The Baker Street Babes Podcast
Transcript, Episode 36: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes with Maria Konnikova
Released 22/01/13, Transcribed by Sarah Cartino
Curly: Alright, and welcome to Baker Street Babes Podcast Episode 36 with Maria Konnikova, the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.
Curly: She is here all the way from London, on the internet.
Curly: So Maria Konnikova writes the Literally Psyched column for Scientific American, and formerly wrote the popular psychology blog Artful Choice for Big Think. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, The Paris Review, The Observer, Scientific American Mind, and Scientific American, among other publications. She graduated from Harvard University and is currently a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University.
Curly: She lives in New York City, but like I said she’s actually in London at the moment, on a book tour… publicity.. thing. So yay!
Kafers: And ironically the people who are normally in London are in the USA.
Curly: So welcome Maria, and this is also a big episode because not only do we have Maria but this is also Melinda’s first Baker Street Babes podcast!
Lyndsay: Hooray! …And there was much rejoicing.
Curly: So Maria, one of the first things we do on episodes is that you get inducted as an honorary Baker Street Babe.
Maria: Oh wow, that is quite an honor.
Curly: I know, I know.
Maria: It is! I’m not even kidding!
Curly: Aww, you’re sweet! So we’re going to ask you the Babe questions, and then your plaque will be in the mail and hopefully won’t get lost on the way.
Kafers: Funnily enough, they usually do.
Lyndsay: Well we send them via carrier pigeon, I don’t know why we keep doing that.
Melinda: It’s authentic!
Curly: Right. So yeah, the basic question that I think everyone wants to know, is how did you get into Sherlock Holmes?
Maria: I was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes when I was a little girl, my dad read us the stories, so maybe 8 years old? And he read the entire canon from start to finish, every Sunday night, sitting by the fireplace, and he was a pipe smoker as well. So, it was-
Melinda: Oh my gosh, really?
Curly: Oh, that is awesome.
Lyndsay: I threw up a little bit right there.
Maria: It was all very authentic, I had, you know, the dark windows, the pipe, the leather armchair– there was a leather armchair at the fireplace! So that’s always how Sherlock Holmes has been in my mind.
Kafers: That’s like the most romantic, like, beginnings I’ve ever heard.
Curly: As you were nestled by the fire, listening to your father in the leather armchair, what was your favorite story of the canon?
Maria: So I think the one that, when I was little ..there were two that made the biggest impression on me. A Scandal in Bohemia for sure [cheering in background], I remember the beginning so well, that exchange about the Baker Street steps. I mean, that just really stuck in my mind for.. who knows how long, I started counting steps wherever I went. It was really kind of, this pivotal moment in my stair-counting experience.
Maria: I’m very bad with numbers, I can’t memorize them for the life of me, and so it was also very disheartening. And the other one that really, I think.. well there were a few that made an impression, I remember the Red Headed League ‘cause I always wanted red hair, I don’t know why.
Curly: ‘Cause it’s just awesome.
Maria: Yeah! Well clearly! Well, look who I’m talking to, so clearly I knew what it was about. It’s really cool! Just the color of the hair. In other words, it’s very strange to think about it now, because it was all of these very random details from the stories that captured my imagination. I think it really goes to show just how powerful Conan Doyle’s writing is, that he can really just evoke these images that are gonna stay with you.
Lyndsay: True story.
Curly: I forget the phrase, is it “the devil’s in the details”?
Lyndsay: Oh yeah, the devil is in the details.
Lyndsay: Yeah, or in the Devil’s Foot!
Curly: Ba dum dum tiss!
Kafers: We’re here every week, guys! You’re welcome.
Maria: I was really scared of snakes, so Speckled Band made quite an impression.
Lyndsay: Oh sure!
Curly: I think The Speckled Band causes everyone to have a fear of snakes.
Curly: Or wanted to go around feeding them milk.
Kafers: That’s so bizarre!
Lyndsya: Do you have a favorite canonical case now, that you’re an adult, Maria?
Maria: Yeah I think my favorite case now, after re-reading all of them with the specific kind of purpose of this book in mind, would have to be Silver Blaze, because I think in that case Holmes really just encapsulates everything that he does in all of the other cases and he really- it’s just kind of this logically wonderful puzzle. And I love how he, it really strikes me that he’s just so incredibly, it’s not just logically wonderful, but he’s so creative he even imagines himself to be a horse, which I find somehow very endearing.
Lyndsay: Who hasn’t done that?
Maria: And he starts it off by admitting to Watson that he was wrong, which is also not a very common occurrence. I like that aspect of the case.
Lyndsay: Yeah it’s a great one, it’s got him practical joking at the end, too.
Kafers: So do you have a favorite… I’ve forgotten the word now. I’ll start again. No, not character- I was gonna say do you have a favorite adaptation of like, any of them that exist?
Maria: Well I have to admit that I am a fan of the modern adaptations. I think Benedict Cumberbatch… we can all swoon collectively over Skype now.
All: 1, 2, 3…[swooning sighs][laughter]
Maria: He does such an incredible job. He really, I think they’ve captured Holmes so well. You can really tell that the people writing the script know and love the stories. And I think isn’t Mark Gatiss a Sherlockian?
Kafers: He is, hardcore.
Maria: So you can really tell that. And I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much “Elementary” has grown since its first episodes. I thought the last episode was quite good. [cheering in background] I don’t know. Well I didn’t see the one yesterday, or Thursday I guess, I’m a little off on time because of the whole UK transition. But I think Jonny Lee Miller is doing a really good job, and people aren’t appreciating him as much as they should be because Benedict Cumberbatch is just so good.
Kafers: I agree.
Curly: It’s a rough gig.
Lyndsay: That’s fair.
Ardy: I will admit that.
Curly: I only saw the pilot. I haven’t seen any of the others though I’ve been just keeping up on it on Twitter, because it’s just everywhere. But apparently the latest episode was really awesome, like Moran happened, which is really cool actually.
