Maria Konnikova, a world-reknown Harvard psychologist and writer, explores what it takes to have a mind capable of matching the fictional detective/genius Sherlock Holmes in her novel: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.
If you’re unfamiliar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes you’re missing out on both a classic series of novels that will undoubtedly make you think, as well as a number of cult-classic films and television series. Holmes, it seems, is a thinker that has inspired generations with his wit, creativity, and intelligence.
But how well does a fictional character with remarkable intellect such as Holmes relate to us, the common thinker?
According to Konnikova, we can all learn to think like Holmes, whether we’re creative geniuses and unfathomably intelligent, or whether we’re just an average thinker who occasionally likes to pursue the sporadic day dream.
I’ve written briefly on the topic of creativity and intelligence before, but with Konnikova’s insights and scientific mind to back me up I wanted to approach it once more.
As it turns out: you don’t have to be remarkably intelligent to be creative, you just have to know how to use the intellect you’ve got to produce ideas. Specifically, there are three ways to see this process through.
1. Have more experiences
Creativity draws from only what you already know, and sometimes from what you don’t know you know.
When you’re working on something and you have that sudden “Aha!” moment of insight, that’s your brain finding a creative match to the topic at hand. Even if the match is one that was previously buried in the deepest folds of your brain (in the long-term memory area of the brain known as the hippocampus).
You may not immediately know the concept was there, but through an intense and lightning-fast series of processing, your brain was able to pull the information out.
Where did that information come from in the first place? Through past experiences you’ve had, not from a mystical unknown.
The fictional Sherlock refers to this storage locker of experiences as the “brain attic.” You don’t have to do any work on the front of things to store and sort through the ideas stored in your brain attic, you just have to have the experiences.
To quote Konnikova:
“A mind that can find connections between the seemingly unconnected can access its vast network of ideas and impressions and detect even faint links that can then be amplified to recognize a broader significance, if such a significance exists. Insight may seem to come from nowhere, but really, it comes from somewhere quite specific: from the attic and the processing that has been taking place while you’ve been busy doing other things.”
Trying new foods, taking a different route to school or work, reading a random book, visiting a foreign country, doing things spontaneously, and experimenting with the objects you have around you are all ways to build up your experiences and the number of resources to pull from in your brain attic.
So if you want to be more creative, you don’t necessarily have to have more schooling (though it undoubtedly helps in this regard) or natural intelligence, you just need to have more experiences to start off with.
2. Think on your experiences more often
Another signature trait of creative geniuses is their habitual tendency to think on their experiences.
What good is all of that new stuff you’re trying and all of the discovery you’re doing if you don’t ever take the time to think about it. This doesn’t have to be an existential type of thinking or personal reflection, it can be as simple as playing the event over in your mind several times and calling it a day.
Some of the best ways to think on experiences are exactly what they say on the tin: meditation, yoga, journaling, a good conversation with friends (or strangers), or simply day dreaming.
When you think on your experiences you’re essentially doing multiple things that will yield positive results for your creative abilities.
The first thing that reflection like this does is strengthen related connections in your neurological network.Thinking on things makes it more likely that the knowledge will be more readily available when you need it most: when you’re stuck on a problem at work or when you’re brainstorming for new ideas at home.
Another thing that happens when you think on your experiences is you mentally make distinctions between what was important and what wasn’t.
Thinking on our experiences forces us to observe, not to merely see or hear, but to really make sense of what’s going on. As Konnikova explains:
“When we observe, we are forced to pay attention. We have to move from passive absorption to active awareness. We have to engage. ”
Passive thinkers who merely let experiences happen to them are missing a prime opportunity to learn more, and therefore have more resources to pull from when they need to most.
3. Pursue more than just one solution
When faced with a problem or challenge, a typical person will think long enough to come up with a single solution, whereas the likes of Holmes will actively continue searching in an attempt to more accurately grade the initial solution.
While a first thought may commonly be appropriate, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s the bestconclusion unless you spend a little bit more time evaluating other options.
In the Sherlock series we often see his accompanying partner Watson both figuratively and literally jumpto conclusions, while Sherlock typically stands by idly evaluating possibilities.
The creative mind is one that commonly embraces time as a benefactor of sorts. Konnikova separates the more creative mind from the typical mind by calling them into the two types of systematic thinking that they are:
“I’m going to give the systems monikers of my own: the Watson system and the Holmes system. You can guess which is which. Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits – the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance ” that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of the Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we’ll be once we’re done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives – and in so doing break the habits of our Watson system once and for all.”
If you want to be more creative you have to aspire to think like Sherlock: take your time, be more observant, and consider multiple solutions rather than first-encounters.
In conclusion, when it comes to creative pursuits, the more time you invest in experiencing and thinking, the more likely you are to come up with something truly original and grand.
But, to again quote Konnikova, you have to want to think differently to truly do it.
“Motivated subjects always outperform. Students who are motivated perform better on something as seemingly immutable as the IQ test – on average, as much as .064 standard deviation better, in fact. Not only that, but motivation predicts, higher academic performance, fewer criminal convictions, and better employment outcomes. Children who have a so-called ‘rage to master’ – a term coined by Ellen Winner to describe the intrinsic motivation to master a specific domain – are more likely to be successful in any number of endeavors, from art to science. If we are motivated to learn a language, we are more likely to succeed in our quest. Indeed, when we learn anything new, we learn better if we are motivated learners.”
What’s your motivation?