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Mastermind

“Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it.” Maria Konnikova, a journalist at the New Yorker, uses Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in her work. Within her book, Mastermind, Konnikova shows how the average human’s psyche functions. Konnikova has written multiple books referring to the thinking of most people. She also gives tips on how to best utilize our minds.

In Mastermind, Konnikova hits the point of paying attention to our surroundings and staying attuned to the circumstances around us. If we have lost our touch of being able to observe details, can we retrain our brains to the level of Holmes? As stated in the first sentence, it has to be practiced and studied upon. We may not be as successful as Holmes — since he trained his brain and utilized it often throughout his entire life  — but we can still be more attentive than we currently are. Konnikova uses an example from “A Scandal From Bohemia”, when Holmes asks Watson how many stairs there are leading up to their apartment. Watson, in bewilderment, has no idea; Holmes promptly answers. This shows us the difference between seeing and truly observing. Both have climbed those steps hundreds of times; only one truly observed and knew how many steps there were. In her book, Konnikova differs between them, the “Holmes-Mind” and “Watson-Mind”. The majority of people as children, have the former, being eager to learn and observing everything. As time continues, we get trapped in a routine and gradually stop thinking or observing out surroundings and begin to operate under the latter.

To define the two types of mindsets, we must go further in-depth with them. “Most psychologists now agree that our minds operate on a so-called two-system basis.” The first is fast, intuitive, reactionary or a kind of “fight-or-flight” vigilance of mind. It does not take much actual thought, it functions like an autopilot. The second is slower, more logical, and likes to sit things out as long as possible. The latter is more cognitively costly initially. Typically  we use the Watson-Mind in our daily functioning. With training the Holmes-Mind is much more productive. Holmes was a genius and with practice he was able to think automatically and analytically.

Having the Holmes-Mind may be more cognitively costly and time consuming, but with practice and persistence we will get closer. How many stairs do you have in your house? Have you been observing your surroundings? Konnikova breaks Holmes theory into four parts: background knowledge, observation, imagination, and deduction. Holmes keeps an extensive and well-organized knowledge base to help him solve new cases. Moreso, he is vigilant in ensuring that he is ever taking in recent and important information that would be useful to him in future cases. Further, Holmes is careful and uses mindful and unbiased observation to gather important information for any various characters and circumstances for each individual case.

“ What the deuce is [the solar system] to me?” This is the most widely held notion about Holmes; that he not only was ignorant about, but tried not to learn about the Copernican Theory about the solar system. Watson explained to Holmes this theory. When he was done with his narration Holmes stated, “thanks for that knowledge, I will now try forget that as soon as possible.” Holmes explained to Watson that he did not need to know about the solar system for two reasons: First,if the earth revolved around the sun, moon, or any other planet, it would not change the way he lived his life. Second, that knowledge would take space inside his “brain attic”. What is the “brain attic”?

Konnikova describes the brain attic as our memory. The frame is the structure of our brain and the things we store in there are our memories. Unlike an actual attic though, she explains that with training the structure does not need to remain the same size and can be resized as the brain is used, either bigger or smaller. Whoever owns this house or attic is in charge of organization. This is one area that others can’t fix for us. They may be able to help but we are ultimately in control of how tidy or messy it will be kept. Just as in cleaning an attic, it takes more time to move it all the way up and sort it out. It would be easier to set things up there and push it back as you get more.

If you use this philosophy you will ultimately use more time than if you organised it regularly. You think that you will remember where you put each item but each day being all mixed up you really have no idea what is in each pile. You may take hours to find the item for which you are looking — or retrieve this memory — or you might completely give up if it takes to much time.

Holmes greatly believed in being well organized with his thoughts and memories. By being well organized and sorting through his items regularly he was able to know what was up there and got rid of unwanted or unneeded things. Going back to his belief about the solar system, he tried to eliminate it since he didn't think it was relevant to him. While he tried to dispose of it, there would be a remnant left in his attic. Think of a photo that drops out of a box you are throwing away and slides under something. It will be there for a long while not being detected but may be jarred by moving the item on it and will bring your thoughts back to that time.

Have you ever gone to school or work with the plan to stop at the store on your way home but when you go through the “light at main street” you discover that you missed your turn and totally forgot your plans? Going to the store was the biggest thing you thought about all day but your routine going home, still you forgot. This is the Watson-Mind taking control. You are reacting to your daily routine without actually thinking through the process of which you are going. You must make a conscious thought about what you are doing moment by moment and through this you can have a full functioning Holmes-Mind.

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  • “We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.” This is something that I am guilty of, I often do not want to hear opposing ideas on a political view. Not so much I don't want to hear it but more, i can't understand why they can't see that my viewpoint is “better”. Almost everyone suffers from this delusion, it may be superior; to you. Everyone’s personality is different, so why would we expect their views to be the same?

    Each person has their “quirks” which makes us as humans unique. As animals are different, if you were to track a horse and cow on the prairie, there are a few facts you would know if you were a good tracker. First a horse when it walks would bend the grass behind them, whereas the cow would push it in front of them. This one of many differences you will find between similar animals, none are totally the same.

    And noticing these minute details is exactly Sherlock Holmes does with his investigating. He uses small details that would make or break the case. If you did not pay attention to this small little you would start tracking this animal (culprit) it the opposite way. You would not get any closer to your quarry, but instead be getting farther, and farther away.

