BOOK REVIEW: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

Review by Alexandra Witze

Who wouldn’t want to think like Sherlock Holmes? Just imagine all the mysteries one could solve: nabbing murderers, foiling villains and locating prize racehorses.

So too might one conquer everyday puzzles, like finding lost car keys. Konnikova, a writer and psychologist, argues that even the dimmest among us can benefit from Sherlockian strategies.

It all sounds a bit self-helpy, but Konnikova unpacks the science behind the brain’s process of deduction and how it can falter. Patients with a severed connection between the halves of the brain, for instance, are able to connect facts in ways that seem logical but that don’t actually reflect reality. And volunteers incorrectly rank statements packed with more but spurious details as more reliable than statements with fewer but more truthful ones.

By paying attention and putting in some effort, just about anyone can better curate his or her “brain attic,” Konnikova claims. The key is to focus on relevant information and throw out the irrelevant stuff. That means not jumping to obvious conclusions right away and making sure all relevant data are in hand before reaching a judgment.

Occasionally the author delves too deeply into Holmes trivia for all but the most devoted fans, and sometimes the science is not deep enough. For instance, a section on priming — how subtle cues unknowingly influence a person’s behavior — leaves out recent challenges to some key priming studies (SN: 5/19/12, p. 26).

But overall, this enjoyable tour explains usable strategies for sharpening the brain — even for the Dr. Watsons among us.

Viking, 2013, 273 p., $26.95