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[Maria Konnikova. Photo credit: Margaret Singer and Max Freeman.]

By David Ryan Polgar

Sometimes I get lost in my own town.

Given the fact that I see the same roads and buildings time and time again, I usually allow my brain to slip into autopilot mode. This isn’t something I’m proud of. It isn’t that I have knowingly decided to not pay attention, but that I have not made the conscious attempt topay attention.

It’s everything that mindfulness is not. If mindfulness is the state of being aware, my brain sometimes toggles to the other end of the mental spectrum—mindlessness.

“It is very easy to slip into mindlessness,” says Maria Konnikova. “Zoning out is the default, paying attention is more difficult.”

Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author ofMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013). She is also a noted science writer contributing influential pieces to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Scientific American. Konnikova has a tremendous gift to boil down the latest findings in the fields of neuroscience and psychology into practical advice, insightful commentary, and enjoyable reading. Mastermind has broad appeal because at its essence it is a book that explores ways to become a better thinker, utilizing Sherlock Holmes as the mythological ideal.

Sherlock Holmes represents the ultimate active observer, utilizing heightened senses to deduce any tangled web into a line of logical analysis. His famous sidekick, Watson, is a stand-in for our intuitive mind that is far less aware of our surroundings and mental processes. Holmes is engaged, and Watson is disengaged.

Konnikova’s goal is not to rid us of entering a Watson state, but instead to appreciate how our brain works and hence know when to think like Sherlock Holmes. As Konnikova points out inMastermind, “We don’t notice everything because noticing everything—each sound, each smell, each sight, each touch—would make us crazy.” In other words, sometimes we need extreme focus and other times it’s not necessary.

The mind can often seem mysterious, but Konnikova does an excellent job shedding light on the brain’s biases. By understanding the intricacies of our cognitive function we can become the master of our mind.

One way to better understand our brain, as Konnikova discusses in Mastermind, is to think of it as an attic. Holmes was mindful of the “furniture” he put in his attic, and aware that all information was taking up valuable space. Certain tidbits were worth remembering, while others were purposefully discarded or ignored.

Unfortunately, our brain attic is closer to an episode of Hordersinstead of an issue of Architectural Digest.

In an age when many of us feel overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of information, emails, texts, tweets, pictures, and Facebook updates, Sherlock Holmes stands out as someone who is able to be calm and reflective. “People are becoming exhausted,” says Konnikova. “Sherlock Holmes presents a moment in quiet.”

Picture Sherlock Holmes in your mind: you see a relaxed man sitting in a comfortable well-worn leather chair smoking a pipe.

Picture your average 21st century thinker: you see a spastic individual tapping away on a Word document while checking their Facebook page, switching over to Gmail to send a few messages, and then glancing over at their vibrating phone.

Powerful thinking derives from a quiet mind, according to Konnikova, and our tendency to multitask is hindering our ability to find mental calm. Multitasking is one of Konnikova’s two crusades (the other is our lack of sleep). “Multitasking makes us less engaged,” says Konnikova. Quality thinking, on the other hand, relies on engagement and curiosity.

Many of us struggle with maintaining focus for prolonged periods of time. Besides the countless distractions aiming for our attention, there are ample opportunities to fill any moment that may have formerly been used for active thinking. Technology may not have eradicated poverty or war, but it certainly has eliminated any room for boredom.

While Konnikova values her time without technology, she does not in any shape or form blame technology for its tendency to tap into our default state. “Focus is always difficult, and always will be difficult,” she says. It is up to us to take control.

When Konnikova needs to get work done, she puts her smartphone in the other room. Nothing takes away from a quiet mind like a buzzing phone. 

Konnikova also utilizes a distraction-blocking software called Freedom. Freedom allows a user to block the Internet for a set period of time. By deleting the potential for distractions and time-sucks, the user is free to focus.

Perhaps in order to truly master our mind, we need to master our tech. It certainly helps with quieting our mind and bringing us closer to Holmes.

Maria Konnikova’s website

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes