October 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Ever wondered how to think like Sherlock Holmes? Maria Konnikova's book explains ...


With two blockbuster movies in five years, the original novels still in the top 100 most read books, and the last BBC series attracting over 9 million viewers, it seems as a nation we’ve gone a little Sherlock mad. Now, with the launch of Maria Konnikova’s book Mastermind, not only do we find out more about our favourite pipe smoking detective, we learn to think like him too.

From the onset it’s clear Konnikova is an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes. Her constant references to memorable passages show how the detective embodies an everpresent mindfulness, and she explains these examples using neuroscience and psychological theory.

One of Konnikova’s key points is that the brain operates using two contrasting systems: ‘System Holmes’ and ‘System Watson’. System Holmes is rational, deliberate, objective and conscientious, while in contrast, System Watson is quick to action, likely to stereotype, judgmental and mostly unconscious. The systems reflect the key characteristics of the famous male double act.

Although the majority of people use System Watson, Konnikova tells us we can change and become like Holmes, and she backs up this claim with a number of well known psychological theories. And once I got over my offence at being labelled a ‘Watson’, I must say I enjoyed reading the book.

Any bibliophile will appreciate Konnikova’s passion for Holmes and her excitement at the idea of being able to replicate his thought processes, although I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to be more aware of how our brains work and the logic behind our decisions. Though I warn you: be prepared to be stereotyped as a System Watson.