Maria Konnikova examines the neurological and psychological underpinnings of the great mind of Sherlock Holmes.
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She deploys two useful metaphors as the scaffolding upon which she builds her examination. First there's the Holmes system and the Watson system of thinking. System Watson is characterized by "lazy thought habits – the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance." System Holmes, on the other hand, is "a world where every single input is examined with ... care and healthy skepticism." Throughout the book, several well-known scenes from the stories are effectively parsed through the lenses of System Holmes and System Watson.Skip to next paragraph
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Konnikova also devotes considerable time to the notion of a "brain attic," a term used by Holmes himself in "A Study in Scarlet." She examines both the attic's structure and contents through a series of chapters – Stocking the Brain Attic; Exploring the Brain Attic; Navigating the Brain Attic; Maintaining the Brain Attic – that look in detail at aspects of memory formation, retention, and retrieval. She is particularly astute in her examination of the role of imagination and creativity, traits that seem, on the surface, to be superfluous to Holmes's strictly logical approach but turn out to be crucial.
Konnikova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University, knows her Holmes well and deploys the stories effectively to illustrate her more technical points. She also includes numerous recent psychological case studies, most of which reiterate the importance (and difficulty) of being mindful, being aware of bias, and holding back instinctive responses. System Holmes, in a nutshell.
Although English is not her native language, she writes it fluently. She is not, however, a memorable stylist, and "Mastermind" has its longueurs, especially in the Brain Attic chapters; long passages of dry, technical language, perhaps inevitable given the subject matter but not easy to wade through:
"In other words, the neural loci for evaluating logical implications and those for looking at their empirical plausibility may be in opposite hemispheres – a cognitive architecture that isn't conducive to coordinating statement logic with the assessment of chance and probability."
Konnikova has, however, saved her best for last. The book comes together beautifully in the penultimate chapter, in which we get to the main event – the deductions themselves – as she unpacks the memorable opening of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" through the prism of all the science she has previously examined. Examining a walking stick left behind by a missed caller, Watson develops an entirely erroneous picture of the man, fueled by his own biases and associations, whereas Holmes, sticking to Konnikova's system and utilizing his formidable brain attic, captures Dr. James Mortimer down to the size of his dog. It's a bravura turn.
Konnikova reserves the last chapter for the cautionary tale of Doyle and the Cottingley fairies, in which the creator of fiction's greatest exemplar of rational thought failed to follow his own precepts and was taken in by a photographic hoax dreamed up by two young girls. System Watson is, in the end, the one likely to master us all.
Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel "Harry, Revised."