Monday, February 18, 2013

Maria Konnikova's "Mastermind"

Maria Konnikova writes the weekly “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American, where she explores the intersection of literature and psychology, and formerly wrote the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, and Scientific American, among other publications.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
We derive actual, measurable hedonic value from the strength of our active involvement in and attention to an activity, even if the activity is as boring as sorting through stacks of mail. If we have a reason to do it, a reason that engages us and makes us involved, we will both do it better and feel happier as a result. The principle holds true even if we have to expand significant mental effort—say, in solving difficult puzzles. Despite the exertion, we will still feel happier, more satisfied, and more in the zone, so to speak.

What’s more, engagement and flow tend to prompt a virtuous cycle of sorts: we become more motivated and aroused overall, and, consequently, more likely to be productive and create something of value. We even become less likely to commit some of the most fundamental errors of observation (such as mistaking a person’s outward appearance for factual detail of his personality) that can threaten to throw off even the best-laid plans of the aspiring Holmesian observer. In other words, engagement stimulates System Holmes. It makes it more likely that System Holmes will step up, look over System Watson’s shoulder, place a reassuring hand on it, and say, just as its about to leap into action, Hold off a minute. I think we should look at this more closely before we act.
Those are the first words that greet the reader who, acting on some bizarre impulse, flips my book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, straight to page 99. Perhaps even more bizarre is how accurate a reflection these two paragraphs provide of one of the book’s central messages: the importance of motivation.

To me, the character of Sherlock Holmes embodies something that I call, early in the book, the Two Ms: Mindfulness and Motivation. These are the two sine qua nons of what it takes to think more in line with the great fictional detective—and a bit less like his, while quite intelligent and worthy, slightly less, well thoughtful sidekick, Dr. Watson.

Mindfulness is the idea of allowing your mind to focus on the present moment, of resisting distraction and learning to concentrate instead on the world around you and within your own head. It is what allows Holmes to truly observe, to be someone who notices what others miss and note what no one else does. Motivation, on the other hand, is the desire toward mindfulness than makes it more likely that you will employ it at any given moment. To be ever-mindful can be difficult. It takes more cognitive resources than the alternative: the mindless flitting from stimulus to stimulus of your average multitasking brain. But add motivation, and it becomes far more accessible. Holmes wants, actively, to think the way he does. And that desire, coupled of course with practice and training, is the key to his success. Absent the desire? It would be a long slog, indeed.

A mind that is both mindful and motivated is a mind most likely to succeed in thinking like Sherlock Holmes, to not merely see but both see and observe the world—and in so doing, to be more in control of that world and its role in it.
Learn more about the book and author at Maria Konnikova's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue