Observing the obvious: the Holmes method – Canadian Government Executive

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Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
November 1, 2013

Observing the obvious: the Holmes method

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Maria Konnikova
Canongate, 273 pages, $28.50

 

Today, when emotional intelligence is treasured, Sherlock Holmes would seem like a poor role model for government executives. The man lived in his mind and seemed remote from humanity. He could get enmeshed in a drug stupor or sidetracked by some obscure experiment or offbeat intellectual interest. Definitely not the model for modern, progressive governance.

At the same time, his mind was active, probing, and he could surmise much about an individual’s temperament from some mannerism of dress, an aspect of emotional intelligence. When the game was afoot, he could be almost frenetic in his activity. And he was wise, the epitome of how the scientific method can improve our thinking abilities.

So it’s helpful – and certainly fun – to delve into the tales of the deerstalker detective with Maria Konnikova as our guide. The doctoral student in philosophy notes that when Holmes was unveiled in 1887 he became the perfect spokesman for the revolution in science that was taking place: “Holmes became a new kind of detective, an unprecedented thinker who deployed his mind in unprecedented ways. Today Holmes serves as an ideal model for how we can think better than we do as a matter of course.”

There are a few phrases from the Holmes oeuvre that have had long-lasting appeal. Prime would be, “It’s elementary, my dear Watson,” although that wasn’t quite what was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but rather picked up in a movie adaptation. However, he did write, in Scandal in Bohemia, “You see, but you do not observe,” an admonishment by Holmes to his faithful chronicler, Dr. John Watson. The lesson for Watson, and us, was on the importance of mindful observation.

In that case, Holmes had asked how many stairs there were leading to their 221 Baker Street apartment. Although he had gone up them innumerable times, Dr. Watson didn’t know. “I know there are 17 steps, because I have both seen and observed,” Holmes noted.

The issue is not so much to count the number of basement steps in your home but to pay attention to what is happening around you. One of the delightful features of the books is how Holmes could reveal so much about an individual he had just met by what he observed. But in our multitasking world, mindlessness is more common than mindfulness. “All too often, when it comes to our own minds, we are surprisingly mindless. We sail on, blithely unaware of how much we are missing, of how little we grasp of our own thought process – and how much better we could be if only we take time to understand and reflect,” she writes. “But it’s not that we aren’t capable of doing it; it’s just that we don’t choose to do it.”

Holmes’s mindfulness is in service of inference and deduction. He boiled his thrust down to one main idea: “How much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that came his way.” But if our brain is untrained, we can fall into mental quicksand. That’s why we need the scientific method that Holmes applies.

Konnikova notes that most psychologists now agree that our minds operate on a so-called two systems basis. One system is fast, intuitive, reactionary, our primal fight-or-flight vigilance. The other system is slower, more deliberative, thorough and logical, but more cognitively costly. It likes to sit things out for as long as possible and only step in when absolutely necessary.

She calls one the Watson system and the other the Holmes system. “Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits – the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance – that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of the Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we’ll be one day when we’re done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives – and in so doing break the habits of our Watson system once and for all,” she suggests.

She asks you to think of pink elephants. No such thing exists, of course. But in your mind, after the suggestion, you probably for a moment had a picture of a pink elephant in your head. In order to realize that it didn’t exist, she argues, you had to believe for a second that it did exist.

With pink elephants, the disconfirming process is simple. But with more complicated concepts or ideas, it can be harder to get to the root of reality. “Holmes’s trick is to treat every thought, experience and every perception the way he would treat a pink elephant. In other words, begin with a healthy dose of skepticism instead of the credulity that is your mind’s natural state of being,” she advises.

That brings us to something she calls The Brain Attic. The Sign of the Four adventure starts when a blonde, well-dressed, young woman arrives to see Holmes. She captivates Dr. Watson with her bearing. From the moment he sees her he refuses to attribute anything unfavourable to her, moving all too quickly from colour of hair and style of dress to character. It might seem as if he’s acting like Holmes, deducing from the facts. But he’s not. He has succumbed to bias, basing his opinion on other women he has met, while Holmes sticks to the facts when deducing. Konnikova stresses that the scientific method we want to apply in our thinking must be aware of the biases we carry in our brain – an attic cluttered with furniture – and other factors that can prime us to a wrong conclusion.

“Holmes knows the biases of his attic like the back of his hand, or the strings of his violin. He knows that if he focuses on a pleasant feeling, he will drop his guard. He knows that if he lets an incidental physical feature get to him, he will run the risk of losing objectivity on the rest of his observation. He knows that if he comes too quickly to judgment, he will miss much of the evidence against it and pay more attention to the elements that are in its favour. And he knows how strong the pull to act according to prejudgment will be,” she observes.

Deduction, she explains, is the final navigation of your brain attic, the moment when you put together all of the elements that came before in a single, cohesive whole that makes sense of the full picture. It’s different from formal logic, in which deduction is the arrival at a specific instance from a general principle. For Holmes, deduction was “systematized common sense.” You lay out a chain of reasoning and test possibilities until whatever remains is the truth. As he puts it, in another classic phrase: “That process starts upon the supposition that when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” If several explanations remain, you test each again and again until convincing support comes for one.

Too bad, unlike Holmes, your office bans a pipe, since at Baker Street that was how he pondered the possibilities. “Having gathered those facts, Watson,” Holmes tells his companion in The Crooked Man, “I smoked several pipes over them, trying to separate those which were crucial from others which were merely incidental.” But in making judgments from deductions, that’s part of the process, pipe or no pipe.

Konnikova’s book is not as easy to read as a Holmes novel. It intermixes the stories with academic material and her thoughts on how to apply deduction and the scientific approach to our lives. But it’s thoughtful and stimulating, whether you’re a Holmes buff or not.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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