System Sherlock: That thinking feeling

by Mark Broatch / 21 March, 2013
You can develop the wisdom, memory and imagination of Sherlock Holmes. You just have to break the habits of a lifetime.
System Sherlock - That thinking feeling
Photo/Getty Images

For a man approaching 160 years of age, Sherlock Holmes is still in great shape and as popular as ever. Our screens are filled with the sleuth. Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as his female sidekick, is well into its TV run here. Sherlock, the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch in high-collared coats and displaying tech-savvy insouciance and with Martin Freeman as his war-wounded Watson, has third and fourth seasons coming.

House, which starred Hugh Laurie as a medical problem-solver based explicitly on Holmes, is beyond resuscitation but will now forever be on repeat. The third of the campy, ropey films involving Robert Downey jnr and Jude Law has been given the green light. Our libraries are still stocked with Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. Why do we still love Sherlock Holmes?

Part of the pleasure is that he out-thinks the smartest detectives, let alone the cleverest crooks. His brain works in ways we hardly understand, picking up clues we don’t notice and piecing them together into solutions we never foresee.

But the truth, says Maria Konnikova, is that we can all think like Sherlock Holmes. We can hone our deductive abilities, our observation skills, our memory, even our imagination. We can learn new things into an advanced age. But first, Konnikova says in her book, Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes, we need to negate our brain’s inbuilt biases and “primes” – how we are predisposed logically and culturally to think in certain ways.

Most of the time, says Konnikova, a Moscow-born, New York-based psychologist who cites tons of serious studies and eminent psychologists in the book, we typically think in what she calls System Watson. It’s fast and intuitive. System Holmes, meanwhile, is slow and deliberate. It favours depth over efficiency, uncertainty over certainty. System Watson is quick because it relies on those biases. So it’s often wrong.


Konnikova, a lifelong Conan Doyle fan, says we can’t totally eliminate our biases – as Holmes says, there are no exceptions, so none of us is immune to bias – but if we acknowledge and counteract them, we can hugely sharpen our thinking processes.

But we should give our brains a lot of credit for making the right decisions for us most of the time, she says. “To think like Sherlock Holmes is incredibly resource-heavy. It really taxes you cognitively, and you don’t have resources to do anything else.

“When you’re in that System Watson frame of mind, your brain can do things much more quickly; it’s not using up as many resources, so you’re much more able to do other things as well. So you have to make these conscious choices: ‘Okay, now I really want to focus, now I want to be present, I want to be mindful, I want to make sure that my resources are really functioning at that optimal level.’

“Most of the time, depending on what we are doing, System Watson is just fine. Those biases are just a small fraction of our thinking most of the time. We do come to the right conclusion in things that don’t really matter.”

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman claims our default system – System Watson – is hard to train. His solution is to force Watson out of the equation. When we’re diagnosing a problem, fixing a car, hiring staff or overcoming writer’s block, we should use checklists, formulas and structured procedures instead of relying on impressions and instinct. The Holmes solution? Habit, habit, habit, says Konnikova. And motivation.

“Become an expert of sorts at those types of decisions or observations that you want to excel at making.” Not just in detective-type skills but in clear thinking. “If you learn first how to be selective accurately … you will be able to limit the damage that System Watson can do by pre-emptively teaching it not to muck it up.”


To know what we’re looking for and where we are looking for it, we need to determine our objective. We must think ahead, set specific goals and end points and set up if/then contingencies. You might want to write everything down to avoid recreating from scratch, and consider both repercussions and possible rewards for success. But be flexible in your thinking.

Holmes, whom Conan Doyle based on the brilliant Scottish diagnostician Joseph Bell, was always ready to change his position based on new facts. But first he observed. The famous Afghanistan exchange that features in the first episode of Sherlock is taken from Bell, Konnikova says. “He saw a patient and was able to say that not only was he suffering from elephantiasis but he was a discharged officer from the Scottish Highlands who had just come back from Barbados.”

Holmes was also based on Conan Doyle himself – the author’s altruistic investigations of cases helped establish the Court of Appeal. We should also be aware that many external things can affect our decision-making, says Konnikova. “There was a study [by renowned psychologist Uri Simonsohn] where people who see colleges on rainy days are more likely to attend them than if it were sunny – it’s crazy, the weather really affects important life decisions.” In the same vein, on rainy days, financial traders are more likely to make risk-averse decisions.


Using as an example Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Priory School, in which an important pupil goes missing along with the German teacher, Konnikova says we often believe what we want to see, encoding that belief rather than actuality, then regard it as objective fact. As she writes in her book, “One need only look at the inaccuracy of expert witness testimony to see how bad we are at assessing and remembering.”

