CSW Lecture: Maria Konnikova on How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Psychologist Maria Konnikova visited Stevens Institute of Technology on March 5, 2014, to discuss her New York Times best-selling book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013), which has since been translated into 16 languages. The event was co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters and the Center for Science Writings, which sponsors free, public events at which prominent writers—including journalists, scientists, engineers, philosophers and other scholars—visit Stevens to discuss science-related issues. 

Konnikova, a blogger for The New Yorker, opened with a short mind reading game in which she asked the audience a series of questions that, based on common first-reaction mental responses, allowed her to predict the answer formulated in the audience’s minds.

For most, she guessed correctly, demonstrating how the method behind the game is one of many featured traits of Detective Sherlock Holmes that are then used to solve mysteries. Based on her book, Konnikova believes that we can adopt his thinking habits to become more mindful and aware in our daily lives.

 “Making a conscious choice to pay attention is hard for us,” she said. “One of the big myths of our brain is that it can multitask, but it can’t. What we think of as multitasking is really task switching, so you’re rapidly switching your attention between different activities and never actually paying attention fully to both.”

She then highlighted several ways that we can think like Sherlock Holmes, including being cognizant of what we store in our minds, particularly in recognizing that our “brain attic” houses precious mental real estate that should be organized effectively so information is easy to access later on.

“You have to be mindful of what goes up there, and you need to make a conscious effort to remember the things you want to remember, and properly encode them so you know where they are,” she said. “The better encoded something is, the more likely you’ll be able to access it later on.”

Konnikova contended that the advent of Google and other online information technologies is influencing our brain attics to become infinitely expandable, and said that psychologists are looking into how this is changing our memory and how we think. The results of this research thus far reveal that our brains are not remembering information if we think that we can remember how to access it later on. Instead, the brain is remembering how to access the information, which can be useful for mentally storing additional knowledge.

“As long as you are aware of this shift in thinking, then I think you can really use it to expand your brain attic, which can be a really empowering thing,” she said.

Further, she pointed out that Holmes spends a lot of his time sitting in a chair with his eyes closed, quietly reflecting on a mystery before taking action. She calls this “knowing when to smoke your pipe” and said that we need to give our minds space to think and reflect before trying to think critically or solve a problem.

Last, she suggested that Sherlock Holmes was distinguished because he saw his work as an opportunity to learn and have fun along the way, always showing excitement toward a chance to exercise his mind while acquiring greater knowledge.

“We really can continue learning,” she said. “It’s never too late to become Sherlock Holmes.”

About Stevens Institute of Technology
Stevens Institute of Technology, The Innovation University®, is a premier, private research university situated in Hoboken, N.J. overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Founded in 1870, technological innovation has been the hallmark and legacy of Stevens’ education and research programs for more than 140 years. Within the university’s three schools and one college, more than 6,100 undergraduate and graduate students collaborate with more than 350 faculty members in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment to advance the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront global challenges. Stevens is home to three national research centers of excellence, as well as joint research programs focused on critical industries such as healthcare, energy, finance, defense and STEM education and coastal sustainability. The university is consistently ranked among the nation’s elite for return on investment for students, career services programs and mid-career salaries of alumni. Stevens is in the midst of a 10-year strategic plan, The Future. Ours to Create., designed to further extend the Stevens legacy to create a forward-looking and far-reaching institution with global impact.