think it may have more to do with the fact that the types of people who like mysteries probably also like puzzles and problems. So, the two may go hand in hand more than the one improving the other.
Q. You are still in the process of earning your Ph.D. at Columbia, but you have already made quite a name for yourself as a writer and columnist. Do you have plans for another book?

I actually completed my Ph.D. last spring and am now writing full-time. So, yes, I so indeed have plans for another book—multiple other books, in fact. I’m currently working on a non-fiction book and a novel. But I can’t say more about the content at this point!

  1. Since it would be a Watsonian misstep to assume that all readers of Mastermind are fans of Sherlock Holmes, what was it that drew you to read Konnikova’s book?

  2. Part one of Mastermind is titled “Understand Yourself.” How well do you know what’s stored in your Brain Attic? Is there something you wish that you could add—or remove?

  3.  When you looked at the photographs of the two men on page 43, did you “vote” for the candidate on the left? Why or why not?

  4. Holmes sometimes smoked a pipe—or three—to create “psychological distance between himself and the problem at hand” (p. 132). What do you usually do when you need to switch gears and address a problem from a fresh angle?

  5. If you are old enough to remember a time before the Internet, do you feel that greater connectivity has enhanced or diminished your productivity and clarity of thought?

  6. Do you find that you are more likely to make a mistake when you are feeling insecure or when you are feeling overconfident?

  7. Konnikova examines a number of ways in which our minds subconsciously lead us astray, including omission neglect, the availability heuristic, and the misinformation effect. How has reading Mastermind given you greater insights into your own and others’ behavior?

  8.  Has Mastermind inspired you to try and become a better thinker? Will you begin to keep a “decision diary” (p. 224) or take any other active steps to become more mindful?

  9.  After everything that Konnikova writes about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s considerable powers of observation and deduction, it’s surprising to learn that two young girls managed to hoodwink him. What is your biggest blind spot?

  10. Discuss two instances of personal failure, one of which you viewed “as a learning opportunity” and one which you considered “a frustrating personal shortcoming that cannot be remedied” (p. 253). Do you agree with Carol Dweck’s theories about the fluidity of intelligence and the importance of mindset? Are you more of an incremental theorist or an entity theorist?

  11. What are some of your favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, and why? Discuss some of the adventures that Konnikova does not mention and how they either bear out or refute her analysis of the detective’s techniques.

  12. What was the most surprising thing you learned from Mastermind? Would you recommend the book to others?

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