We must also understand that the fact of observing changes the thing being observed. She notes the white-coat effect: merely entering a doctor’s office can change pulse rates and blood pressure. Also, observation and deduction need to be two separate steps. Konnikova says her mother was young when she gave birth to her older sister (actually average in 1970s Russia) and the two were often thought to be sisters; her mother is often now thought to be the mother of her granddaughter, Konnikova’s niece. “The improbable is not yet impossible” is one of Holmes’s most famous lines.

“That’s incredibly important to remember, not just in the context of Holmes, but with everything – that a lot of ideas when they’re new seem improbable. And probability is not necessarily a marker of how likely or unlikely they are to occur.

“It’s not that brilliant people think of a brilliant idea and that’s it. For every brilliant idea there were hundreds, thousands that weren’t brilliant, that were really stupid. But they were willing to try them out, too.

“One of my favourite quotes – Isaac Asimov – is that the words most likely to occur before a great discovery aren’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny …’ That really captures embracing failure as opposed to fearing it.” Great minds need a lack of fear of failure, she says, citing Lincoln, Edison, Einstein, Disney and even Sherlock.

“If you are afraid of failing, not only are you not going to try all of these different things, you might not even think about them. One of the things that sets apart the way Holmes thinks is that he is willing to entertain these completely outrageous scenarios just to see how they play out.” The Priory School scenario turns out to be different from what everyone but Holmes expects, because he realises that the teacher may not be an accomplice or instigator, but a victim.

A helpful exercise, says Konnikova, is to describe a situation from the beginning, as if to a stranger. Which is why Holmes (in all of his incarnations, from Basil Rathbone to Cumberbatch to Laurie) talks through his theory out loud to Watson. This encourages mindfulness, weeds out basic errors, allows confirmation of understanding. It’s like reading your writing aloud to spot the mistakes. Train yourself to say, as Holmes does: “It is impossible as I state it, and therefore I must in some respect have stated it wrong.”


Referring to The Hound of the Baskervilles and the mysterious boots, Konnikova tells us not to ignore any of our senses – in this case, smell. Attention is about learning not to leave out anything that’s relevant to the goals you have set. And realising all our senses affect us, without us always being aware of the impact.

Smells, for example, travel to our hippocampus, amygdala (emotion-processing) and olfactory cortex (smells, memory, learning, decision-making), so it’s hardly surprising smells often trigger feelings and recollections. Senses affect perceptions of people and events. When we touch something warm or cold, it can likewise make us feel warm or cold towards something or someone; if we are touched by someone in a reassuring way, we may find ourselves being more confident; if we hold something heavy, we are likely to judge something as being more serious.

We should also pay attention to absence. Consider the missing racehorse in Silver Blaze, she says. Inspector Gregson asks if there’s anything Holmes wishes to draw to his attention. Holmes says: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” The inspector says the dog did nothing in the night-time. Holmes says: “That was the curious incident.” In other words, the dog must have known the intruder.

Maria Konnikova
Maria Konnikova: “We don’t like to admit our initial intuitions are false.” Photo/Margaret Singer & Max Freeman.


Even Sherlock Holmes makes mistakes. But most are mistakes of misestimation – of a person, in the case of Irene Adler; of a horse’s ability to stay hidden in Silver Blaze; of a man’s ability to stay the same in The Case of the Crooked Lip. But for Holmes a failure of engagement is rare. In The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk, says Konnikova, the fact that Holmes thinks he has solved the case almost costs him his suspect’s life. He makes a basic error, because he has lost interest.

When we are engaged in what we are doing, we persist longer at difficult problems – and become more likely to solve them. We experience what some psychologists call flow – “a presence of mind that not only allows us to extract more from whatever it is we are doing but makes us feel better and happier” – whether it’s solving difficult puzzles or sorting the mail. Engagement is more likely to make us be more productive and less likely to commit fundamental errors, Konnikova says.

Even better, you can “fake it till you make it”, she says. “If you psyche yourself up, you can start feeling like you’re more engaged than you really are. But you have to really fake it. You have to smile and say I’M MOTIVATED! Really act out what you’re trying to fake.” It’s related to the work of American psychologist Paul Ekman, which found that adopting facial expressions, such as putting a pencil between the teeth to produce a smile, can actually affect our moods.

When thinking about engagement, remember also that wandering minds are our default, she says. “That is their resting state.” Don’t blame the internet, as that’s just the latest distraction.

