Skip to main content

Become a 'Mastermind' with Sherlock Holmes' help

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
updated 11:51 AM EST, Fri January 11, 2013
Author Maria Konnikova says multitasking isn't conducive to thinking clearly like Sherlock Holmes.
Author Maria Konnikova says multitasking isn't conducive to thinking clearly like Sherlock Holmes.
  • Sherlock Holmes, the celebrated fictional detective, turns 159 this week
  • Author Maria Konnikova uses the latest science to explain workings of Holmes' mind
  • She shows how you can learn to think with clarity like Holmes

(CNN) -- This week super fans from around the world are gathering in New York to celebrate the 159th birthday of the legendary consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.

Never mind that Holmes is a fictional character. To this day, in books, TV and movies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation remains just as popular as he was when he debuted in the late 19th century.

Much of Holmes' appeal has always been his amazing mind -- how he is able to solve a seemingly insurmountable mystery through simple observation and deep thought. Wouldn't we all like to borrow from his bag of mental tricks?

Just imagine the possibilities if you put Holmes' brain power to use in the workplace, the classroom or social situations. That's the premise of Maria Konnikova's fascinating new book, "Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes." Konnikova, a columnist for Scientific American and a doctoral student in psychology, explores the latest science to dissect the inner workings of the iconic detective's mind.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. "Like" us on Facebook and have your say! Get the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

In turn, Konnikova uses Holmes as an example of how anyone can learn to think more clearly, improve his or her memory and generally increase everyday mental power.

CNN recently spoke to Konnikova about the book and the benefits of learning to think like Holmes. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: How did you become a fan of Sherlock Holmes?

Konnikova: I was introduced to Sherlock Holmes by my Dad when I was young. We had a tradition every Sunday night, he would read to us. Different stories, different books. "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Three Musketeers," things kids would really enjoy.

One Sunday we started the Sherlock Holmes stories, and it was just a completely eye-opening experience. I remember sitting there riveted. It really stuck with me as I grew older. I realized how powerful they were from a literary standpoint.

Conan Doyle was such a phenomenal writer. I don't think people appreciate just how good the work really is. He's masterful with voice, with conversation, with pacing, with description. He has it all down.

I was also struck by how incredibly accurate his psychological observations were. Sherlock Holmes became this figure who predated modern psychology, neuroscience and our understanding of how the mind works by more than a century. Combing through the stories, I thought it would be a fascinating way of looking at the mind by using this fictional character.

CNN: Can you briefly explain Holmes' thought process?

Konnikova: Holmes is really a mindful detective, someone who knows the true value of observation, which means being mindful and in the present moment, really taking in your surroundings, really taking in everything. That type of approach permeates all of his thinking. He's not just aware of his environment; he's aware of himself; he's aware of the contents of his own mind. He has a powerful knowledge of how he thinks, what mistakes he is likely to make. Holmes puts it best when he says it's the difference between seeing and observing.

CNN: What is the "brain attic" Holmes talks about?

Konnikova: It's his analogy for how we store and process information. How is it that we take the world around us and we form it into the permanent memories that we will then use as the basis of future decisions, future thinking, of future knowledge.

The reason he uses an attic is twofold. First, an attic is finite. You can't just keep stuffing things up there and expect it not to give. That's true of the mind as well. The human mind is more expandable than an attic, but there is this finite capacity for working knowledge.

Which is Holmes' second point, and why the analogy works so well. It doesn't just matter what you put up there; it matters how you do it. So if you think about it like an attic in an old house, if there are just boxes everywhere filled with junk and none of them are labeled, you're not going to be able to find anything.

What Holmes tells you is be careful, label everything, make sure everything is organized and accessible. That way, not only will you know where to find it, but you will remember it better. We really only know what we can remember at any given moment. It doesn't matter if you memorized the information, and it's in your attic somewhere. If you can't access it when you need it, you might as well not know it at all.

CNN: Are there everyday benefits of learning to think like Holmes?

Konnikova: Absolutely, this type of approach can make you healthier, happier and sharper.

CNN: Where would you start?

Konnikova: The first thing to do -- and this is difficult in our modern environment -- but realize that multitasking is not your friend. When you multitask, you cannot think like Sherlock Holmes. That's just anathema to his mindful approach.

If we take chunks out of the day where we focus, where we allow ourselves to just do one thing and nothing else, you'll find your mind becomes better at doing that one thing and better at managing multiple inputs, filtering out distractions and creating a cleaner slate for you to work.

When you're cognitively busy, you're not thinking as clearly. If you're someone with a busy schedule who has to multitask all the time, even if you just practice this quiet mindfulness a few minutes a day, just let your mind focus on the present moment, it can make a huge difference in the clarity of your thinking.