Kafers: Yeah, played by, oh who is he played by? He’s uh like a British actor, I’ve forgotten his name..
Curly: He looks like a skinhead.
Lyndsay: Yeah, I don’t remember..
Kafers: He’s a really scary looking guy and he’s in everything?
Lyndsay: Jason Statham? [laughter]
Kafers: Oh, that’s gonna really annoy me now. By the end of the podcast I’ll just be shouting his name out and you’ll all be like “what are you doing?”
Lyndsay: Make sure there’s no context for it, Kafers.
Kafers: Yeah I will.
Maria: By the way was Statham the one who was in “The Bank Job”? Because if he was, that’s another tie to Sherlock Holmes, that would be very funny.
Lyndsay: Oh rock on, that’s worth investigating.
Maria: Since “The Bank Job” obviously took place on Baker Street and had the whole Sherlock Holmes reference in the vault.
Curly: I have no idea what you’re talking about. But, aha!
Maria: So the movie “The Bank Job” was based on a real-life case that happened in London that took place in Lloyd’s Bank on Baker Street and after the thieves came away with all of their loot they left a message on the wall of the bank since they were very witty thieves who knew they were on Baker Street, that said something along the lines of “Let Sherlock Holmes try to solve this one.”
Curly: They have my immediate respect.
Kafers: We should give them a podcast!
Amy: I have to say “Elementary” is kind of wooing me back, I saw the first couple episodes and then I didn’t, but people have been talking about the last couple of weeks so much I’m thinking about catching up with it.
Kafers: You should watch it because Lucy Liu is amazing.
Maria: Yeah I really think it’s worth catching up on. It’s finding its feet, it’s growing into itself.
Lyndsay: Well that’s good.
Lyndsay: I’m glad to hear that because there were- y’know like I wanted nothing more than to like it really really hard and then be able to have like happy Thursdays, etc. etc. and then there were a lot of episodes, well not a lot, but several episodes in a row, where I was like what are you doing here and why did the police let you do that?
Maria: Suspension of disbelief, suspension of disbelief!
Kafers: Some of us are more capable of that than others.
Lyndsay: Yeah I don’t know why, but for that– it’s like with BBC “Sherlock” you’ve got like a turbaned dude with a scimitar fighting with him at the beginning of “The Blind Banker” and you’re like “ok, I have my belief suspenders on because that is like, totally…”
Kafer: Sorry, do you really have belief suspenders to actually wear?
Lyndsay: I have belief suspenders, yeah, they’re in my bookshelf. But with “Elementary” it’s so grounded that I found it harder for some reason, I don’t know if that makes sense. Like there’s a bit of the Doylean fantastical in BBC “Sherlock” that just sort of lands me there, and then with “Elementary” I was having a harder time because it’s so rooted in Toby’s procedural reality that I- it took me… that’s not making any sense.
Curly: No, it makes sense.
Kafers: I had a friend who was saying that “Sherlock” is much more sort of fantasy where “Elementary” is of course reality. But I guess that’s the difference when you have something set in London and New York.
Curly: And we haven’t finished the questions since we got off on a sort of tangent, as happens, who is your favorite character, and would you like to have tea with them?
Maria: My favorite character out of all the Doyle stories? You want me to pick just one?
Curly & Lyndsay: Yes.
Maria: [sighs] All right, Miss Irene Adler, here you come!
Maria: Yes, I want Miss Adler, and yes I will have tea with her until the cows come home because I think you can really learn a lot from her brilliance.
Kafers: I had to do a toast to her and she is awesome.
Maria: She is wonderful! I wish she were more of a recurring character, I mean I know why she isn’t, but I really- she’s the one I’m most fascinated about, I really want to know her story more than we get a chance to.
Lyndsay: Amy’s helping with that!
Amy: That’s why I’ve written two books about her story!
Curly: So Maria you’re now an honorary Baker Street Babe! Yay!
Maria: Exciting, exciting, exciting!
Curly: It is exciting! You can put it on your resume now.
Maria: I will! Oh my god it’s already on my resume, I was updating it as we were talking.
Curly: You know, right next to your New York Times best-seller, best book, that thing.
Maria: You mean right above my New York Times best-seller!
Curly: Aww well, I wanted to be modest. So yeah, you wrote a book, and it’s awesome, and you should talk about it. Basically, like why did you want to delve into the crazy psychology of Sherlock Holmes?
Maria: When I started re-reading the stories I realized that Holmes was just this brilliant window into the human mind, and not just Holmes but Watson and the dynamic between the two of them. Conan Doyle was really on to something extraordinary, the way he was thinking about it the 19th century really predates a lot of the discoveries in psychology and neuroscience of the last you know, 10 years and it’s pretty incredible. And I thought that his would be a really wonderful way to merge fiction and non-fiction, which are kind of my two loves, and get people who wouldn’t normally be excited about psychology, excited about it because you know, it’s Sherlock Holmes and who doesn’t want to be excited about Sherlock Holmes? And it would also get people who are normally just excited about Holmes, excited about psychology, and have this really cool cross-pollination.
Sarah: I’m curious how you went from being interested in this to being able to write for publications like Scientific American that have such a wide reach.
Maria: Well I’ve always, I’ve been writing for a long, long time, and I started writing non-fiction more recently, my background is actually in fiction. And I had written, I was writing this blog Artful Choice for Big Think and I started this series of posts called Lessons From Sherlock Holmes. So the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American’s blog saw this and thought it was really cool and wanted to publish it on the Scientific American Guest Blog. And that turned into a permanent gig there. And so it was actually all about Sherlock Holmes. I had been writing about psychology for about a year.
Lyndsay: Yeah that was something I was curious about too, Maria, because I’ve been following your Scientific American blog regarding a lot of the mental processes of Sherlock Holmes and just things.. it’s not all to do with him, though, interestingly in your blog you take examples from all over the canon, not exclusively from Sherlock Holmes. I’m curious, like when you got the book deal and they wanted you to adapt the blog into a non-fiction book that had a whole arc and was in some senses you know just a cohesive thing between the covers, in what ways did it change, how much did you adapt from work you’d already done, was that difficult, I mean it seems like a really cool project so I’m just curious how you went about that.
Maria: Oh it changed a lot. I used a few of the.. how about this, nothing appears verbatim both in the blogs and in the book, everything was changed around a lot as I added it to the book. I didn’t reinvent the wheel every single time so if I’d already touched on a concept I knew where to find it in the canon, I knew kind of what I wanted to say about it but I tried to say it in a new way. But the book was really a way for me to start going through this and thinking about it holistically, so while in the blog posts I focused on one element at a time, in the book I was really able to give it this narrative arc and to try to figure out, well how do these all fit together and how can we use them to start improving our thought process? It never really clicked for me as that kind of a story until I started working on the book. I thought “these are lessons” and that’s what I had called them they’re little mini lessons from Holmes. And then I realized when I was working on this that they aren’t so much lessons it’s just this entire philosophy of thinking. The book ends up being a lot about mindfulness, and wasn’t something that I went into the blog posts thinking it would be at all.
Lyndsay: Yeah it’s great, and it’s obviously something that people have found an appealing guide to mindfulness because I don’t know that we’ve brought it up yet but it debuted at number 31 in the New York Times Best Seller List!
Maria: Thank you. But I also see the questions that I missed before, which was memory techniques, I definitely do use analogy of the brain attic, which it’s very funny, a few days ago Steven Pinker emailed me a paper from the 1950s by a very famous psychologist who used the brain attic and there was an illustration of a brain with an attic inside, I’m like “hey! he got that from Sherlock Holmes!” There was no credit to Holmes, but this was knowledge that someone who was really of the fathers of memory research was using. So it just goes to show how good an analogy it is and how we can store things in our mind. And so as far as techniques go, think about an attic, when you’re putting things into an attic you can either just throw them all up there and first of all your attic’s gonna fill up much more quickly, and secondly you’re gonna have no idea where anything is, which is really what most people do all the time. What Holmes tells you to do is not just focus on what you’re putting in your attic, which is what people tend to remember, but also how you’re putting it in there. So you have to make sure that you label and you cross-label and you cross-reference, and you really try to tag whatever it is you’re encoding as much as possible, and tie it as much as you can to what you already know. Also, tie it to as many sensory inputs as you possibly can, because every sense is connected to memory, and the more tags you have, the better you encode it, the more likely you are to be able to remember it when you’re called upon to do so. So whenever you’re learning something new just try to create as many associations as possible, make it as vivid as possible, really try to experience it as much as possible. It really does work wonders if you’re that careful and conscientious about it.
Lyndsay: Can you give us, sort of an easy example of how someone would use different senses in order to tag a piece of information that they’re learning at the moment?
Maria: Sure! So imagine you are sitting in a restaurant and you ordered a bottle of wine and you’re really enjoying it. You want to be able to order this wine or buy it from home or whatever in the future. You can just try to memorize what the label says, but then you might not be able to remember it later on you might be like “oh, was it this, was it that? I can’t quite remember.”
Melinda: That sort of thing has never happened to me, no.
Maria: Because at the moment you’re like “oh, of course I’m gonna remember this, how could I possibly forget?” And then of course, the moment you go home you forget. But if you try to really focus on all of the attributes, so the smell of the wine, what does it smell like, what does it remind you of, what does it taste like, what does that remind you of, how does it feel in your mouth, and try to, every single one of those associations you’re forming, see if you can find a way to tie it into the name. Maybe if it’s Chateau… I don’t know what… I can’t come up with a good example.
Lyndsay: How about Chateau Je Ne Sais Pas, Lestrade? [laughter]
Maria: But every single one of those is going to be an extra sensory tag for you, and an extra way that you can then remember this and make sure that you’re really… you’ll also enjoy the wine more because you’ll be experiencing it more. But you’ll also be more likely to create associations with the name so you can pick it out later on.
Curly: I’m just imagining Lestrade drinking wine now.
Lyndsay: Well that did happen. Rupert Graves.
Lyndsay: Maria, I’m curious though, you had said.. you’d been discussing at your book launch, which was awesome, ways in which, and you’re using the terminology “tagging” which is quite a modern term in the sense that you can tag many things on the interwebs, etc., etc., and you were talking about the expansion of the concept of the brain attic in the modern world, and how since we have instant access to the Googles on our phones, and we can ask ourselves questions like “who was that actor?” “oh my god, just ask your phone” that your brain attic has changed dimensions. So I wonder if you could comment on that a little bit ‘cause I thought that was really interesting.
Maria: Sure! So I think there’s both a lot of potential benefit and really cool stuff about that and also it can be dangerous if you misuse it, if you don’t understand how powerful it is. So in essence I’ll just kind of reiterate what the effect is. There’s research that shows that now that we have all of this instant access, basically if we’re primed with the concept of a computer or if we know that we’ll be able to find something later on on Google, we’re not going to remember it, and what we’re going to remember instead is how to find it. Whereas if we don’t think we’ll be able to access it in the future, we will remember that same piece of information. That’s pretty cool because your brain is doing something very smart: it’s saying “ok, I’m going to use my precious real estate, my precious brain attic, just for the stuff I know I won’t be able to find later. But everything that I know that I can access, why do I need to bother storing it? I’ll instead just remember how to find it.” That’s also dangerous because sometimes we’ll do that without realizing we’re doing it, and then you won’t really remember where to find something you’ll be like “oh what was that article I read, it was really cool, and I think there was something in it that I wanted to remember.” That’s about it. That happens to me all the time, and it’s very very frustrating. So I think if we know that this is happening we can really use it to our advantage, to kind of use Holmes’ filing system and do it one better, because he doesn’t remember the details of every case, you know he often asks Watson to consult a certain file. He doesn’t like to draw our attention to that fact, but it’s true. Google’s like this massive filing system that we have at our disposal.
