Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

Maria Konnikova, Interview No. 3

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. The book takes a deep look at Sherlock Holmes’s methodology to develop the habits of mind that will allow us to mindfully engage the world.

As part of my ongoing, yet irregular, series of interviews with authors and experts, I had the chance to speak with Maria about what we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, our memory attic, decision making, and the perils of multitasking.

* * *

INTERVIEWER

You graduated from Harvard. How did you end up there?

KONNIKOVA

I’d grown up in the Boston area and spent a lot of time around Cambridge and Harvard Square. I’d always loved the feel of the Harvard campus and knew from a relatively young age that I’d like to one day progress from onlooker to actual student. I ended up applying for early admission and getting accepted, so didn’t ever need to weigh relative pros and cons. I never regretted the decision, though. Harvard was every bit as wonderful as it had seemed to my ten-year-old mind.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you write Mastermind?

KONNIKOVA

I wanted to convey what I saw as crucial principles about how we think and how we experience the world to a broader audience than would otherwise read psychology books. I thought that the Sherlock Holmes angle would bring an interesting, integrative and novel perspective to the research—and with any luck, reach a wider audience.

INTERVIEWER

Some would argue that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character who never solved a real crime. Why should we try to learn from him?

KONNIKOVA

He was real before he was fictional: Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell inspired the character and most of Holmes’s salient features are taken directly from real life. We should try to learn from his principles of thought so that we can become better diagnosticians, in a sense—people who are more aware of the possibilities and limits of both their own minds and those of others around them.

INTERVIEWER

In your research did you read about any of the other great fictional detectives?

KONNIKOVA

Only superficially. I chose Holmes because the inspiration behind him was a real person, and his principles of thought were taken from a very real way of approaching the world. As far as I know, none of the other great sleuths of his time have the same distinction.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote that one of the key qualities that sets Holmes’ apart is his mindfulness. What does mindfulness mean?

KONNIKOVA

At its simplest, mindfulness means awareness of the present moment.

INTERVIEWER

How can we improve our own mindfulness? What are the habits of thought we need to cultivate? Is it as simple as just turning off twitter?

KONNIKOVA

Turning off Twitter is a start, but far from the whole story. Yes, we need to stop multitasking and letting our attention be pulled in any and every direction. But on the flip-side, we also need to cultivate our ability to pay attention, to be present, to allow ourselves to really experience our surroundings—and our own thoughts. It’s crazy how often we forget to pay attention to what’s going on inside our own heads and bodies.

INTERVIEWER

What should we avoid if we want to improve our mindfulness?

KONNIKOVA

One word: multitasking. In any form.

INTERVIEWER

You mention that Holmes’ offers a process for thinking. Can you elaborate on that?

KONNIKOVA

I mean that his routine and his approach to problems is one that is very clear-cut and that we can strive to emulate. Really, it’s just a version of the scientific method. He always takes the time to think before speaking or acting, to observe and get a feel for the entirety of a person or a question or a situation. Then, he explores it deliberately, with pointed questions and additional observations. He thinks some more—the downtime of not actually doing anything is crucial for him; he always lets things integrate and settle before he moves on. And only then does he act. He also understands the foibles of his own mind better than most of us ever will and strives to constantly take them into consideration so that they don’t cloud his judgment.

INTERVIEWER

How does one ingrain a process into their thinking?

KONNIKOVA

Conscious practice is really the only way. You have to think about doing it and do it, over and over, until it’s second nature.

INTERVIEWER

One thing that characterizes Holmes’ way of thinking is a natural skepticism and inquisitiveness. As you write “nothing is taken at face value.” A lot of Organizations, on the other hand, don’t seem to value these particular traits. How do you think this translates into organizations and group decision-making?

KONNIKOVA

It’s great for compliance and efficiency, if you count efficiency as length of time it takes to get things done. It’s quite poor for innovation and spotting any flaws in existing processes. If you always do things the way they’ve always been done, you may never discover that there’s a much more effective way to do them.

INTERVIEWER

What is a brain attic?

KONNIKOVA

It’s our mind – or rather, the metaphor that Holmes uses to describe our mind and, more specifically, our memory.

INTERVIEWER

Why is the structure and contents of our memory important to our thought process?

KONNIKOVA

In a way, we are our memories. Our background and experiences color how we perceive each moment, how we interpret each input, how we make each decision. If you and I have different memories and perspectives (as we necessarily do), we will never even see (and, later, recall) the same physical event in the same terms—let alone make the same decision in the same situation.

INTERVIEWER

How does what’s already in the attic act as a filter for how we see the world?

KONNIKOVA

This is essentially the same as the last question: it’s our memory, and our memory inherently affects how we view and react to everything.

