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How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: The Value of Creativity and Imagination [Excerpt]

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


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By Maria Konnikova

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2013 by Maria Konnikova.

Mastermind book jacket“It is surprising that people do not believe that there is imagination in science,” Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman once told an audience. Not only is that view patently false, but “it is a very interesting kind of imagination, unlike that of the artist. The great difficulty is in trying to imagine something that you have never seen, that is consistent in every detail with what has already been seen, and that is different from what has been thought of; furthermore, it must be definite and not a vague proposition.”

Imagination takes the stuff of observation and experience and recombines them into something new.

In 1968, the high jump was a well-established sport. You would run, you would jump, and you would make your way over a pole in one of several ways. In older days you’d likely use the scissors, scissoring out your legs as you glided over, but by the sixties you’d probably be using the straddle or the belly roll, facing down and basically rolling over the bar. Whichever style you used, you’d be facing forward when you made your jump. Imagine trying to jump backward. That would be ridiculous.

Dick Fosbury, however, didn’t think so. All through high school, he’d been developing a backward-facing style, and now, in college, it was taking him higher than it ever had. He wasn’t sure why he did it. He didn’t care what anyone else was doing. He just jumped with the feeling of the thing. People joked and laughed. Fosbury looked just as ridiculous as they thought he would (and his inspirations sounded a bit ridiculous, too. When asked about his approach, he told Sports Illustrated, “I don’t even think about the high jump. It’s positive thinking. I just let it happen”). Certainly, no one expected him to make the U.S. Olympic team—let alone win the Olympics. But win he did, setting American and Olympic records with his 7-foot-4.25-inch (2.24-meter) jump, only 1.5 inches short of the world record.

With his unprecedented technique, dubbed the Fosbury Flop, Fosbury did what many other more traditional athletes had never managed to accomplish: he revolutionized, in a very real way, an entire sport. Even after his win, expectations were that he would remain a lone bird, jumping in his esoteric style while the rest of the world looked on. But since 1978 no world record has been set by anyone other than a flopper; and by 1980, thirteen of sixteen Olympic finalists were flopping across the bar. To this day, the flop remains the dominant high jump style. The straddle looks old and cumbersome in comparison. Why hadn’t anyone thought of replacing it earlier?

Fosbury wasn’t even a particularly talented jumper. It was all in the approach. Imagination allows us to see things that aren’t so, be it a dead man who is actually alive or a way of jumping that, while backward, couldn’t be more forward looking.

Keep Your Distance

One of the most important ways to facilitate imaginative thinking is through distance. In “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” a case that comes quite late in the Holmes-Watson partnership, Watson observes:

Maria Konnikova Photo Credit Margaret Singer and Max Freeman

Author Maria Konnikova. Courtesy of Margaret Singer and Max Freeman.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage. I remember that during the whole of that memorable day he lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus. For my own part I had none of this power of detachment, and the day, in consequence appeared to be interminable.

Forcing your mind to take a step back is a tough thing to do. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem that you want to solve. But in reality, the characteristic is not so remarkable either for Holmes or for individuals who are deep thinkers. The fact that it is remarkable for Watson (and that he self-admittedly lacks the skill) goes a long way to explaining why he so often fails when Holmes succeeds.

Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision-making. It can come in many forms: temporal, or distance in time (both future and past); spatial, or distance in space (how physically close or far you are from something); social, or distance between people (how someone else sees it); and hypothetical, or distance from reality (how things might have happened). But whatever the form, all of these distances have something in common: they all require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back.

Trope posits that the further we move in distance, the more general and abstract our perspective and our interpretation become; and the further we move from our own perspective, the wider the picture we are able to consider. Conversely, as we move closer once more, our thoughts become more concrete, more specific, more practical—and the closer we remain to our egocentric view, the smaller and more limited the picture that confronts us. Our level of construal influences, in turn, how we evaluate a situation and how we ultimately choose to interact with it. It affects our decisions and our ability to solve problems.

In essence, psychological distance accomplishes one major thing: it engages System Holmes. It forces quiet reflection. Distancing has been shown to improve cognitive performance, from actual problem solving to the ability to exercise self-control. Children who use psychological distancing techniques (for example, visualizing marshmallows as puffy clouds) are better able to delay gratification and hold out for a larger later reward. Adults who are told to take a step back and imagine a situation from a more general perspective make better judgments and evaluations, and have better self-assessments and lower emotional reactivity. Individuals who employ distancing in typical problem-solving scenarios emerge ahead of their more immersed counterparts. And those who take a distanced view of political questions tend to emerge with evaluations that are better able to stand the test of time.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

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





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  1. 1. rloldershaw 10:20 pm 01/4/2013

    As the Blog post says: “… take a step back and imagine a situation from a more general perspective [to] make better judgments and evaluations…”

    So, have you ever noticed that nature is hierarchically organized? The observable part of the cosmos is composed of galaxies, which are composed of stars, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of particles.

    Have you also noticed that fractal self-similarity is ubiquitous in nature? For example, the branching of trees, rivers, circulatory systems, internet connections, neuronal connections, etc. Or for example, the distributions of galaxies, the distributions of stars within galaxies, or the distributions of atomic systems within stellar plasmas, etc. Or for example, the self-similar structures of clouds, mountains, craters, turbulence, electric discharges, etc.

    In fact it is difficult to find fundamental phenomena in nature that do not involve any self-similar structure or processes.

