Mastering ‘Mastermind’ ~ Interview with Maria Konnikova ~ March 7th, 2013

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Well, as seems to often be the case these days, it’s taken me (S.Sigerson) a humiliatingly long time to get this pulled together and I feel pretty awful for that, but it’s here now! I’ve been traveling in and out of town more than usual lately and have also found myself rather busy these last few weeks with lots of time-consuming things. Things that sometimes have me feeling a little frustrated in their lack of logistical efficiency, which in turn leaves me feeling as though I’m always moving, but never getting anything of substance done, but nonetheless don’t always leave me with much time or energy for ‘side dishes’, like blogging. I, of course, had a chance to speak with Maria a while back, but before I get to the interview, I’d like to offer a few of my thoughts.

I mention my mundane frustrations here – that feeling of being spread at times irritatingly thin between disjointed obligations piled up around some very difficult and serious decisions – because this topic directly ties in with some of the main themes addressed in Maria Konnikova’s latest book Mastermind. I’ve been grappling these many months with some pretty serious matters, which has made a lot of what Maria has written here feel especially poignant and timely. What I mean by that is simply that this book has given me some very grounding food for thought at a time when emotions frequently run very high and the presence of clarity is about as common (and probable) as Sasquatch knocking on my door for a cup of flour.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the fact that the subject matter (how to “think like Sherlock Holmes”) is tackled in a way that makes the whole thing seem not only wholly approachable, if challenging (believe me, I’ve been trying), but also widely applicable. Maria walks us through a process of understanding not only Holmes’, but also our own minds, and then goes on to illustrate just what it is we need to be doing (or not doing) on a daily basis in order to really reap of the benefits of Holmesian thinking at its most fundamental levels. She profiles for us an array of beneficial mental habits angled less towards helping us to impress our friends with feats of smartass deduction or seemingly unrealistic levels of memorization, and more towards opening a door for us to just plain be better, more engaged, more focused, and more effective observers of the world around us. Rather than giving us a handful of superficial tricks that might make us feel awfully clever right at any given moment, Maria invites us to embark on a quest for a deeper level of self-understanding and, if we choose to make the effort, self-improvement. She makes us provocatively aware of some of our more destructive mental habits (things we’ve learned/have been socialized to do that diffuse our energies and prevent us from focusing and engaging as much we ought to) as well as some of our more basic, reflexive cognitive tendencies, coupled with a couple pocketfuls of good starting points for reducing and rewiring some of these things. The most resounding point in all of this (for me at at least) is that this approach can apply to/be beneficial for just about any situation. Anything from actual detective work, to deciphering otherwise oblique interpersonal interactions, to analyzing and making sense of a seemingly senseless chain of events, to making a decision.

Now, I’m deliberately being fairly vague here, because I want those of you who’ve not read Mastermind yet to discover it for yourselves. You also need to know, however, that there’s no free lunch to be had here. Maria’s book will provide you with a lot of really good ideas for the sorts of things you’ll need to consciously adjust and re-train in order to inch your way closer to a Holmesian state of mind, and she even gives you some really great pointers for how to go about doing this, but at the end of the day, *you’re* the one who’s going to have to do the work of figuring out exactly how, where, and to what degree those things should be applied. No one else can tell you how to do that. You’re just going to have to sit down, work it out for yourself just how much effort you’d like to commit to this and how you’d like to see it incorporated, and then commit. I mean *really* commit. This is, in every sense of the word, a ‘what you sow is what you reap’ sort of scenario.

To put it a little differently; some of the most engaging magic to be found within the Canon resides in the fact that Holmes’ abilities can be emulated by just about everyone, and yet these abilities rest on an exceedingly high shelf. Maria manages to slide some of these things down to a more accessible position, while also giving us a sense of just how beneficial even just a little of this sort of thinking cane be. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’ve been handed a proverbial “golden egg” gratis. The whole thing still rests on a very high shelf that won’t be easy to reach. Maria has provided us with a bit of a leg up – a small footstool, as it were – but it’s still up to us to make the effort to climb up and get what we want. It’s up to us to decide for ourselves how much or how little effort to apply. All Maria has done is unlock the door, hand us a serviceable map, point out a few areas of interest, and recommend one or two potentially engaging directions to walk in. The rest of the journey is ours to determine.

To Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind, I give a resounding 5 Orange Pips!

Now that all of that has been said, let’s move on to the interview. I really had a very lovely time speaking with Maria last month! Our conversation was quite a bit shorter than those I’ve conducted in the past, but I still enjoyed it just as thoroughly and very much hope it was engaging for her as well! Below is a transcription of most of what we covered. I had prepared questions in advance and have copy-pasted them here, editing slightly where needed to include little expansions or additional commentary on my end as pulled from the actual conversation.


~ ~ ~  ~ ~ ~

SP: You take a very interesting approach and address the subject (‘how to think like Sherlock Holmes’) on a more fundamental level than one might expect (or at the very least different from what I had personally expected), which I personally feel does a better job of getting to the heart of the matter than some of the other writings on this subject (or related subjects) I’ve seen. What was it that put you onto that approach or made you want to tackle the question in that particular way?

Maria Konnikova: …You know, I don’t think it was necessarily a conscious decision on my part. My background from the psychology end is social cognitive psychology and actually I started out in social cognitive neuroscience – then I dropped the neuroscience part because of my writing. … In order to be a good neuroscientist you really have to concentrate so much on it. – And so I’d always wanted to write about…the human mind from that perspective and I wanted to be able to use my academic background to really inform the writing at a deeper level than you often get from something that is meant for the popular audience. It really frustrates me when people…dismiss pop-psychology as just this easy, confectioner’s version of psychology. I don’t think it needs to be, and I think a lot of the best science writers don’t make it that way…So that’s what I was really trying to go for through…a more approachable lens. – Sherlock Holmes; someone who is…this cultural phenomenon that can really embody a lot of the ideas that you can get at from the cognitive psychology standpoint, but do so in a much more accessible, a much more fun, a much more narrative-driven way.

SP: That makes sense. That also ties into some of the notes that I had – just in general, about my reactions as I was reading – and one of the things I wrote down was that… when we read the canon we all kind of have this sense that this is an achievable thing. It seems like an almost superhuman thing, but it’s achievable. But it’s set at a very high shelf. … I feel like your book takes that and brings it down at least a couple of shelves and then maybe pushes in a footstool. *we both laugh* … It moves away from the ‘I wanna be a detective too!’ approach. … You propose that there’s a more general, every-day application. – That it doesn’t necessarily have to be that limited in terms of usefulness and that’s something that was very striking to me. How do you suppose Holmes would respond to the recent rash of interest in his methods and ways of thinking? Would he feel flattered, proud, offended, skeptically sarcastic (in an “oh, this should be good”) sort of way?

Maria Konnikova: Well…First of all, we know that Holmes is quite susceptible – as are we all – to flattery and to attention, and that’s one of the things that Watson knows very well – That you can get a long way with his companion if you just praise everything in the right way. So I think from that perspective Holmes would…take an inner pleasure at how popular he’s becoming (in this recent resurgence) and how culturally relevant, because that’s something we can take pride in. That said, I don’t know that he would let us see that. I think he would kind of keep that on the inside and try to appear more aloof, and more indifferent, and try to say: ‘Oh, well,…I don’t really care – that’s not why I do it’. And we know that really isn’t why he does it. – That he does it for very different reasons – But I think he would be internally gratified all the same, even though we might not know it. He might even be a little nastier to us, just to make the point that he’s not succumbing to flattery.

SP: …I think that that’s how I would anticipate it to go too. Because he certainly does that often enough in-cannon, too. … How do you suppose Doyle would respond?

*We both laugh*

Maria Konnikova:  … Let’s ask him!… He’s a spiritualist, right?