Becoming more mindful has changed Konnikova’s interactions with people and made her more aware of her own limitations. “I write fiction as well as non-fiction, and you need to be a good observer of people. You need to be able to look at their interactions and listen to them, see them, in a way you can’t do if you are looking at your phone, thinking about dinner and trying to send a text message.” A couple of days without a phone and internet and her mind becomes freer and more imaginative. “I think it really has to do with this mindful single-mindedness that Holmes embodies. The effects become visible very quickly – a matter of days. I’m very anti-multitasking these days.”

A sense of play is vital to engagement. Sherlock maintains a childlike curiosity – complete with petulant tantrums – about the world. “There is this language in the books about play – one of his most famous lines is ‘The game’s afoot’. That mindset is incredibly important, because that’s the way he sees it, and that’s why it’s exciting and engaging to him. It’s also why there’s a lot of research that’s trying to use games in learning environments, because not only when they’re playing a game do they like it more but whatever you’re trying to study gets studied better. People are more motivated, more engaged. They pick things up faster because games are fun. Sherlock Holmes never forgets that.”


The next step of the thought process is imagination. “It takes the stuff of observation and experience and recombines them into something new.” Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman insisted imagination is essential in science, but it is unlike that of the artist. You need to imagine something that has not been seen, is different but is consistent with what has already been seen. “Out of all the possibilities you’ve imagined, what is the definite one that best explains all the facts?” Konnikova asks. And creativity can be taught. “It’s just like another muscle – attention, self-control – that can grow stronger with use, training, focus and motivation.”

We tend to forget how creative children are, she says. “They are encouraged, most of the time, to explore these things, they’re rewarded for it. Then as you get older, that disappears a bit. You start not being rewarded for taking risks, for thinking outside the box. Because the more responsibility you have, the more people dependent on what you do, the riskier risks become, and the more rewarded you are for thinking along prescribed lines.

“So it’s not that people who don’t think that they’re creative and imaginative inherently aren’t, it’s just learnt lack of imagination. So just as it’s learnt, you can unlearn it, if you start rewarding creative behaviours instead. If you start realising that, you really can be more imaginative. There’s a lot of work that backs this up – all it takes is a few simple manipulations and people start thinking much more openly than they have in the past.”

She mentions the remote associates test: for example, what is the link between crab, pine and sauce? The answer, or at least the obvious one, is apple. “That’s often used in the lab in tests of creativity. It’s only one type of creative thinking, but it’s something we can usually test and compare in people. There’s a lot of work that shows if you prime people either with creative ideas or if you just teach them about these things and how they work and let them practise, they become better, more able to see that intuitive solution much faster.

“These effects are really strong. If you think about it in this priming framework, think how many negative reinforcement cues we have to creativity. About a year or so ago, they tried to prime outside-the-box thinking by literally having a box [for] people to think outside it, and they showed people became more creative when they saw the actual physical manifestation of this cliché.”


One way to avoid jumping straight from evidence to conclusion is through distance. How often do we see our sleuth doing something else – playing a violin, going to the opera, bouncing a ball against the wall like Dr Greg House? But distancing – whether in time or space, by imagining how other people see it or by separating yourself from reality – may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision-making, argues Konnikova.

Distance aids the generality and wideness of our perspective. It forces quiet reflection and has been shown to improve cognitive performance and self-control. Remember the kids in the well-known study trying not to eat the marshmallows (in order to get more later) by visualising them as clouds?

Holmes had a “three-pipe problem” in The Adventure of the Red- Headed League, smoking in concentrated silence till the answer arose. (Cumberbatch’s Sherlock naturally uses nicotine patches.) Other distancing activities: walking, especially in nature, and showers. They force us to look at the world from a different angle. They also allow our minds to relax.

Interestingly, we also get better at solving insight problems when tired or a bit tipsy, as our executive function is inhibited and lets in remote associations. Changing location can also help. Places tend to get associated with activities, which is why so many people can’t work from home.

Meditation – even just a simple exercise to clear the mind – works wonders for thinking, she says. One study found that even after a short training period of a few minutes a day, changes were noted at the neural level. Further training tended to increase the capacity for imagination. Even better, meditation and visualisation exercises that see scenarios through others’ eyes can improve emotional and cognitive well-being.


In Holmesian terms, you lay out your chain of reasoning and test possibilities until whatever remains (improbability aside) is the truth. Holmes says: “It may be that several explanations remain, in which case one tries test after test until one or other of them has a convincing amount of support.” That, in essence, is deduction. But it’s not easy. We are built to form narratives out of events, stories, even if they are incorrect.

We like simplicity, concrete reasons, causes, things that make intuitive sense – even if that sense happens to be wrong, Konnikova says. We dislike uncertainty, randomness, nonlinearity. If we think a basketballer throwing several hoops in a row has a “hot hand”, or that a coin is more likely to land on tails if it has fallen on heads a number of times, we fall prey to fallacies. We don’t like to admit our initial intuitions are false. “It is perhaps why wrongful arrests are so sticky even outside the world of Conan Doyle.”

