Have you ever wondered why some people just seem to be blessed with so much wit?

That they almost always have an answer and a correct one at that?

In her book Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova takes a deep dive into the remarkable ways one of the world’s greatest detective uses his mind to solve problems.

The good news for us mere mortals is that we can learn a great deal how to think better and actually do it too.

Sherlock vs. Watson 

Konnikova uses the characters of Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Watson to describe the way our brains work.

Our brains consist of a two-part system that operates in tandem.

Our Watson system (System 1) is the more intuitive and quick system that uses our memory and experiences to make fast interferences and judgments.

Our Sherlock system (System 2) is the slower, more analytical and deliberate response where we have time to ponder, reason and construct an argument:

“Think of the Watson system as our naive selves, operating by the lazy thought habits- the ones that come most naturally… that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we’ll be once we’re done learning how to apply his method of thinking” (p. 18).

We need both of these systems in order to make decisions.

But we often let one or the other take over and end up not utilising our mastermind in the best way possible.

In many cases, we believe what we see and our initial reaction is often our inner Watson that draws a quick conclusion or judgment as to how something is.

We might not have all the necessary information and the information we have might be too narrow to realistically arrive at the right conclusion.

Yet, we are often certain straight away what the issue is and also how it can be solved.

But Konnikova warns us that always following our Watson can  lead us very astray.

Not going further in our thinking process and just settling for the closest and fastest interpretation leaves a tremendous amount of error in our decisions.

Quiet mind finds the truth

In the Sherlock Holmes books, it is overwhelmingly Sherlock who finally cracks the case even if he seems often the slowest to say what he actually thinks.

This is because Sherlock system is about quiet deliberation, about being mindful, stopping the clock and taking a step back and asking what else could have happened, what other interpretations are there that could apply.

Sometimes Sherlock is seen sitting in a chair for hours at end, smoking his pipe and watching into empty space.

Watson often gets irritated at this very slow process, makes a suggestion as to what is the most probable and wants to quickly catch the thief.

But no. The famous Holmes instead stops and explores all possibilities because:

“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”  (p. 178).

The problem with only relying on Watson system is because:

“What we believe is possible or plausible shapes our basic assumptions in how we formulate and investigate questions” (p. 235).

When we let our intuitive Watson loose, we are very much mainly driven by our experience, by our limited knowledge, and that system shapes the way we even ask questions.

Given our reliance on fast heuristics or rules of thumb, we are likely to go down a path that is easiest and that we “know” is right:

“Our memory is in large part the starting point for how we think, how our preferences form, and how we make decisions” (p. 29).

Watson craves to find a narrative, to form a story and make sense of all that has happened and is happening.

In contrast, Holmes requires and needs a quiet mind.

Someone with a quiet mind is better able to ask a broader range of questions, to consider more options and alternatives, and willing to process more information before making a decision.

Indeed, Konnikova’s main message to us is that quiet minds have always more potential to find the truth, even if it is hiding in curious forms.

How to acquire a Sherlock mastermind

You might have already guessed what her advice is: to stop, reflect, pay attention and explore possibilities of what might be, not just what is.

In practice, this means that we need to learn to stop ourselves from automatically using Watson system.

This only comes through practice because our habitual self wants to create a story, a narrative that fits with what we believe and have experienced.

Stopping ourselves from quick judgments means being aware of our tendency to take the first facts and run with them.

I’ve caught myself so many times now doing this, even after reading this insightful book!

But now I am more and more aware that the stories that I spin are not the ones that might be actually happening.

Considering a broader set of possibilities and options gives us space to think and sometimes leads us to even greater insights.

Another practical tip Konnikova notes is the keeping of decision diary.

Rather than just relying on our memory (which is biased and fragmented in any case), she encourages us to write down the decision, the factors influencing our decision, and then writing down the actual outcome and what happened (including all potential factors).

This, Konnikova says, can teach us so much about how we think we make decisions and why, and then actually learn from experience, and not just our memory of what we think happened.

This book has really opened my eyes to the neuroscientific insights on how we make decisions and the array of factors that come into play.

But the overall message is that learning to stop our Watson and embracing our inner Sherlock pays off  as some insights only reveal themselves through time.

This can be done and it is essentially about practice: learning to make better decisions by first eliminating the impossible and then looking at whatever remains.