Lyndsay: So what you’re saying is Watson is Sherlock Holmes’ Google?
Maria: I would say that, that’s a very good way of putting it! The other thing I will say is that one thing that we can do that’s very good for us and that will help us resist some of the negative effects of this Google phenomenon is don’t give in to the temptation to look something up right away. It’s really beneficial for your brain to try to find it. So when you have that tip-of-the-tongue moment “oh who was that actor, what was that name?” don’t look it up right away, let yourself struggle. That ability to kind of delay gratification and to let your mind work on it really enhances the neural connections and makes you much more likely to remember it in the future, whereas if you just look it up right away you’re not going to get any of that benefit and you’re gonna forget it just as quickly as you did before.
Amy: I see that, like with my parents, and that generation that didn’t grow up with Google, didn’t grow up with computers, that if they’re trying to think of something, they’re gonna sit there a minute and think of it, they’re gonna think of Google or a computer as a last resort, whereas I feel like once you get down to our generation, we kind of, at least I almost, at 28 this month, kinda bridge that gap, or that came into being during our lifetime, and then kids that I’ve taught, grew up totally in a Google world where that’s the first thing they think of. They don’t ever have that moment where they’re sitting there going, “hmm maybe that’s actually somewhere in my brain and I can access it without some kind of technology to help me.”
Maria: Yeah I think that’s a really good point and I don’t know that that changes for the best in the sense that then what is in your mind, you know, what is in your brain attic, you’re not going to have any of the raw materials to be able to have those imaginative insights, to be able to cross-pollinate ideas and really have a deep knowledge base. So I think it’s.. I think your parents and.. I mean, I’m the exact same way you are, I’ve grown to really depend on Google and it’s really kind of crept up on me. I’ve always thought that I was so good about it but I’m really not, I’m terrible about it. So the way I like to think of myself and what I actually do are two very very different things.
Kafers: This would be the like the most perfect moment for me to show up with the actor but I still can’t remember his name.
Curly: Going back to psychology, actually one of my favorite articles by you Maria is the one that’s “Stop Calling Sherlock A Sociopath. Sincerely, A Psychologist.”
Curly: I think that’s fantastic. And..
Lyndsay: So good.
Maria: Thank you.
Curly: I think the psychology of Sherlock Holmes, especially Cumberbatch’s version, is really popular because there’s that whole argument, you know, is he autistic, is he savant, is he a sociopath, yada yada yada. And I know for those who haven’t read it, which you all should, do you wanna just comment on that and how maybe that inspired some things in the book or just in general because I think it’s a really interesting topic that deserves a lot of talk because even Moffat and Benedict himself has called him sort of like an Asperger’s-esque character.
Lyndsay: Which is interesting because the one in the canon exists outside of labels, so y’know like, to what extent are you self-identifying because somebody gave you a label and you’re just identifying with that label, and to what extent is that like a self-actualizing prophesy once you get that term?
Maria: Well I, yeah, I really loved writing that article because I’ve just wanted to say that for such a long time. I really hate when people start, you know when they find out that I write about Sherlock Holmes and psychology, they start- I’ve heard it all: sociopath, as you said, Asperger’s, just absolutely everything and I wanna say “no, no, no, no, no, he’s none of these things!” It’s so incredibly, y’know you want to put these labels on him because it helps you kind of understand or, well, label him. I think there’s something very fundamental about wanting to label people. Which is not a good thing, but is unfortunately very basic to human instinct. And Holmes, I mean he is definitively not a sociopath because he has almost none of the characteristics of a sociopath, which as I point out in my article is the exact same thing as a psychopath. People have just, for whatever reason, decided that the two were different, but they’re not. They’re psychologically equivalent terms. One of the things I hate is when people say that Holmes doesn’t have any emotions, which is just so patently false. He just happens to be very good at controlling his emotions, and he doesn’t let them cloud his judgement. I don’t understand why this is a bad thing. Why do we think it’s negative if someone doesn’t act on every single impulse and doesn’t let every single sympathy or antipathy influence how he sees someone? I think it’s wonderful!
Curly: It’s definitely more useful in society. Getting around, anyways.
Maria: And obviously sometimes Watson gets the short end of the deal and Holmes can be quite nasty but in a very witty way that we like listening to.
Lyndsay: I have a really logical father, like an extremely logical debate-minded father, and a wonderful passionate creative, extremely intelligent, and very very emotional mother, and I idolize Sherlock Holmes because I thought that the concept of keeping yourself a little bit more to yourself was a great idea. But I never ever thought that he didn’t feel things as deeply, if not more deeply, than anyone else.
Maria: Yeah well I think there’s definitely something to that because if you’re not always expressing the emotion you’re probably feeling it more deeply in some sense because you’re not giving it an outlet. I’ve never thought about it that way but I think that’s a really really good point. And he doesn’t have Asperger’s by the way, he can read people better than anyone else, and–
Amy: Yes, thank you!
Ardy: Thank you so much!
Maria: People who have Asperger’s can’t read social cues and have trouble reading people’s emotions. When Holmes comes into a room he can tell you who’s sleeping with whom for how long, and who likes whom and who doesn’t like whom and who’s lying and who’s not, I mean, who is a better reader of faces and of people than Sherlock Holmes? I don’t know of any.
Melinda: People on that spectrum wouldn’t be able to see Helen Stoner [Speckled Band] and just be immediately calm her down, they would exude this sort of like, “I am sympathetic to your cause I’m gonna take care of this.”
Maria: Yes! And, I mean, also note how kind he is, he never takes payment from people who can’t afford it, he’s really, even though he says he only takes the cases that challenge him, he’ll take a case when people appeal to him on a human level. And he’s the first one to give people a second chance and to be more sympathetic when Watson’s like “whoa, that guy’s a bastard, did you hear how he talked about her?” and Holmes is like “cut him some slack, Watson.”
