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Sherlock Holmes, the mindful detective

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking, 2013). Cover design: Francesca Belanger

Today marks the official US release of my new book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. It all began here, on “Literally Psyched,” with a handful of posts that I called “Lessons from Sherlock Holmes.” To celebrate the occasion, I am re-posting my first ever Holmesian blog, from back in the summer of 2011. The original was titled “Don’t Just See, Observe: What Sherlock Holmes Can Teach Us About Mindful Decisions,” and appeared on August 19, 2011. But before I get down to Holmes, allow me to take a minute to thank my editor at SciAm, Bora Zivkovic, and the amazing community at Scientific American and the Scientific American blog network. I feel incredibly lucky to have had their support. This day would not be possible without them all.

And now, without further ado, some lessons from that greatest of all detectives, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Don’t Just See; Observe

Sherlock Holmes isn’t what you’d call a traditional psychologist. In fact, he isn’t even real (despite the letters that to this day arrive at 221B Baker Street). But his insights into the human mind do more to teach us about how we do think and how we should think than many a more conventional source. I, for one, would be happy to take a few pages from the playbook of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation any day.

Sherlock Holmes teaches us to be constantly mindful of our surroundings

When I was little, my dad used to read us Sherlock Holmes stories before bed. While my brother often took the opportunity to fall promptly asleep on his corner of the couch, the rest of us listened intently. I remember in particular one story that has stayed with me. Not the whole story, actually, but one exchange that caught my attention.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes instructs Watson on the difference between seeing and observing:

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The exchange really shook me. Feverishly, I tried to remember how many steps there were in our own house, how many led up to our front door (I couldn’t). And for a long time afterward, I tried to count stairs and steps whenever I could, lodging the proper number in my memory in case anyone ever called upon me to report. I’d make Holmes proud (of course, I’d promptly forget each number I had so diligently tried to remember – and it wasn’t until later that I realized that by focusing so intently on memorization, I’d missed the point entirely and was actually being less, not more observant).

What it means to go beyond seeing and to actually observe

Conan Doyle’s Holmes had taught himself to observe on a regular, almost superhuman basis. For him, taking note of the myriad inputs from his surroundings was a matter of course. He was never not observing, never not in touch with his environment. He had mindfulness down to an art. Most of us aren’t as careful.

Sherlock Holmes, the mindful detective. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons,Sidney Paget.

Our senses–and here I don’t just mean vision; I mean all of them, touch, hearing, smell, taste–are powerful forces. Every day, countless items, some glanced, or heard, or felt, or smelled only briefly–perhaps without ever registering in our consciousness–affect our minds and play into our decisions. But for the most part, we don’t pay attention; and we fail to realize what it is that is guiding us at any given moment – or fail to note something that would have made a crucial difference to our decision calculus.

Most of us are lucky to have eyes that, like Watson’s, are every bit as good as Holmes’s. Ditto the rest of the senses. But so often, we squander them. We block ourselves off from the world, armed with headphones, dark glasses, eyes that look straight ahead and hurry on to their destination as quickly as possible, angry at the slightest interruption. How much do we miss that would actually make a difference, that continues to affect us even though we don’t realize it’s doing so? I’ve written in the past about the potential of smell to do just that, but the same holds for every single one of the senses we take for granted.

Using our senses to increase mindfulness

We and our decisions both would be well served to take some of the famed detective’s advice, to go beyond seeing and into the realm of observing. Take note of what’s around you. Take note of how or why it affects you. You might not turn into an expert crime solver, but I guarantee, you’d be surprised at the difference it can make to the quality of your life and your decisions.

To be mindful is to be aware. To observe, not merely to see, with our eyes, as well as the rest of our senses.

That insight forms the basis of this series, Lessons from Sherlock Holmes. Each lesson will be devoted to an observation culled from among the many exploits of the great detective. Along with Holmes, I hope to explore the interaction of our senses and our minds, the workings, possibilities, and limits of our brains, in order to foster a greater awareness of the constant interplay between ourselves and our environment and an understanding of how that interplay can help us become more mindful, more aware, and closer to the Sherlockian ideal of a thinker who knows how to go beyond merely seeing the world around him.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. doctoroftardis 1:55 pm 01/3/2013

    Great Book. I loved it. If you love Sherlock and want to improve your thinking skills, this is a fantastic read.

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  2. 2. mkonnikova 2:34 pm 01/3/2013

    @doctoroftardis: Thank you so much! I really appreciate your feedback and am happy to hear you enjoyed the book.

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  3. 3. gmperkins 3:32 pm 01/3/2013

    Congratulations! I didn’t know you had published a book stemming from your articles here. I’ll have to pick up a copy, I always enjoyed these and so have family and friends who I have passed them along to.

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  4. 4. mkonnikova 3:56 pm 01/3/2013

    @gmperkins: Thank you!! I hope you’ll enjoy the book; looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

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  5. 5. Joe Riggs 6:00 pm 01/3/2013

    Brilliant work as usual.

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  6. 6. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 6:09 pm 01/3/2013

    Thank you, Joe! I appreciate it.

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  7. 7. fowlbruce 7:05 am 01/4/2013

    But after observation there must be analysis. Even Bell said so. Why absent?

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  8. 8. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 8:47 am 01/4/2013

    @fowlbruce: Of course. And in the book, I go into that in detail!

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  9. 9. fowlbruce 7:19 am 01/5/2013

    Shimata! W! FK! I must have missed in the WS text. Mea Culpa. I shal order and put in reading queue so I can compare with Chad Orzel’s new book.

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  10. 10. Poicephalus 10:46 pm 01/8/2013

    No mention of his seven percent solution?
    Leaving out Holmes/Doyle’s ideas about heightened sensitivity through cocaine use seems a bit unfair.
    Or maybe censorial.
    Especially, since it is mentioned in “Scandal in Bohemia”.

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