(Learn more about the book and read an excerpt on Konnikova's website.)

Part of complete coverage on
Catching up with authors
updated 11:29 AM EST, Fri February 8, 2013
Author Tim Federle has just wrapped a long day at the Atlanta Junior Theater festival, working with several thousand boys and girls who dream of stardom on the Broadway stage. Count these kids as lucky; they've found the perfect mentor.
updated 9:33 AM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
There's good and bad news regarding Robert Crais' new novel, "Suspect." First, the bad: There's no sign of uber-popular, crime-fighting duo, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Now the good: There is a dog.
updated 12:05 PM EST, Mon November 5, 2012
In "The Hot Country," U.S. troops invade a foreign country where oil interests are at stake, a rising foreign power is looking to derail U.S. forces using cloak and dagger tactics, and there's a gunfight in the desert against insurgent enemies.
updated 11:51 AM EST, Fri January 11, 2013
This week super fans from around the world are gathering in New York to celebrate the 159th birthday of the legendary consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Mon October 15, 2012
In "The Twelve" it's the end of the world as we know it and while no one feels fine, millions love reading about it.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Sat September 8, 2012
Fans of crime fiction know the names Connelly and Koryta well. Two Mikes. Two generations. Two masters of their craft.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Tue July 24, 2012
"Sorry Please Thank You" is his new collection of mind-bending, moving and sometimes melancholy stories.
updated 11:31 AM EDT, Tue July 17, 2012
Crime fiction fans know the name Parker, a single-named anti-hero of the 1960s. As a character, he's a career criminal, hired gun and professional thief, a pulp-fiction prince of America's seedy underworld.
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Fri June 29, 2012
Werewolves are usually the stuff of B-movies and bad novels, but last year British author Glen Duncan did the unthinkable in literary circles, crafting a howling good tale out of the weary werewolf myth.
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Tue June 19, 2012
Best-selling author Alan Furst has made a career of capturing the classic cloak-and-dagger days leading up to World War II, bringing the era to life like a literary version of "Casablanca."
updated 12:22 PM EDT, Fri June 8, 2012
The night before he turned 40, Rich Roll had what he calls a "moment of clarity." Overweight and out of shape, Roll had to stop to catch his breath while walking up the stairs of his Southern California home. Roll, now a father of four, feared he was close to a heart attack.
updated 1:14 PM EDT, Fri June 1, 2012
Craig Johnson looks like he could have stepped out of the pages of one of his own best-selling Western novels. With the late-day sun behind him, he could even pass for his fictional hero, Sheriff Walt Longmire.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Fri May 11, 2012
It's one of our simplest yet most enduring inventions. While the games have evolved, the ball in all its various forms continues to play a key role in different cultures around the world.
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Fri May 4, 2012
Former O.J. Simpson trial prosecturo Marcia Clark became a household name as the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Clark is still mining her past, only now as a successful crime novelist.
updated 8:02 AM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
"Waiting for Sunrise," the new novel from acclaimed British author William Boyd, is an evocative mix of sex, spies and psychoanalysis.
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Fri April 13, 2012
Bookshelves are bursting with a bevy of great new titles this spring but we wanted to highlight a trio of new thrillers that truly bring history to life.
updated 7:31 AM EDT, Tue April 3, 2012
Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known person born in a North Korean prison camp that escaped and survived to tell the tale.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Fri March 23, 2012
James Patterson may be the top-selling writer in the world; he might very well be the busiest, too. Patterson has three books near the top of the bestseller lists right now.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Fri March 16, 2012
Muffled gun shots and squealing tires. A secret midnight meeting in a dark alley. Everyone recognizes the classic elements of a good cloak and dagger story.
updated 7:32 AM EST, Fri March 9, 2012
History, from ancient Greece to hopscotching across time, plays a prominent role in March's best books.
updated 7:39 AM EST, Tue March 6, 2012
Imagine a smoke-filled jazz club, dark and crowded. The sounds of a trumpet solo echo on stage, while a piano, bass and drums pound out a finger-snapping groove.
updated 3:50 PM EST, Fri February 10, 2012
P.G. Sturges, son of famous director Preston Sturges, writes classic noir novels, like "The Shortcut Man."
updated 2:55 PM EST, Fri January 27, 2012
We should all be so lucky to have friends like Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Private detectives in modern-day Los Angeles, they're the stars of best-selling author Robert Crais' award-winning series of crime novels.
updated 3:02 PM EST, Fri January 20, 2012
Elmore Leonard is something of a living legend among lovers of crime fiction. A favorite of millions of readers, a hero to scores of writers, he's been called "America's greatest crime writer."