Few literary characters have the staying power of Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. Years of book spin-offs, movies, and television don’t seem to have diminished our appetite for this rather bizarre fellow. Recent incarnations include the rather frenetic portrayal of Holmes by Robert Downey, Jr. in the two Guy Ritchie films, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s more recent (and to my mind more faithful) incarnation set in contemporary London (with Martin Freeman providing a superb Watson). Why are we so intrigued by this (almost) super-human misfit? I think because he is human and not super-human—that he does things that we can imagine doing. I think Maria Konnikova shares this perception.
Ms. Konnikova is a psychologist who grew-up hearing Holmes stories read to her by her father in her native Russian. Now with a doctorate in psychology, she unpacks the dynamics of Holmes and his foil Watson to share with us ways in which we might emulate the great (fictional!) detective. For this task, Konnikova draws extensively on both the Holmes stories of Conan Doyle and cutting-edge psychological research.
It turns out the Holmes-Watson pairing matches well with the “thinking fast and slow” paradigm of Daniel Kahneman (more prosaically designated as System 1 and System 2 thinking). Watson goes quick and instinctive, while Holmes thinks; Watson glances, Holmes observes. To put it in a nutshell, Holmes makes the sustained and energetic effort to observe and consider what he perceives, while Watson wants to cut to the chase (a surgeon, no doubt).
Konnikova details the ways these two men go about their detecting work in light of what modern psychology has taught us. She highlights the scientific frame of mind used by Holmes that looks for evidence and tests hypotheses. She considers what information he puts (or doesn’t put) into his “brain attic”. Holmes is rather single-minded in his pursuit of information needed to make him the world’s only “consulting detective”, unlike Watson, who fills his mind with the drivel of the evening paper. But perhaps the most surprising difference between the two is that Holmes uses his imagination. He does so in a systematic and focused way, not in flights of fancy or mental woolgathering. Like Einstein’s thought experiments (riding that beam of light), Holmes tests and weighs alternatives in his mind based on the empirical evidence that he gathers and considers in the light of logic. We learn that imagination is at least as important, if not more important, than logic in resolving the problems that Holmes faces.
We also learn that creativity plays a huge role in how Holmes operates. He improvises in each new situation, drawing on different mental practices as circumstances require—some need the magnifying glass, while others may constitute a “three-pipe problem” that mark an effort of sustained mental work. (Or a three nicotine-patch problem if you’re Cumberbatch’s incarnation in smoke-free London.) Konnikova emphasizes the dexterity and flexibility of the great detective’s mind.
Konnikova concludes with the important point that Holmes never stops learning. He does err (rarely), but he reflects and learns from those errors, and he’s always getting his (non-mandatory) continuing education through his own self-guided study. How many times does Holmes cite a precedent to the unenlightened inspector or to Watson? He knows his subject matter!
This is both an informative and immensely entertaining book. Large doses of Holmes mixed with intriguing perspectives from contemporary psychology make it fun to read. And, I hope, after having read it and reviewed it, we find ourselves a little more Holmes-like in resolving our problems, although, I hope with more social tact than our rather introverted detective. Also, I don’t think that I could ever match the eagle-eyed abilities that he possesses. As an aging, life-long four-eyes, I believe myself nearly hopeless in this regard!