Elementary Mind-Set: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
by Maria Konnikova
Viking Adult, 2013 ($26.95)

Long before science revealed that synapses fire in patterns, literature endeavored to map the cognitive landscape. From Odysseus restraining himself against the Sirens' song to Tom Sawyer conning his way out of painting fences, fictional characters have captured many nuances of human psychology. Perhaps no character has articulated the science of thinking as directly as Sherlock Holmes, the great consulting detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes's prescient insights into the human mind form the basis of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by science writer Konnikova.

Holmes's ability to solve the most confounding mysteries armed only with the ordinary human senses makes him a credible self-improvement role model. Konnikova, who writes the Literally Psyched blog for ScientificAmerican.com, examines Holmes's uncanny skills of deduction through the lens of modern psychology and neuroscience. In the process, Holmes emerges not only as a proponent of the scientific method but also, more surprisingly, as a practitioner of mindfulness. To think like Holmes is to be unfailingly objective and always present in the moment.

Konnikova mines Holmes's adventures for examples of the detective explicating psychological concepts established long after his time. Here is Holmes scolding Watson, when charmed by a comely female client, for succumbing to correspondence bias, the tendency to interpret behavior through someone's personality. There is Holmes explaining omission neglect, the tendency to ignore missing information, when he notes that a dog's silence can be as telling as its bark (for Holmes, this meant the dog knew the intruder). Amid tough cases, Holmes's pipe smoking, violin playing and trips to the symphony are not just quirks—they are his way of stimulating the creative process through mental and physical distance.

Scientifically, Konnikova does not cover any ground not already canvassed by other pop psychology books, which often do so in more depth. The novelty of Mastermind—a book that barely rises above its origins as blog posts—is in introducing these same ideas through the language and allegory of Conan Doyle's stories. Fast, impulsive thinking becomes the “Watson system”; slower, rational thinking the “Holmes system”; and the human mind is dubbed the “brain attic,” a phrase coined by Holmes. These devices might tickle the Holmes fan but can be frustrating for a reader more interested in the science behind the extended metaphors.

Holmes's genius lies not only in an awareness of the common pitfalls in human thinking but also in his ability to overcome these weaknesses in himself. He achieved the latter through a lifetime of practice, Konnikova says—and that is the summation of her book's advice. Although Mastermind promises to teach you how to think like Holmes, it succeeds mostly in enumerating the many ways we behave like Watson. It's too hard, even inhuman, to go through life thinking like Holmes.