INTERVIEWER

If I’m just browsing around the Internet mindlessly or, say, sitting in a meeting, are things working their way into my attic?

KONNIKOVA

Yes—but whether or not they stay there, or what form they’ll take, is an entirely different question. If you weren’t really paying attention, you are likely to misremember and conflate things, in the worst case, or fail to remember the particulars, in a better scenario.

INTERVIEWER

How can I become selective about what I let in?

KONNIKOVA

It all goes back to mindfulness. You need to learn to actively pay attention. Your greatest shot at remembering something is at the point of initial encoding, when you first encounter it. Make that memory a strong one.

INTERVIEWER

In the book you talk about the importance of Observation. What does that mean?

KONNIKOVA

Learning to pay attention to everything, with all of our senses. We tend to rely too much on sight, but all of the other senses are equally strong, and sometimes stronger. True observation entails making use of them all.

INTERVIEWER

In the book you mention Marcus Raichle. Can you explain why his work is so important?

KONNIKOVA

Raichle is a pioneer in discovering and explaining how our brain works. He was the first to show us what happens when our minds are not doing much of anything at all—what the brain’s baseline resting state (what he terms the Default Mode Network) is like. That work has inspired a great deal of research in basically every single field of psychology and neuroscience.

INTERVIEWER

You mention that attention is a limited resource. How can it be replenished?

KONNIKOVA

Through rest; through mind breaks and moments of quiet; through food that feeds your brain (as in, you actually have to consume calories); through simple, undervalued sleep.

INTERVIEWER

You mention the work of Yaacov Trope. He argues that psychological distance may be one of the most important factors in terms of improving your thinking and decision making. Can you elaborate on the concept of psychological distance and why it’s important?

KONNIKOVA

It’s actually exactly what it sounds like: you need to step away from yourself and the situation. You can do that by mentally distancing yourself or by physically taking a step back. In a way, distancing forces mindfulness. You have to be aware enough to step back, and stepping back in turn forces you to see the big picture, take in details that you would have missed and perspectives that differ from your own.

INTERVIEWER

What are the best activities to distance ourselves?

KONNIKOVA

Honestly, the physical activity is going to differ for everyone. But for psychological distance, a classic distancing mechanism is the so-called “fly-on-the-wall” paradigm: you simply imagine yourself to be a fly on the wall observing yourself in whatever situation you happen to want distance on. And you see what that hypothetical you is feeling and experiencing, and take it from there. It’s a remarkably effective exercise.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the difference between active and passive knowledge. And how does that play in?

KONNIKOVA

Active knowledge is what we have at our fingertips and can easily apply in any situation. Passive knowledge, we need to think about and may not be able to put to use immediately: we have to work harder to access it and figure out the specifics. You’ll use your active knowledge much more freely and frequently—it’s a kind of self-reinforcing circle. You use it more because you know it better, and it remains more active because you use it more frequently.

INTERVIEWER

We often have a hard time distinguishing between crucial details and incidental ones. Why is that?

KONNIKOVA

Probably, because we haven’t listened to Sherlock Holmes or Yaacov Trope. We forget the importance of distance, space, and time. Instead, we leap right in – and then, all the details blur together. We can’t see the proverbial forest because we never stopped to figure out that we’re in the woods to begin with.

INTERVIEWER

Changing gears a little… How has writing this book changed the way you think?

KONNIKOVA

It has made me more aware of how often I multitask, and how negatively that affects my thinking, my writing, and basically, all of my interactions. I’m trying to be better about noticing when my attention drifts and forcing it back on track. I also pre-schedule my tweets very, very frequently (yes, my dirty little secret) and turn off the internet for long stretches at a time.

INTERVIEWER

If you could recommend five book that everyone should read tomorrow what would they be and why?

KONNIKOVA

I can’t do that. I usually go through multiple books a week, mostly fiction, and have too many that I feel are absolutely essential. But here are a few that stand out: The Collected Poems of W. H. Auden. I read that over and over, and never fail to learn something new about the world and about myself. I am a huge believer in poetry and its power to stimulate your thinking on a deep, mindful level.

Joseph Brodsky’s “Less Than One,” for a remarkable look at a remarkable mind. It also never fails to stimulate my thinking and imagination.

Alice in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll, and “The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh” by A. A. Milne, because those are two books that you absolutely must re-read as an adult. They’ve taught me more about the world—and about psychology—than almost anything else.

And if you must have something non-fiction (or, non-literary essays, as in Brodsky’s case), anything by Steven Pinker, one of my mentors and a constant source of inspiration to me in everything I write.

Still curious? Read Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.