To sort the crucial from the incidental, we need to reflect, inhibit and edit, she writes. Holmes lays out the facts in a neat row and goes at his own pace, ignoring everyone. And he tells Watson everything.


Learning keeps our minds sharp and is a way of challenging ourselves and questioning our habits, “of never allowing System Watson to take over altogether”. Don’t think learning is just for the young. When a group of adults learnt Chinese for nine months, their brains showed clear signs of reorganising. It now seems clear that with application and practice, even the elderly can reverse signs of cognitive decline.

But we need to keep learning, keep challenging ourselves, or the gains disappear. Remember that human learning is largely driven by reward prediction error, which basically means when we do something right, our brain releases dopamine. Eventually, when we get good at something, it stops doing this.

The trick, she says, is to move past that instant reward system and find the uncertainty of the future rewarding in itself. We are creatures of habit. And thought habits are tough to break, she writes. Great minds don’t become complacent. “If we taught our brains, we can also unteach them, or teach them differently.”

And we should never say no to more knowledge, “as scary or as complicated as that may be”. Even the experienced need to keep learning. Studies of seasoned chief executives and stock brokers showed that overconfidence increases instead of decreases over the course of their career.

We also need to be ever vigilant to credulousness. At the end of his life, Conan Doyle was fooled by photos of fairies. “It’s very easy to cultivate this sceptical attitude until it concerns something that we really care about, that’s part of our self-definition, that’s really close to our idea of who we are. That’s what happened for Conan Doyle, because for him spiritualism became a defining part of who he was.”

It’s a terrible irony that Sherlock Holmes would never let himself fall into such obvious traps of the mind.

Face facts

Face facts

Konnikova says faces are perhaps the most powerful cue we have and we make decisions about them in as little as a tenth of a second.

Early in her book, she puts black and white images of two men’s faces side by side and asks you to choose the more attractive face and the more competent one. (The men were rivals in a 2004 Wisconsin senate election.)

In about 70% of cases, instant competence ratings will predict the actual results of elections. “From the strength of a chin and the trace of a smile, our brains decide who will serve us best.”

But do they serve us well? We sent Konnikova colour images of the leaders of our two main political parties and asked her what she might be able to tell about them. She wrote back: “Hard to tell based on these (the images have to be calibrated for position, colour, etc – that’s why they are black and white in the book/original study), but I would say the top picture, jk, would be the winner. The bottom, ds, seems friendlier and less ‘politiciany’, though. But that may just be the particular shot used!”

How we get things wrong

  • The ideomotor effect: Being presented with stimuli, such as a series of words like lonely, careful, helpless, knits, gullible, can unconsciously prime us to walk more slowly and hunch, because they are age-related stereotypes. If you come from a society that values age, however, you might actually think faster, and if your society is very negative about the elderly, you might straighten and quicken your pace to prove you are unlike them.

  • Affect heuristic: How we feel is how we think. For example, a relaxed mood makes us more accepting.

  • Availability heuristic: We use what is available to our mind at any given point in time, and the easier information is to recall, the more confident we are that it is applicable and true.

  • Representativeness heuristic: The closer a person or thing fits with the associations our brains are primed to call up, the stronger the impression and the more certain we will be of our objectivity about the mental picture we have conjured. Our brains will typically trigger most strongly on the most recent associations (recency), the colourful and memorable (saliency), and the most familiar.

  • The halo effect: If one element seems positive, other elements will also, and those that don’t fit will be subconsciously reasoned away.

  • Correspondence bias: Everything negative will be seen as a result of external circumstances, such as stress or bad luck, and everything positive a result of a person’s character.

  • Attentional blindness: A focus on one element in a scene causes other elements to disappear, most famously the gorilla-suited man who appears during a basketball game.

  • Omission neglect: Failing to notice what is missing, and failing to enquire further or take it into consideration when we make our decision.

  • The misinformation effect: When we are exposed to misleading information, we are likely to recall it as true and to take it into consideration in our deductive process.

  • Egocentric bias: Making judgments based too much on our own perception of the world.

Answers for the puzzles are below

MASTERMIND: HOW TO THINK LIKE SHERLOCK HOLMES, by Maria Konnikova (Canongate, $36.99).

Puzzle answer
Puzzle answers:
left, dots & numbers solution;
“crab pine sauce” solution – apple;
brain teaser solution – the tip of the mast.

Click here to test your deductive reasoning

Read more: Forensics: Crime scene misinformation Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content


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