SP: Exactly! … We don’t know! He could be screaming at all of us. He could be screaming in my other ear right now, for all I know. *We both laugh some more*

Maria Konnikova: I think he’d be a little bit frustrated that the character he wanted so much to kill still refuses to die and that this is really what he’s known for. And you know what? … When I was researching the book, I read a lot about Conan Doyle. I read his letters, – … all the correspondence, all the stuff that’s been published – and I tried reading White Company because I know how highly he valued it. I couldn’t read it. … So the thing he really wants to be known for – that he thought was his best novel – … I think it’s … frankly, … just bad. It’s unreadable. Which to me is crazy, because he has such a light, wonderful touch in the Holmes stories – which are really great works of literature. They’re not just good from a point of view of…detective stories or psychology. They’re really incredibly good literary works. Very sound quality. I mean he’s a wonderful writer. He has a wonderful feel for language, for conversation, dialog, description, pacing. Everything comes together beautifully. But I wonder if part of it has to do with the fact that he didn’t take himself as seriously in the Holmes stories. And when he goes to write White Company he loses that lightness, that dexterity, that innate knowledge of how something should go. Something disappears and it becomes much more difficult to read. So I think he’d be very frustrated to know that people aren’t reading any of the things he wanted to be known for and that if anything, his reputation – now more than ever – hinges on Sherlock Holmes.

SP: I think I’m one to agree with you. I think he probably would be frustrated. I like to occasionally think that maybe he would loosen if he could really see the positive impact that it’s been having – That he might loosen up a little bit. … If somebody could take him by the hand and say: ‘Look, we understand that you’re frustrated with this, but look at how positive a thing this has been – how much enjoyment people are getting out of this. This isn’t a bad thing!’ Maybe he might relax a little bit and kind of say: ‘Okay, I guess I hadn’t thought about that’ – and then possibly even be flattered! …

Maria Konnikova: Yeah! …I would hope that’s true. I would show him my book and say: ‘Look! You anticipated important science! *laughs*

SP: Yeah! See, that’s one of the most fascinating elements to me. That he just sort of ‘accidentally’ fell into something that’s almost prophetic in a way.

Maria Konnikova: It is fascinating, but I don’t think it’s that accidental, in the sense that I don’t think he could have done it, had he not had the scientific training and the interest in scientific developments that he did. … even though he didn’t end up practicing. First of all that background enabled him to see things in a very different way and – quite literally – directly gave birth to Sherlock Holmes, because otherwise he wouldn’t have met Dr. Joseph Bell – he wouldn’t have been inspired to create this character. But he also had this curiosity that never left, for keeping up with the scientific literature. I mean, I think it’s fascinating that he went to Germany to hear Koch speak about tuberculosis, and that he was the first Englishman to report back on it. At this stage that wasn’t his field at all, that’s not what he was doing, but I think he maintained this incredibly lively interest in science and the advances that were happening. So I don’t think it’s altogether an accident that he was able to see these things so acutely.

SP: What is it, do you think, that draws us into both writing about such a topic, as well as reading about/engaging with it? Why do we want to ‘think like Sherlock Holmes’?

Maria Konnikova: I think that there are a few different aspects to that. One, we’ve sort of touched on already – Which is that unlike other fictional characters who seem kind of superhuman, unattainable – …You don’t really want to be Superman, because you know you can’t be. He has super powers. – Holmes isn’t like that. Holmes is someone we can really aspire to. When you see what he’s doing when he explains his reasons, your reaction is exactly like Watson’s; ‘Oh! It’s all so simple, once you tell me what you’ve done!’ …I think that we read that and we say ‘Oh, it IS so simple! I can do that too!’ And because we have this constant sense that ‘I can do that too’, it makes us want to engage with him more, makes us want to read more. We think ‘Oh, if I learn more about him there’s more of a chance that I can think more like him’. And…for those people who know more about Holmes, and who are curious enough to know that he was based in a real-life character, that sense is only heightened, because you realize that he’s not just coming out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mind. So, I think there’s that element, and then there’s just the simple story-telling element. These are just damn good stories, as I’ve already said. *we both laugh* You know,…Conan Doyle is good. He knows what he’s doing. He knows his stuff. These are great characters. … This dynamic of the Watson-Sherlock duo – It’s a dynamic that’s been repeated many, many times in different settings. It’s a wonderful way to tell stories. So I think it just really works. It really draws you in and you want to…read more.