Lyndsay: I’ve always said the least reliable person on the subject of Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes. Maybe the least reliable person is John Watson.
Lyndsay: Yeah I think there’s an issue where people will read the canon and they will take something that’s said in it at face value. Like something that Holmes is saying about himself or even sometimes when Watson is reacting to something strongly, and take that as a diagnosis or something that applies to Sherlock Holmes in every situation, forever. When it’s not true or it’s not really a comment on the character as a whole, it’s something in a particular context.
Maria: Yes, absolutely, I have lots of pet peeves about that, and I’ve written about it, and the funny thing is I get really negative comments about it too. People are like “what do you mean?” I got these nasty emails from someone after I wrote about how Holmes was very creative, and he didn’t want a stocked mind attic he realized he wanted important things in there. “No” and he posts the Copernican Passage. Well, the Copernican Passage was just one very striking example, but everyone just, that’s one of my pet peeves because everyone remembers that and it’s so fun to say that Holmes doesn’t know whether the Earth goes around the Sun or the Sun goes around the Earth, or any of that. When really he does and we know he contradicts himself, he quotes Thomas Carlyle right after he says he has no idea who he is.
Curly: Arthur “Continuity” Doyle [laughter]
Maria: You know, we also know that he likes to exaggerate for Watson’s benefit and especially, you know in A Study in Scarlet, in the beginning of their relationship, he’s definitely exaggerating.
Ardy: It’s kind of a warped building at that point. [laughter]
Maria: You really do have to take it all together. You do have to realize that he isn’t always the best person to quote on his own mind. I also get annoyed when people call him a drug addict, which he also is not.
Curly: Oh god, that annoys the hell out of me! Ugh.
Maria: There was an entire part of the book that, it was like 5-10 pages, that were taken out by my editor because he didn’t think that they fit, but I thought that they should have stayed. It was in the final, for those who’ve read the book, it’s in the final chapter when I talk about how we’re all fallible and human. I talk about Arthur Conan Doyle and the fairies, and before I also talked about Sherlock Holmes and cocaine, and I put it in the historical context to kind of juxtapose the chronology of the canon with the chronology of what we knew about cocaine. Y’know, Sigmund Freud’s essay “Über Coca” had just been published when Holmes started using cocaine, and in that essay we think that coca is “über,” it’s amazing! It can solve problems and it’s not at all addictive. And it was only gradually that the scientific community came to realize that this was a drug and not.. and had very bad side effects. And Holmes never.. he’s not a drug addict because he’s always in control of it and then at some point, should be.. The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter is the last time cocaine is ever mentioned.
Lyndsay: I would view that being in control of a drug addiction is not the same as not having one?
Curly: I don’t think that’s an addiction though.
Lyndsay: I don’t know that it necessarily is either, but I know that in the modern context there’s much more of a stigma, obviously, against it for various reasons, but functioning addiction to various things is something I’m fairly familiar with. It’s not necessarily… he has a personality that is addictive.
Lyndsay: In the sense that he is, he has a hugely addictive personality. And it is extremely easy for me to see him being psychologically dependent on things.. not dependent necessarily, but like “oh, I will employ my logic and use chemicals, because I’m a chemist, to make this work for me!” It’s not the same as a chemical addiction, but I do think he has a very addictive personality. I mean, if he doesn’t have the work, he freaks out. So there are aspects of him that I think do reflect certain traits in terms of.. yeah.
Maria: No, no, I think that’s very fair. I wouldn’t even say that he’s.. in terms of the cocaine, I wouldn’t even say he’s in control of his addiction, he just doesn’t use it that frequently. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s ever a compulsion especially because then he stops and it’s kind of gradually phased out.
Lyndsay: Well one thing that Watson says is that it threatened to wreck his career.
Maria: Yes. That is true, that is true. So maybe at some point he was a drug addict, but he’s not for the entirety of the canon.
Lyndsay: I agree with you I just think that we’re trying to whitewash him and I think that’s…
Maria: No you’re right! You’re right, he does have a very addictive personality, he becomes addicted to Watson at some point, he tells Watson this.
Curly: Yes he does.
Lyndsay: That’s a fact. [laughter]
Lyndsay: But that’s something we can all get behind. And on top of, and between. Like a ham sandwich.
Curly: Don’t mention The War.
Melinda: Maria, I have a question that I hope I’ll be able to ask effectively? So just bear with me and let me know if I’m not making any sense. But in your book, you talk about Sherlock Holmes’ state of mindfulness, where he is practicing things like storing and organizing information, applying knowledge that he’s accumulated over the course of past studies and past cases and things like that. I want to know how your theory of mindfulness fits, if at all, with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Concept of Flow, where there’s a complete bliss, or a sort of oneness with the activity that one is performing which ultimately leads to meaning and fulfillment and happiness. Because the thing about Flow is that once the technical aspects have been mastered, putting them into practice becomes almost an other-worldly experience, like in the way that a pianist isn’t thinking about which keys to hit with which fingers, and in fact if they do start thinking about it, then it can disrupt the Flow and cause them to screw up or stutter for lack of a better word. So the Holmes that I see in the stories, to me he kind of moves back and forth between the states of mindfulness and Flow. And we can see him practicing mindfulness when he’s doing his sort of “hunting dog” routine, but in other cases it seems as though he’s more in a state of ecstasy, which I always interpreted as him experiencing Flow. So my question is, how do those two states relate, and does one lead to the other, or are they mutually exclusive, or can they exist in one person at the same time?