    A criticism of the “Holmes-Mind” is that by using it you will lose emotion, in trade for the logic, reasoning, and deduction. Holmes has one thing greater than most people's, imagination. Most people when they see evidence will draw their conclusion from it; Holmes does not and uses his imagination to see how it could have been different. Once he has eliminated the impossible he returns back to the case at hand.

    Impossible is not improbable. Just because it may seem like a culprit would not do try that method doesn’t mean that he won't or can't. We have to be willing to look outside the box to solve the case.

    Take for example these four dots, I will give you a few instructions then you shall try and use your problem solving skills and solve this puzzle. Ready? First get out a piece of paper and make these four dots, try to connect these dots with three lines (curves are not lines) and without lifting your pencil from the paper or retracing any of the lines you draw. You must also end where you began. You have no longer than five minutes to complete.

    Were you able to complete the task? If not Konnikova explains that you are like seventy-eight percent of study participants. It does not mean that if you can't finish this, you are not intelligent, it may show you at what level you problem solving skills are.

    When we do the same thing everyday, (drive to school, drive to work, drive home repeat) we get into a boring routine. We begin to lose attentiveness, even to the point of getting distracted and becoming a hazard. Being attentive is a choice even with a routine you don't have descend into mindlessness. It may help if on your drive you take a different route to keep you observant. When I drive along, I try to notice any differences. On the first day a new road sign was put on our road I noticed immediately that something was different. I was not able to pick it out at first but after driving past twice it struck me, it was a new sign.

    This does not mean that I am as smart as Holmes, I have just made the choice to be attentive and not only see my surroundings, but to observe them. Our brain’s would not be able to function the same as Holmes by merely saying one day “I am going to be more observant.” It takes time to master the art of logic and deduction. Konnikova states, “Sherlock Holmes was not always the great detective. He was once a regular person like you and me.” We cannot merely jump from square one to square ten overnight. As Holmes we will have to train ourselves, over time we may achieve the deduction of Holmes.

    If everyone’s brain functioned at a equal level as Holmes, I believe the world would be a better place. For one example; If everyone was attentive as Holmes all the time, it is feasible that we could cut done on fatal car accidents, but on most car accidents altogether. People would reason and deduce how dangerous it is to drive distracted. Accident are unavoidable, but the number would dramatically drop if people would pay attention to their surroundings.

    As earlier stated being able to think more Holmes-Minded would be almost impossible immediately. With time and perseverance one may become more like Holmes. The biggest thing that will help you is practice, not only practice but correct practice. As the old saying goes “you need 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of your respective field.” There is one thing that was not added and is the most crucial part, correct practice. I play violin, I could practice all my life but if I play wrong scales, pitch, and keys. Then I will have wasted all my precious time on learning incorrectly. It is the same for a writer, if you have no input from others or you practice write with incorrect grammar, not only have you wasted time, you have formed a lifelong bad habit that will be hard to change.
    Most people do not feel the urge to put in the work when it does not appear there is much reward. Konnikova states in her book, and I used in my previous response “The Holmes-Mind is much more cognitively costly and time consuming.” It at first is harder with this mind it is cognitively costly, soon it will become second nature and it won't take as much brain power. You will be able to observe and deduce within seconds.

    Once we have gotten into the habit it is not impossible to break it. Think of smokers it may take them even years to stop, but there are cases where they overcome. It may seem improbable, but not impossible. “Humans are remarkably adaptable. As I’ve emphasized over and over, our brains can wire and rewire for a long, long time. Cells that fire together wire together. And if they start firing in different combinations, with enough repetition that wiring, too, will change.”

    If you were able to finish the the puzzle it would look something like this. Sometimes you literally need to think outside the box, other times you need to think of the improbable. If you weren’t don't worry like Konnikova said in her book, you are with seventy-eight percent of people.

    Don't worry, even the seemingly infallible Holmes, is actually fable like everyone. Why? He is human. In her last chapter “We are Human” Konnikova shows a case where Holmes too makes a fatal mistake. — A famous race horse went missing. Holmes decided not to investigate at the beginning, he said to Dr. Watson “A famous horse like Silver-Blaze won't be able to hide for long. The culprit will be turned in and the case will be solved.” It was not after three days, eventually Holmes did investigate, and found the horse.

    Holmes did exactly what he scolded Watson for doing many times; turning the improbable, into the impossible. Holmes used this failure in the most effective way a human should; He learned from it. As humans we are going to fail, it's how we pick ourselves up and learn from it that truly defines us. Mistakes will be made, we need to get up and make a goal from it; we will not make this same mistake again. Konnikova uses an example of people who fail a test in a class. Most who fail a test, will show great improvement for the next test they take. Those are only the ones who want to improve. If we see bad test scores we may give up on the class entirely. That will greatly affect the scores for the rest of your test, if you feel that it is impossible to do well, you have already talked yourself into failure. If I get a less than satisfactory grade on a test I study hard and the majority of the time improve my grade by a letter.

    We may not all be able to act and think like Holmes. He may have had to practice to achieve the level he did, but he was inclined towards that mindset. We are each different, and will achieve a certain level of deduction when tried. We cannot expect everyone to be the same, we are each unique, because we are each human.
  • The common criticism of the "Holmes-Mind" is that it sacrifices human emotion and empathy for the relentless focus on logic and reason. How might you and Konnikova respond to this criticism?
  • What might allow people to observe more and become more Holmes-Minded?
  • How might society be different if everyone's brain functioned the same way Holmes did?
  • How might our daily routines affect our observations of the world around us?
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