Sherlock Holmes is known for his keen, proficient observation and commonsensical thinking. He is arguably the best-known fictional detective, and the Guinness World Records listed him as the “most portrayed movie character” in history
Do you think like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson?
COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio (The Philippine Star) - July 22, 2019 - 12:00am

The annals of literature and show business are strewn with male tandem acts made more interesting by opposition or contradiction: Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Abbott and Costello, Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot, Batman and Robin. Locally we have slapstick pairs like Pogo and Togo and Dolphy and Panchito.

But none of these chaps offer a better metaphor for how the brain works (and how we ought to use it) than the masculine fictional double act of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes is known for his keen, proficient observation and commonsensical thinking. He is arguably the best-known fictional detective, and the Guinness World Records listed him as the “most portrayed movie character” in history.

John H. Watson, known as Dr. Watson, is Sherlock Holmes’ friend, assistant and sometime flat mate, and the first-person narrator of all but four of Holmes’ stories.

The binary act of Holmes and Watson was the major influence on Maria Konnikova’s book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, which unpacks contemporary psychology and critical thinking. The focus of the tome is that the brain operates using two contrasting systems: Konnikova calls them System Holmes and System Watson. The former is logical, intentional and determined; the latter is agile, fast in making its moves to action and mostly involuntary.

Most people operate on System Watson: they are into typecasting or pigeonholing and are quick to judge, pushed by unwitting signals. Their interest level is restrained and confirmation bias afflicts their bids at impartial scrutiny. The key to System Holmes is mindfulness. Embracing it helps people decide sensibly, think systematically and evade the cerebral prejudices that warp the way we think about the world.

“The problem isn’t a lack of attention so much as a lack of mindfulness and direction. In the usual course of things, your brains pick and choose where to focus without much conscious forethought on your part. What you need to learn instead is how to tell your brains what and how to filter, instead of letting them be lazy and decide for you, based on what they think would make for the path of least resistance.”

Mastermind’s pages are filled with provocative psychological research and takeaways that make you think twice about human nature.

The first step is to question everything. Citing the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Konnikova points out that for your brains to process something, you 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.

Every thought, every experience and every perception must begin with a healthy dose of skepticism. Leave behind 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.

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.”

Embrace 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.”

The most powerful mind is the quiet mind. It is the mind that is present, reflective, mindful of its thoughts and its state. It doesn’t often multitask, and when it does, it does so with a purpose. 

A change in perspective and physical location forces mindfulness. It forces you to reconsider the world, to look at things from a different angle. And sometimes that change in perspective can be the spark that makes a difficult decision manageable, or that engenders creativity where none existed before.

Imagination is all about new possibilities. It can also be about eventualities that don’t exist, counterfactuals, re-combining elements in new ways. It is about the untested. And the untested is uncertain, even frightening.??

As a human being, you don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, you want to supply the missing link. When you don’t understand what or why or how something happened, you want to find the explanation. ?

You want to learn to pay attention better, to become a superior observer. But you can’t hope to achieve this if you thoughtlessly pay attention to everything. That’s self-defeating. What you need to do is allocate your attention mindfully. 

?Be clear in what you want. Whatever the situation, answering the question of what, specifically, you want to accomplish will put you well on your way to knowing how to maximize your limited attentional resources. It will help direct your mind — prime it, so to speak — with the goals and thoughts that are important, and help put those that aren’t into the background.?

Understand and frame the problem. And then observe, hypothesize (or imagine), test, deduce, and repeat. To follow Sherlock Holmes is to learn to apply that same approach, not just to external clues, but to your every thought, and then turn it around and apply it to every thought of every other person who may be involved, step by painstaking step.

Adopt the perspective of others by simply adjusting your own. It’s a question of degree rather than type. You tend to begin with your own view as an anchoring point, and then adjust slightly in one direction instead of altering the view altogether. Once you reach an estimate that sounds satisfactory to you, you stop thinking and consider the problem resolved. That tendency is known as “satisficing” — a blend of sufficing and satisfying.

You get better at solving insight problems when you are tired or intoxicated. Your executive function is inhibited, so information that would normally be deemed distracting can filter in. You thus become better at seeing remote associations.

To “observe, not merely see,” is a prerequisite to thinking like a great man. Holmes’ work, as articulated in Konnikova’s work, centers on “those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which, by your own choice, can be your special concern, particularly if you are looking to enhance your intellect and sharpen your power to think critically.”

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Email bongosorio@gmail.com.

JOHN H. WATSON MASTERMIND: HOW TO THINK LIKE SHERLOCK HOLMES SHERLOCK HOLMES
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