Maria: That is a great question and I actually write about his work and I write about Flow in my chapter on imagination, I believe it’s chapter 4 but I might be mistaken. So I think that the two are incredibly connected and I think that mindfulness is a prerequisite for Flow. Because to experience Flow you have to really be engaged in something. And the central tenant of mindfulness is this presence of mind, is the ability to focus on the present moment and dismiss any other distractions. Not not be distracted, but acknowledge any distractions and dismiss them, it’s really kind of just concentrated focus. In order to attain Flow, you need to be focused on whatever it is you’re doing. You can’t reach that state if you’re trying to do multiple things, if your attention is wandering. You won’t ever be able to attain that kind of synchronicity with what you’re doing. So I think in order to get there you need to have this mindful approach, and so I think it’s certainly true and it’s a great observation on your part that often times Holmes seems to be experiencing Flow, I think that’s exactly right. So I think at that moment Flow and mindfulness are going hand in hand. You can have mindfulness without Flow, especially if you’re practicing it for short periods at a time, but you absolutely can never have Flow without mindfulness.
Melinda: Hmmm. Thank you! Thank you, that’s a great explanation.
Curly: Woot woot! [laughter]
Maria: By the way, I’m gonna say something totally inappropriate if that’s okay? It took me a minute to figure out via Skype that you were talking about a “pianist,” because at first I had misheard what you said.
Ardy: But that would also be appropriate to this podcast!
Lyndsay: Well.. yeah. I was actually talking about “one who plays the piano.”
Maria: Yeah I got that from the context eventually.
Lyndsay: Maria I’m curious how the leap is made between being observant and then actually making the sort of bold deductions that Sherlock Holmes makes because as we all know, some of the deductions in the canon are completely ridiculous. In a logical sense. So like, half of the hat, in the beginning of the Blue Carbuncle, it’s beautiful, it’s one of my favorite passages, it’s nonsense. It could’ve gone any which way apart from the lime cream. So how… in what way is it possible to draw inferences from things you observe that are gonna be more likely to be accurate maybe even than some of the deductions that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, because I mean, he was a genius and he had studied under Joseph Bell and it’s all very beautiful and logical, except for when it isn’t. How do you draw that line?
Maria: Yeah. So I think one of the great things about observation and mindfulness is that if you really take it seriously, it applies to your thoughts as well, so you’re not just observing the world around you, you’re not just gathering those types of details, but you have to employ the exact same scrutiny when it comes to your own thoughts, and what’s going on inside your head. And why that’s really important when it comes to deduction, is that we really love, love, love to tell ourselves “just so” stories without realizing we’re doing it. We’re really bad at accessing why we do things or why we think things, but we also always think we know, and we always like to imbue objects with backstories, and so we just create these narratives all the time. It’s hard to separate the objective facts of what we’ve actually observed with our subjective interpretation of them. So if you’re talking about those persnickety wine glasses, and I say persnickety because we know that Holmes’ explanation is not quite scientifically accurate either, but when Holmes asks Watson about what the three wine glasses signify, Watson has this explanation right away. “Oh it must have been the drugs in the bottle,” blah blah blah and he really knew nothing about the physics of wine, but right away he has this wonderful explanation that makes him even more certain that there were three people drinking the wine. So what he’s done is just confirmed his observation by creating a bogus story. Holmes obviously creates an equally bogus story but one that makes more sense in the context of Conan Doyle’s narrative. And that enables him to tell us that there were really only two people drinking the wine. But the way that he goes about creating it, so let’s imagine that the physics of it are actually sound, the way he goes about creating it is that he tries to start just with the facts and just with what he’s observed, without necessarily coming in with any preconceptions or any ideas about how many people there were or what they were doing. And so he tries to just go from what he’s physically observing. It’s a really difficult thing to separate the two out, but if we’re really mindful and we take Holmes a step further than Holmes takes Holmes, than we can try to stop that storytelling process before it really takes over our narrative. Does that make sense?
Lyndsay: I have a question. For somebody listening who, is like I admire Sherlock Holmes, I’m interested in the mindfulness process, what would you say is the very first step for somebody who maybe wants to go down that road but they are totally unfamiliar with it?
Maria: Well I would say the first step is a very simple exercise that’s taken from the cognitive psychology of mindfulness, taken from all these studies. Basically for as little as five minutes a day you just sit quietly and close your eyes and focus on the present moment and whenever anything distracting comes into your head, you acknowledge it, you say “hi” and you say “now go away” and you dismiss it. That might seem quite silly, but it really teaches you to learn to sit silently with your thoughts and to be really aware of your thoughts in a way that.. we don’t normally have that awareness. In the modern environment, I think we’ve.. we’re less and less able to be alone with our own thoughts because there’s always something we could be doing. There’s always a way we can self-distract, we don’t ever have to sit quietly. And so just those few minutes a day of sitting quietly really go a long way toward making more permanent changes towards the ways that we observe and try to be present in the world.
Lyndsay: Very cool.
Lyndsay: So like you think that meditation could be a way to assist mindfulness?
Maria: Oh yeah absolutely and I think Holmes meditates all the time. Because meditation doesn’t have to be kind of this very involved..
Lyndsay: Cross-legged, new-age-y, incense type of thing.
Maria: Yup, exactly. Meditation.. you can meditate sitting at your desk, you can meditate anywhere, you could be wearing a business suit. Y’know, it really doesn’t matter, it’s all about what you’re doing, and so in every single… I’m doing a presentation tomorrow night and so I started pulling pictures from the original illustrations, from Holmes, and I realized that in almost every single story, you have a Sydney Paget image of Holmes sitting with his eyes closed and his fingers touching, in his chair. And they’re all different, because they’re all drawn anew for the story to illustrate this line, but there it is, over and over and over, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. It’s really important to separate the two and to realize that the new-age trappings really don’t have to exist. That we can really meditate however it works for us. Don’t call it meditation if you don’t want to, y’know, if meditation has negative connotations, call it concentration!
Curly: I wish I could concentrate for more than two minutes!
Curly: I feel like I’ve become such a product of the Google age that when you were talking about maybe not Googling things immediately, that physically pained me because that’s what I do automatically. My memory has gone way way south, so south it hurts. I’ve tried some of this stuff, and I just couldn’t get past it, I would get so frustrated, and annoyed at myself.
Lyndsay: Yeah what would you say to self-rage with an inability to be mindful?