SP: Yeah. I’m one to agree with you on that as well. What are your thoughts on whether or not Holmes suffers Aspergers or autism? Yes, no, maybe, totally irrelevant?

Maria Konnikova: Oh boy. *laughs* Well yes, wholly irrelevant. Second: No, he doesn’t. I really don’t like when people start trying to put labels of these conditions – that we don’t really even understand that well in the present day – to Sherlock Holmes just because he happens to say or do something. So, let me just say: He doesn’t have Asperger’s, he’s not on the autism spectrum,…he isn’t a psychopath, he’s not a drug addict. Let’s see, what else is there?

*We both laugh*

SP: It shifts by month. It’s like a ‘flavor of the month’. ‘Let’s see, what are we doing this month?’

 *More mutual laughter*

Maria Konnikova: Exactly. …I think if you start looking at the clinical definitions of these things you…understand just how far Holmes is from them. I wrote a piece for Criminal Element about six months/a year ago, something like that called Stop Calling Holmes a Psychopath because…I was done. I was really mad.

SP: You know what? … I wonder if I read that article… and I just didn’t remember your name with it. … I kept reposting it because I really agreed with it. … It is, to me, also an example of pigeonholing, which as a broad term is something that kind of irks me – in any setting. … I hate being pigeonholed. … Whatever the context is, I really hate it when someone pigeonholes me into a bracket because of some incidental experience they’ve had with me, and so I also tend to dislike it in other settings as well if I catch it – And that’s another one of those that’s a pigeonhole to me. It’s based off of superficial, kind of circumstantial evidence that cannot be verified or unverified anyway because it’s a fictional character…It’s very superficial to me.

 To shift a little bit: Do you follow your own methods/approach and have you made any good headway with it?

Maria Konnikova: I’ve definitely tried and I do so much more now than before I started researching and writing the book. I think I gave myself a little bit too much credit. I cut myself a little too much slack. Didn’t want to quite acknowledge how ‘Watsonian’ I am in many ways. And I think that it was really eye-opening for me to see just how bad multitasking and all of these bad habits of thought are for us, and how … much worse I’ve gotten at NOT doing that. And I also didn’t realize just how big the benefits were of mindfulness, of presence of attention, of NOT dividing your attention over multiple things and just trying to be a little bit more connected to the moment and DISconnected from all of the various media streams and things that you want to be doing at any given moment. So, I’ve definitely become much more aware of all of that, and I have tried to put it into practice. I still use internet-blocking software when I’m working on any longer pieces of writing so that I forcibly tie my hands so that I can’t multitask – otherwise I’m hopeless.

 *I start laughing*

SP: I think I am too.

*We both laugh*

Maria Konnikova: …You know, I’ve definitely tried to take more in – always – not just in my own writing, which is what I do, so that’s where I’ve noticed the biggest differences, where I’ve seen the most changes, where I’ve been the most thoughtful about it – but in other things as well. In other respects of…trying to notice what am I passing when I walk down the street? Who is in this room with me? What can I tell about them? What sorts of conclusions am I jumping to? How can I not do that quite as much? So I definitely try to be more mindful. It’s hard. …

SP: It is. I’ve certainly been trying to do it since I’ve read the book. That having been said – Do you have any other [additional] tips or suggestions for your readers – Helpful little daily things or any pitfalls you’ve come across that aren’t mentioned in the book?

