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What We Could Learn From Two Non-Fiction Books About Sherlock Holmes - Reviewed
Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and short stories about the incomparable detective Sherlock Holmes have never been out of print since their first publication in 1887. Holmes collections abound, as do movies, TV series, video games, hats, pipes, T-shirts and calendars, not to mention nonfiction books dissecting the Holmesian method.

"Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" and "The Scientific Sherlock Holmes"
By Patricia Wall
The New York Times
March 12, 2013

And now here come two more, one of them, of all things, a Sherlock Holmes self-help book. Maria Konnikova's "Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" may not make you a master detective, as the publisher notes, but it will teach you how to "observe, not merely see," a prerequisite to thinking like the great man. As Holmes himself says in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," his work centers on "those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province."

If deduction and synthesis are a challenge, learning to observe may be even harder. Ms. Konnikova, a science writer based in New York, distinguishes between the Watson system (the natural tendency to believe what we see and hear) and the Holmes system. Teaching the Holmes system is the object of this book.

The first step is to question everything. Citing the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Ms. Konnikova points out that for our brains to process something, we must initially, momentarily, believe it. If you hear the term "pink elephant," you picture a pink elephant for a split second before you "effortfully engage in disbelieving" it.

More complicated subjects are far more difficult than pink elephants, of course. Consider the statement "There are no poisonous snakes in Maine." It sounds plausible, and most of us would just let it go. (In fact, it is true.) This tendency, she tells us, is reinforced by what psychologists call the correspondence bias, by which we generally assume that what a person says is what he believes.

"Holmes's trick is to treat every thought, every experience and every perception the way he would a pink elephant," Ms. Konnikova writes. "In other words, begin with a healthy dose of skepticism instead of the credulity that is your mind's natural state of being." This requires mindfulness constant presence of mind, "the attentiveness and hereness that is so essential for real active observation of the world." If we want to think like Sherlock Holmes, "we must want, actively, to think like him." And practice, practice, practice.

We also have to learn to ignore the superfluous. Holmes famously claimed ignorance of the solar system: "What the deuce is it to me?" he says in "A Study in Scarlet." "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose." A skillful worker "is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work."

Of course Holmes has a great deal in his brain-attic, even if it does not include the solar system. On first meeting Dr. John H. Watson, for example, he runs through a split-second inventory of social, political and geographical facts and announces, "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive." Watson is astonished, and soon the two are inseparable.

Another thing we can learn from Holmes is the importance of continuous self-education. When Watson asks why he persists in pursuing a case that seems solved, Holmes replies: "It is art for art's sake. I suppose when you doctored you found yourself studying cases without a thought of a fee?" Watson answers, "For my education, Holmes." Just so, Holmes replies. "Education never ends."

Twenty-first-century technology reinforces these values. Sequential scans of older adults who learn to juggle or to speak a new language show an increase in gray matter in the relevant areas of the brain. Further, Ms. Konnikova tells us, with application and practice "even the elderly can reverse signs of cognitive decline that has already occurred." (The emphasis is hers "out of pure excitement," she explains.)
(Emphasis mine - AE)

The second new book, "The Scientific Sherlock Holmes," by James O'Brien, is a stolid academic treatise, rife with abbreviations: "A Study in Scarlet" is referred to as "STUD" throughout, Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" as "RUEM," "The Speckled Band" as "SPEC."

An emeritus professor of chemistry at Missouri State University, Dr. O'Brien once wrote a paper on Holmes as a chemist, and not surprisingly a chapter based on it is one of the most detailed and interesting in the book. Otherwise there's too much back matter biography, the plots of novels and stories, familiar tales like the one about Afghanistan and too little science.

In a passage about footprints, Dr. O'Brien notes that in SIGN ("The Sign of Four"), Holmes identifies small footprints thought by others to be those of a child as those of a pygmy. But what is the difference between a pygmy footprint and a child's? He doesn't tell us. On to BERY ("The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet").

For a more accessible discussion about the chemistry, forensics, pathology and toxicology of Holmes, E. J. Wagner's 2007 book, "The Science of Sherlock Holmes," fills the bill. Like Ms. Konnikova's entertaining blend of Holmesiana and modern-day neuroscience, it will if you're like me send you back to reread the ever-popular originals.

As you have said elsewhere, Adele, we should all be perpetual students, never the master. As soon as we begin thinking we know it, we've lost that edge.

One of the peculiarities of Conan Doyle, given his creatively rationale mind, was his later interest in spiritualism and faeries. It seems almost out of tune with what we know of him, don't you think? On the other hand, I suppose, an enquiring mind - and he was certainly that - never closes the door fully to other possibilities.
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.
Carl Jung - Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14
Love ACD. Have read all his works both Sherlock Holmes and other fiction and his writings on Spiritualism. All classic. An amazing man. Great mind. Thanks for posting the review Adele.
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Karl Marx

"He would, wouldn't he?" Mandy Rice-Davies. When asked in court whether she knew that Lord Astor had denied having sex with her.

“I think it would be a good idea” Ghandi, when asked about Western Civilisation.

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