Maria: It will get easier! It will get easier.
Kafers: I do meditate, actually. I probably should do it more.
Curly: You’re like an epic meditator.
Kafers: Yeah, I know.
Maria: I think that it really does help, and it really helps clarify your thinking when you’re not meditating. The benefits go out far beyond the meditation. And what I love about all this work that’s being done right now, is that as little as five minutes a day for just a few weeks and your brain already starts showing the same neural patterns that are seen in experienced meditators. So it really is this self-reinforcing cycle which should make it more motivating.
Lyndsay: I was expecting you to say, an experience like rats.
Melinda: A giant rat.
Lyndsay: That’s better. Giant rat, yeah.
Lyndsay: Sumatran rat.
Lyndsay: A cool part about that is, if you are mindful, and you do use the tools that we have and technology, you can use them at a higher level, because you’re not just using them in a basic way, you’re using them along with your own brain, with your mindfulness. I think that allows you to do something different with them that’s not just a low-level but it allows your brain to be its own computer as well. And so you can use tools to learn more information that you can then store. I think it unlocks potential even with the tools that we do have.
Maria: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I think one of the reasons we don’t do this, we don’t meditate, we don’t take a more mindful approach, is that it feels especially, well, to me at least, I don’t know if you would agree with this, but it feels like you’re wasting time, because you’re not doing anything kind of.. there are all these things that you should be doing; it feels like you’re doing nothing. But one of the things that I think it really helps to realize is that you’re really helping yourself become much more efficient, because by taking this time, you’re priming your mind, you’re making it better able to use all of this technology and to use it better. Instead of wasting time you’re really making yourself much better able to maximize your time. It’s this paradox, I think.
Melinda: How do I go about achieving the slo-mo-Holmes-o-vision from the Warner Brothers films?
Maria: Well there are exercises for that.
Maria: As little as five minutes a day!
Lyndsay: But you have to kill a tree. Every day.
Maria: Yes! And if you do it even longer you start getting those cool little call outs from the BBC’s “Sherlock” so your world will suddenly freeze on a specific detail.
Sarah: Yeah, I want my text messages to sort of float up in front of me!
Lyndsay: That’s a scary idea.
Maria: I’ve had dreams with subtitles before. I wonder if that’s just weird, or if it’s…
Melinda: No that’s awesome!
Ardy: I think that’s brilliant! I want dreams with subtitles.
Maria: It’s a very bizarre experience. I’ve not sure in what language the dreams are but there are subtitles!
Melinda: A cool thing about the Robert Downey Jr. film is that we get that bit where he’s experiencing everything and it becomes a bit too much, and that is I think one of few instances that I’ve seen where Holmes was sort of looking at this gift that he’s been given, or rather cultivated, as a curse, rather than something he was enjoying and employing. It was very sad, actually. Sort of something that had been put on him against his will, that he wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on his own.
Maria: Yeah I don’t know how true to life that is in the sense that he doesn’t have, y’know there are people, there are these minds that can’t help but remember every single detail of their life. And to others that might seem really cool, but to them it can often feel like a curse. Like what you were saying about Sherlock Holmes, because they can’t forget it, they always know where they were at every single second and it really overloads your mind because you’re incapable of forgetting. For Holmes, I think he really can, at least, the canonical Holmes, and the Holmes as I understand him, can turn it on and off. It’s not a hypersensitivity to the point where I think he would be inundated. Have any of you seen “Perception”? The series that was based on an amalgamation of sources but Sherlock Holmes is one of the inspirations? It premiered I think last year?
Maria: No? Okay. Well the main character there has schizophrenia. And there, that is quite accurate, he can get overwhelmed by too many stimuli. So I guess what I’m trying to say is there are psychological conditions that make you very sensitive to this, and I’m not sure how true-to-life the Robert Downey movies are.
Maria: I’ll give you an example. Although it’s very poignant, I agree with you. But I don’t know if that would ever happen.
Melinda: It doesn’t necessarily fit in with everything else that we know about Holmes.
Maria: Right. Exactly, exactly. Going back to what I was saying about Holmes not fitting into any pathology that people want to slap onto him.
Melinda: I was going to say you have Holmes doing things like the music, where he seems to purposefully allow his brain to go in a different direction, and sort of unplug from some of that very in-control.
Maria: I think that’s great. I think we should really.. well we should all become virtuoso violinists, that’s basically the moral of the story.
Maria: But no, it’s great and there are lots of links between music and relaxation and music and creativity, I don’t know if Conan Doyle realized just what a good character he was creating in terms of how accurate the psychology was? If it just kind of came together, or if he did it on purpose, but it makes so much sense that Holmes would play the violin, given the type of person he is.
Lyndsay: So this might be kind of a weird question, but you’ve tied superior mental processes to creativity multiple times and I completely agree with you, to what extent do you think humor plays a part? Because I find humor to be extremely creative, and also highly technical.
Lyndsay: Holmes is hilarious, and a lot of people overlook that. He has a very refined sense of humor and also a very crude sense of humor at the same time. So he’s got all kinds of levels of humor appreciation that he not only enacts, but appreciates. So in the sense that creativity is tied to mindfulness, do you think humor also plays a part?
Maria: Yeah, I think there’s a definite connection. I haven’t written about it because I haven’t really thought about it in that way, but I mean Holmes is incredibly funny and witty and I think that people who are mindful and creative do tend to be funny as well, because in order to be as witty and as appreciative as Holmes is, you do have to be a really keen observer of people and of human nature. So I think that having all of those observations and that kind of presence at your disposal allows you to be really funny. The first thing about Holmes is that he never takes himself too seriously, and with a lot of these great creative thinkers, that’s true of them as well, and so you have this more lighthearted approach. If you take yourself too seriously you can’t be that creative, I don’t think. I think the two, for whatever reason, don’t go hand in hand very well.
