Is Sherlock Holmes a genius or just a man with a well-trained mind? In Maria Konnikova’s popular psychology book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, she compares the Sherlock system to the Watson system, using examples from the original stories to illustrate the methods.
It’s an odd combination of fact and fiction, one which works for me. You either have to go in with the idea that Sherlock and Watson are real people and they are being used as a case study. Or, you see it as a very detailed character analysis. Sherlock is so ingrained in our minds and culture, that it’s easy to forget he’s fictional, especially the way Konnikova describes him. Yet, it’s also quite interesting to look at it from a literary analysis view, if you forget the parts that are aimed at self-improvement.
It doesn’t matter if the modern Holmes knows anything about astronomy if he can’t remember the timing of the asteroid that appears in a certain painting at the crucial moment. A boy will die and Benedict Cumberbatch will upset our expectations.
Let’s face it, this book is not going to turn you into a mastermind overnight, however there are many aspects that I can completely relate to and I found myself going “I do that” several times. Sherlock’s brain attic is explained and the way we store memories. We need to be motivated at the point of learning in order to access those facts easily later on. Apply this theory to me; we have a daily music quiz we do at work and I am useless at it. It’s not that I don’t know any of the facts (although some have never even gone near my attic space) but I’m not that fussed about music. I will listen to it, I know enough to go and buy the right album when I want to, but I have no motivation to learn the details. So often I struggle to get the answer but when someone else says it, I know that I did have that knowledge. It just wasn’t to hand in the attic space. Yet I remember lots of things I read in books, because I want to review them and discuss and I generally find these random facts interesting. Incidentally, I read Fuse shortly after Mastermind and noticed a passage which described Pressia going through her mental attic for clues.
Watson is used throughout to illustrate the normal, untrained mind (that would be us) and also the fact that minds can change. Sherlock’s mistakes are also used to show that unless you keep exercising your mind (like a muscle) it will weaken. I would warn anyone who hasn’t read the Sherlock Holmes books, that Mastermind is riddled with spoilers, but it would mostly be aimed at fans of the canon. Whilst I know bits and pieces of the stories (so this didn’t bother me), it has instilled a desire to go back and read more of them.
If you have a few spare minutes to fill, play the game over on the Canongate website. Maria will be in Portsmouth to talk about the book on Wednesday 23rd January 2013 (tickets still available). Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is published by Canongate and is currently available in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
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