Maria Konnikova - Grey Elephants in Denmark

Observation is simultaneously a conversation. So how do we become a great "observationalist?"

Beginning with the Grey Elephant in Denmark Trick, Maria Konnikova, the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, explains that she can read minds.

You'll be "a step closer" to understanding Holmes' talent for reading minds after her talk, she says, and outlines what she'll discuss today - the "Magic number 17," the importance of a "well-stocked attic," "Don't forget dogs that don't bark" and how overconfidence will "kill you," but "curiosity won't."

Seeing the detail is the difference between "mindlessness and mindfulness," or passive v. active attention.

So how do we learn to pay attention?

Don't multitask. We're not actually multitasking she says, just switching very, very quickly back and forth between tasks. This "inattentional blindness" may have dire consequences when, for example, we're texting while driving.

Being in the moment requires us to actively pay attention. Demonstrating the point with a brief 20 second exercise, she asks the group to be momentarily still, and points out, on the final exhale, that "when we're in happier states, our field of vision increases."

Inward, non-judgemental states have physical benefits. Meditation changes the brain for the better.

But how we store information affects how we recall information later. The "conjunction fallacy" predicts that each of us bring internal assumptions to bear that affect judgement. Holmes' success is owed to an ability to remove a certain emotional content from decision making, and in being aware of the information he brings to the transaction. As with mindfulness, a detached, quiet observation improves the kind of information we get.

Careful observation can succeed either by recalling the information itself, or the route to that information. Holmes, Konnikova says, would be delighted with Google.

But to get to novel or hidden solutions, one must take different paths. For imaginative solutions we need to have a well-stocked attic, to be well read, to have a standard set of information about the world around us. Those data points are the raw material for expansiveness of thought.

Holmes' "three pipe" approach asks us to take a step back, to give the mind time to rummage through the attic. It's particularly important when, as she demonstrates using some clever optical illusions. The hidden information is often there, waiting for patient exploration.

That "distance" can be obtained through nature as well. Konnikova says that the natural environment - not the urban sidewalk, she adds - can add a creative force to our thinking. Moreover, "we don't know why." Even a nature-based screen saver delivers a smaller and similar effect.

Putting on the "white coat" can also distance us from (our) quick judgements, particularly when it's combined with the well furnished mind. It activates our problem-solving capacity, which made me wonder for a moment about a similar effect that actors experience, or the musician who slips into extemporaneous playing. They are exploring roles.

Wrapping up, Konnikova says Holmes' also understood "omission neglect," which focuses our attention on what's in front of us. It doesn't typically notice the "dog that didn't bark." Sales people and marketers put the effect to good use with feature creep.

The world's greatest psychologist wasn't B.F. Skinner or Freud, she concludes, but Sherlock Holmes. Our minds need not be mysteries as long as we stay curious.


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