Lyndsay: I think Holmes relates to other people a lot more than Watson ever lets on. I think he’s an entirely sympathetic character, just that he’s not necessarily going to express everything that he’s feeling when he’s feeling it, because he has better self-control than that. But his sense of humor, I think, is extremely well-developed, I mean, it’s much better than mine. And I can’t imagine that he would ever be telling fart jokes, but for someone to be able to create a very clever and biting comment that not everyone in the room is going to get, and the ones that do, can’t really laugh about it right then because it’s so incredibly rude, I think that takes some talent and a very good understanding of human nature.
Maria: Absolutely. Holmes is one of the best observers and understanders of human nature there is. He does relate to people so well and as I think I’ve already mentioned so I’m going to just repeat myself, sometimes he does it better than Watson. Watson’s much more quick to judge, and Holmes always takes a step back and really gives people the benefit of the doubt, and lets them speak first. I think he really understands people ridiculously well.
Melinda: I think that the story A Case of Identity is one of my favorites just because of the very radical difference between the way Watson is just describing this poor woman, and the way Holmes is treating her. We have never seen him be more chivalrous and courteous to a client, and every observation that Watson makes of her… I’m just embarrassed to read it.
Maria: Watson can be really mean, especially to women.
Melinda: Especially women who don’t fit what he wants them to look like, which is exactly what this poor woman’s problem was. And it’s not just that he calls her “big” and “stupid” it’s that every single thing she does, I mean, she’s got a stupid look on her face, and she’s ridiculously surprised, and this preposterous hat, and it’s so brutal to read, and yet Holmes is kinder to her, and probably blew Watson’s mind as well as a result of it, than he was with most clients that I can think of.
Lyndsay: Yeah! He’s practically giving her a back rub by the end of that.
Maria: Holmes always has a thing for the underdog as well. Which I think is really interesting, he’s a very sympathetic- he really wants to help people. I think he wants to help people more than he wants us to know he wants to help people. He wants us to think of him as tougher than he actually is. Really, Holmes is a big softie.
Ardy: He has his own sense of justice. Y’know, the way he lets certain people off the hook. The law is not what he decides is right.
Lyndsay: Yeah look at Abbey Grange or any number of examples where he’s like “oh you did that but I’m into it, so you’re fine.”
Curly: Or take the law unto himself like in Miiiiiiilverton.
Lyndsay: Until we meet again.. Milverton!
Maria: It’s true, one of the things that I think is so great about him is that he is very flexible in his thinking. And that allows him to be creative, that also allows him to be less dogmatic and less moralistic and have his own private moral compass. Where things are right or wrong just depending on the circumstances, so he really sees the world in shades of grey, which is one of the reasons why he does so much better than the Lestrades of the world.
Curly: 50 Shades of Grey? I’m sorry! I had to!
Lyndsay: We tried so hard not to, but…
Lyndsay: I think that’s interesting though because it ties to creativity and humor and self-reflection and the ability to distance yourself is the ability to see the world in shades of grey as opposed to seeing it in a highly moralistic, dogmatic sense which is not going to actually give you the information about the world that you want, it’s not going to be accurate. If you’re trying to divide people and actions into one of two categories, if it’s all in a binary system, then you’re not going to be able to see anything, are you?
Maria: I think that’s exactly right, and I think Holmes really exemplifies that. I think it also goes back to what we were talking about not taking yourself too seriously, I think if you take yourself seriously, you do tend to see the world in more of these black and white terms. That does impede your ability to be creative and all of that.
Curly: We’re coming up on an hour, and I know you are jet-lagged. I have a question, completely off-topic, but I really wanna use this fact that I found.
Maria: Go for it.
Curly: Someone told me that you were a ballerina.
Maria: I was.
Curly: You were! Hardcore ballerina.
Maria: Only when I was a little ballerina. And when I became a big ballerina, I stopped being a ballerina.
Lyndsay: You’re still a ballerina.
Curly: Did you know that there was a Sherlock Holmes ballet?
Maria: No, I did not!
Curly: It was choreographed by Margaret Dale in 1953 and it was called “The Great Detective.” And the same guy that played Holmes played Moriarty, a la “Swan Lake.”
Lyndsay: That is absolutely the coolest thing that has ever happened.
Lyndsay: What do we have to do to see this?
Curly: I remember seeing a picture of it on tumblr awhile ago. On the train as I was coming here I was like, Maria was a ballerina, I wonder if there was a ballet? And I found it and I was like “I am using this!”
Lyndsay: Maria can you perform the whole ballet for us on the YouTube?
Maria: Yes. And I’ll play Holmes and Moriarty.
Maria: Now I hope the choreography has not survived anywhere.
Curly: Oh, I’m gonna find it! I’m gonna find this. It was from 1953 so there may be film…
Lyndsay: The dream ballet, a la like, y’know, like early early “Oklahoma.”
Curly: I hope so. That’d be awesome. I’m just imagining a guy in like ballet stockings or tights or whatever they are, and then with like a deerstalker just prancing around.
Amy: That’s totally what I’m seeing.
Lyndsay: In my head, this is magical.
Ardy: It’s awesome!
Curly: So yes, with that factoid, you can go buy Mastermind in all the bookstores near you, or on the interwebs, I’m sure if you tracked down Maria and poke her, maybe she’ll sell you one? She’s also on the Twitter.
Curly: And is there like a website or any other places where people can stalk you?
Maria: Yeah just mariakonnikova.com
Lyndsay: There you go!
Maria: It helps to have a name that no one else has! That way you can get the right URL.
Curly: Yeah, same here! I’m the only Kristina Manente around. It’s mine![evil laughter]
Lyndsay: Well played, well played.
Maria: I knew my purpose, from the womb I was like “Hey Mom, Mom,”
Curly: Coming soon to interwebs near you: Maria Konnikova will be playing “The Great Detective” …the ballet.
Maria: No, no, no, no, no!
Curly: It comes free with every copy of Mastermind that you buy!
Lyndsay: I can’t wait. It’s gonna be so good.