A take on how to think…

I read every Sherlock Holmes story back when I was in high school. I read a lot then, as I still do now. Everyday on my way home from school on the city bus, I passed the library and its dedicated bus stop. Often, I would get off, lugging my backpack full of text books. I still have no idea what possessed me to lug all of them around all the time – no math or English or social studies emergencies ever came up (one always needs science text books). At the library, I always found a book or two or five to cram into my already straining backpack.

Recently, while browsing in the bookstore that is dangerously close to my house, I stumbled across Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. From the inside flap: “No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and home?” How could I resist?

Since I rarely read a single book at a time, I read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the same time. Both were equally interesting however, Mastermind was a much easier read and included tips on how to improve ones thinking.

Konnikova breaks down the scientific method (for that is what Sherlock Holmes uses), discussing how each piece can be applied to our thought processes. All the while interweaving scenes from the stories that demonstrate the point she is making.

She discusses the idea that the structure of your mind can be viewed as a ‘brain attic’ that can be organized and easy to find things or left as a crammed space containing everything without order. We get to choose. She also includes a warning about filling your mind with too much junk – I’m assuming she means the headlines from the tabloids I can’t help reading in the checkout line that just stick in my mind.

“We can, however, learn to master many aspects of our attic’s structure, throwing out junk that got in by mistake, prioritizing those things that we want to and pushing back those that we don’t, learning how to take the contours of our unique attic into account so that they don’t unduly influence us as they otherwise might.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s view on your mind’s contents is slightly different. He points out, the structure provided by memorizing things that captivate your interest can make you life richer. Memorizing medieval British kings and queens (the real-life ‘game of thrones’) or Shakespearean sonnets or details of the periodic table (or anything else that catches your interest) helps with thinking by providing an internal structure. Memorizing this way helps improve memory and gives fodder to think about if you end up in a sensory deprivation tank – just incase that ever comes up.

On the how thinking works theme, I listened to a podcast about thinking and memory last night (from here). According to them, the key is to constantly expose yourself to new ideas and concepts. Quality counts – sitting on the sofa vegging out in front of crapy TV doesn’t count. Reading counts, as well as other active ideas like taking a course or learning an instrument. The new information creates potential connections with what you already know potentially generating ideas.

In a recent interview with Joss Whedon (one of my favourite movie and TV writers), where he discussed what he does to remain productive, he gave a range of tips including how he uses his down time to expose himself to tones of new information such as books, theatre, etc. – a process he called ‘fill the tanks’. Whedon suggests “step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing, then it’ll show.”

On the flip side of ‘filling your tanks’ a recent blog post suggested that depriving oneself of new information gained through reading, which is generally how I get new info, could be a good way to kick-start your creativity. This is a technique out of one of Julia Cameron‘s books. I would find this a form of torture, but I’m curious if it would work. If one is always out obtaining information, would a forced week of nothing new forge new connections (i.e. creativity) between the old information?

At the same time I read all about Holmes, I devoured books about James Bond (by both Ian Flemming and John Gardner) along with everything then published by Ken Follett (The Key to Rebecca was my favourite). Since, I read all these books a long time ago and often concurrently, the lines between what happened in what story has been blurred. I do remember enjoying them all so perhaps it’s time to start re-reading all these tales.

Image is from here