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BOOK REVIEW: Mastermind by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock HolmesMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to be more observant while avoiding the pitfalls of drawing faulty conclusions based on unsound reasoning, tainted memory, or faulty assumptions. Examples from the canon of Sherlock Holmes (i.e. the 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) are prevalent throughout the book, but Konnikova also discusses Doyle’s limited real life investigations as well as those of the men who influenced the writer. Doyle lived at time when science and reason were making great strides in overcoming superstitious and spurious ways of thinking, and so the Sherlock Holmes works were cutting edge for their time.

The book is neatly organized into four parts with two chapters each. The first part is entitled “Understanding Yourself” and it unpacks what we have to work with in the human brain. One learns how one’s brain works and how it sometimes leads one astray. It also introduces how the scientific method can provide a framework to harness the brain’s strengths and avoid the hazards of its weaknesses.

Part II investigates how one can become more skilled at investigation, as well as the role played by creativity and imagination. We learn how our attention is much more limited than we feel it to be.

The third part reflects upon the building one’s powers of reasoning as well as the importance of knowledge-building in the process. Konnikova describes “deductive reasoning” using Holmes’s favorite term. [She doesn’t really get into the whole muddle of—as many have pointed out—the fact that Holmes more often uses induction than deduction, i.e. going from very specific observations to draw broader conclusions.] The second chapter considers the importance of being knowledgeable and broadly educated. Holmes’s conclusions often hinge on fairly arcane knowledge about a range of issues: animal, vegetable, and mineral. However, a large part of the discussion is about the idea of degree of confidence. It’s also pointed out that knowledge can be double-edged sword—an impediment as well as a tool. Extraneous knowledge may lead one down the wrong path.

The final part suitably closes the book with one chapter on practical advice for how to put all of the knowledge discussed in the book to work and another on the recognition that even the best minds can go astray. The first chapter summarizes as it offers pragmatic advice. The second of these chapters discusses a fascinating investigation of a supernatural phenomenon (i.e. the existence of fairies from photographic evidence) upon which even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mind led him astray.

The use of the Sherlock Holmes character is beneficial as many readers have consumed the entire Holmsian canon, or will do so, because it’s short and readable even today. Even those who haven’t read it will at least be familiar with the lead character and his proclivities as well as the other essential characters, such as Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty, and Irene Adler. There are too many television shows, movies, and pop culture references to not be aware of these characters. One needn’t have read all Doyle’s Holmes to benefit, as Konnikova offers the essential background. However, one might find it a bit more intriguing if one has read the canon. At the end of each chapter, Konnikova offers a set of references that point to the sections in the Sherlock Holmes canon relating to that chapter’s discussion. Konnikova uses quotes and stories that aren’t attributable to Doyle to good effect throughout this book as well.

Graphics are used sparsely and only as absolutely necessary. There is a “Further Reading” section at the end of the book in addition to the end of chapter pointers. Besides a list of the Sherlock Holmes books, there are chapter-by-chapter prose suggestions of relevant key readings.

I found this book interesting and informative. While it may be most useful for someone who wants to become more attentive, less prone to biases, and more effective in drawing conclusions, it could also be enjoyed by Sherlock Holmes fans as a way to drill down into stories a bit further.

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