    Probably you have noticed some or all of this.

    Now ask yourself: “Where in current theoretical physics do you find these fundamental properties described and explained?

    Not in string theory, not in supersymmetry, not in supergravity, not in the standard model of particle physics, and most obviously not in WIMP-based standard cosmology. The current models of theoretical physics seem to be virtually blind to these basic hierarchical and self-similar properties of nature.

    The one theory wherein these fundamental properties of nature are overtly confronted and constitute the foundation of a new self-similar cosmological paradigm is the theory of Discrete Scale Relativity
    ( http://www3.amherst.edu/~rloldershaw ).

    So why not take a fresh look at nature from a new and highly unified perspective? It’s painless and there might be substantial dividends.

    Link to this
  2. 2. m 4:55 am 01/5/2013

    rloldershaw I am beginning to think you are a computer.
    The topic had no relevance to fractals, and neither does nature. Water running down hill, takes a course set by least resistance, it does not form a preordained pattern. Whether streams connect to rivers or flow directly to the sea is unrelated to fractal geometry. If you apply fractal geometry after the fact then you can find it everywhere. indeed if you look at newtons 2nd law it clearly states the mass and speed of an object is conserved. So if a mass hit two objects at half mass those two would both go off at the same speed, and if they hit two things, etc.
    Fractal geometry is nothing except newtons 2nd law.
    Blood vessels must split and split and join so that the total blood that is sent out is returned. It is nothing more than newtons second law.

    If you had a banana for everytime you opened your idiotic mouth youd be a happy monkey for sure.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rloldershaw 11:14 am 01/5/2013

    Good morning “m”,

    One of the main topics of this blog post is “creativity and imagination”; it also involves thinking about problems from different points of view.

    I hope you would agree that creating and thinking about and evaluating a radically different paradigm for understanding nature form subatomic particles to galaxies and beyond in both hierarchical “directions” is creative, requires imagination, and involves adopting a different worldview.

    It’s a fun and potentially important excercise. But perhaps you do not like ideas that challenge your fixed ideas.

    If you go to http://www3.amherst.edu/~rloldershaw and read Selected Paper #14 you learn about 80 examples of fractal self-similarity that scientists (not posers or crackpots, but professional scientists) have identified throughout nature from subatomic particles to galaxies, and beyond.

    Is your Newton’s 2nd law explanation for the ubiquity of self-similarity in nature a joke. You cannot be serious. Or can you?

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Fractal Cosmology

    Link to this
  4. 4. m 10:07 am 01/6/2013

    hello rloldershaw,

    both hierarchical “directions”.

    I see what you’re saying:
    looking at something or everything after they have occurred and finding a pattern in the data-set implies that the original objects were following a rule designed to reach (or include) that pattern. The more objects with that pattern the more universal the underlying rule behind all of them. So that if all objects had expressed this pattern even in a small manner, it would indicate its a subset of a more generalised rule.

    Its a very interesting theory of looking at everything.

    So you found fractals occur in (some of) nature and extrapolate that its possible its apart of everything, therefore one of the universal laws of nature includes a fractal equation of some sort, and perhaps possible the universal law of everything has a fractal fraction.

    Link to this
  5. 5. m 10:15 am 01/6/2013

    No i was not joking about newtons second law, is follows fractals precisely, which is why I included it.

    I believe your fractal theory is non-other than the incorporation of newtons second law (conservation). Which will flow down the hierarchical tree in nature, but when observed bottom up gives the impression of a fractal geometry.

    For instance take blood vessels, a large vessel splits those branchs conserve the original volume of blood (2nd law), when those branchs finally join up they are conserving up the hierarchical tree.

    Ie 1 splits into 2, 2 splits into 4, when they go back up the tree its 4 joins into 2, 2 joins into 1. Simple fractal geometry. If you look at any branch down the chain you see the same split/join as you would anywhere else.

    Again I think newtons second law is the universal law of fractals in nature that you see.

    Link to this
  6. 6. m 10:33 am 01/6/2013

    Perhaps i should rewrite newtons second law for you cause he didn’t do a good job making it generalised (though tbh i dont think it needed to be, i understand it fine)

    Any (closed) system that splits and transfers the “momentum” fully to the new system, shall conserve the properties of the original system.

    Does that make it simpler for you. Newton was smart, but his definition is probably limiting you.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rloldershaw 10:46 am 01/6/2013

    Hi m,

    Well, technically Discrete Scale Relativity is based primarily on General Relativity and Electrodynamics, which are combined in the Einstein-Maxwell field equations, and most conveniently studied via Wheeler’s geometrodynamics formulation.

    The important thing that Discrete Scale Relativity adds to the above is a new symmetry property of nature that can be called discrete self-similarity or discrete conformal invariance. In General Relativity physics made the transition from Euclidean to Non-Euclidean geometry. Discrete Scale Relativity takes physics to an even more general geometry: Discrete Conformal Geometry, wherein there are no absolute lengths, but angles (i.e., shapes, motions and all morphology) are invariant and repeated throughout nature, albeit only for discrete intervals in Scale.

    I seriously do not think Newton’s 2nd law is going to explain the new discrete self-similar paradigm.

    The most fundamental property of nature is its hierarchical organization, and discrete self-similarity is the most fundamental property of nature’s hierarchy.

    Newton’s 2nd law is waaaay too retro. But nice try!

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    http://www3.amherst.edu/~rloldershaw

    Link to this

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