Maria Konnikova: I think the call to uni-tasking is the single biggest thing I can say. Stop doing multiple things at once, really learn to concentrate and…embrace that ability to concentrate. Because…like so many things, we do get better the more we do it and we get worse the less we do it. …I have a friend of mine who’s convinced she has newly-acquired ADD and I’ve tried to convince her that she doesn’t, in fact, have ADD. She’s just is so used to doing so many things at once that she’s lost the ability to pay attention. Her concentration’s non-existent. But the great thing about it is, you can ramp it right back up if you start doing it more often. And then I think really incorporating mindfulness exercises – even ten minutes a day of just quietly sitting with your eyes closed, trying to just focus on your breath, focus on the present moment. Just doing a very simple mindfulness meditation exercise every morning is incredibly helpful. It’s something that ALL of us have time for.

SP: Right. I think we all like to make excuses and say ‘well, I don’t have time for that’, even at something like ten minutes. I’ve done it to myself, for that matter, in my own inner monologues. … And then I think about it … ‘No, actually. Stop for a minute. … Is that really true?’ And I kind of have to go ‘No…’, because it’s not. … And I think we try very hard to convince others who point that out. … Because I can make all kinds of time for all sorts of things that take way more time than that and then all of a sudden it’s ‘Oh! You have time for THAT, but you don’t have time for this?’

 Moving on: … Psychology and Lit. is an interesting combination! What’s the ‘story’ behind that? What made you want to pursue that combination? Is that a common link? Have you ever caught flak for that?

Maria Konnikova: It’s not common at all, even though think it’s very natural. … I came to psychology from fiction. I did creative writing (fiction) as an undergraduate AND psychology, so I’ve combined the two for a while now. … I know this isn’t something – as someone who writes non-fiction books – I should say, but I read mostly fiction. And I write fiction as well. My next project is a novel, it’s not a non-fiction book. … To me the two just have so much in common and I think that … the best psychologists are writers – are fiction writers. Because I think to be a great writer you need to be a great psychologist. You have to be able to understand the human mind, the human condition, how people interact, how they think. That’s what makes a work of literature lasting. If you’re a poor psychologist, your characters aren’t going to be believable. Your interactions aren’t going to be believable. No one’s gonna want to read it. So I think that psychology can learn SO much from fiction and I wish that more scientists would spend time immersed in fictional worlds. And I don’t just mean science fiction, I mean literary fiction.

SP: Have you ever caught flak for that?

Maria Konnikova: Always. Unfortunately. What I’m doing is not very well-accepted by a lot of people within academia. That said, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have some wonderful supporters who’ve backed me all the way. My undergraduate advisor … has been just an incredible mentor and just someone who has really supported all the choices I’ve made. … And my current advisor … is also incredibly supportive and… very wise, and kind, and insightful, and is someone to whom I can really turn to for advice on anything. I don’t feel like I have to be someone I’m not. I feel like it’s perfectly fine if I tell him how much I love fiction and that I prefer reading fiction to non-fiction. … He’s one of the few people who believes you need to have outside interests and you need to pollinate your thinking with different disciplines, that you have to be well-rounded and have wide-ranging curiosity. But…in the modern day, it’s a tough attitude to have because there’s so much pressure in academia to publish, publish, publish, publish, publish. You don’t even read things in other people’s sub-disciplines. So, a cognitive psychologist might not know what someone who’s studying social psychology down the hall is doing, even though they’re working on the exact same thing, and that’s really sad. But there are these people … who give me hope, and I’m lucky to have them with me in this journey, otherwise I don’t think I’d be able to do what I’m doing. …

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We continued chatting for a while beyond that, but most of it was pleasant smalltalk that would likely be far less interesting for our readers.  We’d like to thank you, Maria yet again for taking the time to speak with us and we wish you the best of luck for your future endeavors!  You’re doing a wonderful and bold thing and we, at least, both think it’s both fantastic and very worthwhile!

For the rest of you, if you missed the link to Maria’s’ blog above, I can absolutely recommend you go take a look at it now!   By the way, Maria, I forgot to mention that I really love the lovely, quirky illustrations you’ve got set there for the subject icons!  I don’t suppose you did them yourself?


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