The Rumpus Interview with Maria Konnikova

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When Maria Konnikova was a young girl, her father read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes to her at bedtime. More than treasured childhood memories, the stories of Holmes’s detective prowess sparked Konnikova’s interest in psychology and the mechanisms behind how such a sharp mind works.

In her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Konnikova presents Holmes as an “ideal thinker.” She dissects the detective’s case-solving methods to explain how we can use our minds efficiently. Doyle’s two main characters—Holmes and his sidekick, Watson—illustrate different psychological states of mind. Konnikova explores what the “Holmes” system can teach us about careful observation, skepticism, and the benefits of slowing down, and how to avoid Watson’s mistake of rushing to judgment.

Konnikova, now twenty-eight, moved to the United States from Russia as a child without knowing a single word of English. Now she makes a career for herself by sharing her discoveries in psychology through writing. Konnikova has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Paris Review, among other publications, and writes the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American.

Earlier this year, I called Konnikova in New York as she was preparing to travel to England to continue her book tour. After studying psychology in undergrad, myself, I was impressed by Konnikova’s ability to make cognitive psychology accessible in her book. We talked about the connection between literature and psychology, the best ways we can use our mental space, and the implications of her work on a society that is increasingly, as she puts it, “tethered to our devices.”

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The Rumpus: You came to the U.S. from Russia at the age of four. How does your background influence your interest in psychology and literature?

Maria Konnikova: The language barrier made me much more aware of things that we don’t normally pay attention to. It taught me how magical language is. We take it so much for granted, but it’s incredibly sophisticated, a beautiful gift. If you stop to think about the fact that we’re capable of communicating our thoughts, having conversations, for me—switching from not knowing English to suddenly being able to talk—it just showed me what a tremendous power the human mind has. I think that background certainly affected how I looked at the world. I also grew up with a lot of Russian literature, and I think a lot of the Russian writers are very psychological. I think fiction writers who understand psychology are good writers.

Rumpus: You’ve previously called Tolstoy “overrated.” What do you think Arthur Conan Doyle understands about psychology that Tolstoy doesn’t?

Konnikova: If you think about Anna Karenina, the suicide is completely unmotivated. He’s projecting this moralistic value of society on her instead of what makes sense, in terms of what we know about her character. She has someone who loves her, whom she loves, who wants to make her feel like a shamed woman—so she becomes a shamed woman. But there’s nothing within her to make her feel this way. He uses his characters to prove moral points. He’s a moralist, not a psychologist.

Rumpus: In Mastermind you use fictional characters—Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Watson—to describe two different systems of thought. Can you describe the differences between these systems?

Mastermind-cover-new-pipe-006Konnikova: It started with the hot and cool system, initially proposed by social psychologist Walter Mischel. The hot system is what I call “System Watson.” It’s a system by which we think by default. It’s the basic one, the snap judgments. “System Holmes” is the cool system, a more rational system that takes greater effort, more cognitive resources, and is more reflective. It’s reflective versus reflexive. Using Holmes and Watson gives the systems personality in a way that makes it more memorable and easy to relate to. These characters exemplify these systems incredibly well. Holmes is very cool and reflective, someone who has made this type of thought his everyday prerogative. Watson exemplifies the “go, go, go.”

Rumpus: Which system do most of us use?

Konnikova: We mostly use Watson. Holmes kicks in when our brain decides that something is really important, when we consciously make an effort to be more rational, to think things through. The trick is that Sherlock Holmes has trained his Watson system to use many of the mechanisms that “System Holmes” uses. With practice, we really can change our thoughts habit. If we start thinking more along the lines of reflective Holmes, to the point where it starts becoming more effortless, it switches from the conscious learning stage and becomes an everyday learning system.

Rumpus: You stress the difference between seeing and observing. You say observation is “not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly.” Why is this something we haven’t learned by the time we’ve reached adulthood? Is it something we should learn in school?

Konnikova: It’s funny you ask if it’s something we should learn in school, because in a way, school makes us unlearn it. I think it would be absolutely incredible if the education system taught some of these principles of mindfulness, of presence, of observation. The difference between letting the world pass you by and actively engaging in it.

What I find striking is that children tend to be much better at this than adults. If you’ve spent time with a little kid, you see that they notice things that we don’t. They’re always asking “why” and have so many questions about everything to the point where it can get annoying—it’s like, “Please stop asking why—I don’t know why!” But really, they’re being mindful. Everything is new and exciting to them. They remember everything and they really take it in.

I often see people walking their dogs down the street and the owner can’t even get down the block because the puppy is looking at everything and is just all over the place, because everything is exciting. In a way, that captures the type of attitude that we should try to develop: to be more like that child, to be more like that puppy. In school, instead of indulging that and learning to really focus and hone your powers of attention, I think learning is made much less exciting. Everything becomes focused on practical things.

Rumpus: Can you talk about Holmes’s “three pipe” solution?

Konnikova: The three-pipe solution comes up in “The Red-Headed League.” In this story, the client comes to Holmes and he has this flaming red hair, and tells Holmes a very strange story: that he’s been hired for a job just because of the color of his hair. He doesn’t have to do anything, he just sits there with his flaming red hair. It’s all quite odd. The client tells his story and wants Holmes to come with him, but Holmes says, “No, no, I’m not going to come with you.” So the client waits. Watson says, “Holmes, we have to do something! Clearly, something is going on.” And Holmes says, “Yes, this is quite a three-pipe problem.” He sits down in his armchair and smokes three pipes, and by the end of that, he’d solved the case.

Paget_holmesThis captures something incredibly important about Holmes’s thought and what enhances our own cognitive abilities, which is distance—taking these breaks and letting your mind work without distraction. Letting everything percolate. Letting your mind make connections that you can’t make consciously. Whatever it is, taking the time to reflect instead of asking right away. The initial impulse is, “Man, why is he sitting in this armchair wasting time? Things might be happening.” And so often we fail to take that moment of reflection to think things through. But what that moment does is open up our mind in a different way. Our mind is much smarter than we give it credit for, and is capable of seeing things that we don’t consciously see right away. Our default network is active, constantly monitoring the environment for connections. So when we relax, whether it’s by smoking three pipes, taking a walk, or taking a shower, it’s able to do that. That’s why so many insights come at moments of relaxation.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that even looking at pictures of nature puts your mind in a different place.

Konnikova: The work on nature of thought and creativity is really striking. Taking a walk really does wonders for our mind. There was even a cool study that even looking at screen savers of scenes of nature will help. It’s not as big of a bump as being outside, since there’s no physical activity, but the fact that it’s helpful at all is really remarkable.

Rumpus: You write, “Holmes takes nothing, not a single impression, for granted.” He is vigilant about making sure his first impressions are fair and not influenced by hidden personal biases. Can you tell the story of discovering your own biases when you judged a global model United Nations in college? You ended up favoring students with British accents.

Konnikova: It was a very disconcerting experience! I would never have uncovered my own bias if I didn’t realize, “Wow, why are all the awards going to Oxford and Cambridge? This is really weird!” There were so many universities that competed. I don’t think I would’ve known what was happening if I didn’t see the results—that’s what’s scary. When I saw them, I thought, this couldn’t be right, there are so many bright students from all over the world at this international conference. So I started to pay attention to what was going on. When I realized that I was being swayed by accents—what a terrible thing to realize about yourself!—I took it personally. Russian is my first language—I was born in Moscow, and I didn’t speak a word of English when I moved here. My parents have thick Russian accents, and they’re the two smartest people I know. So having grown up with that and still finding myself swayed by a British accent was really terrible. Having been judged that way myself, it’s awful to know that I could do that to others. It made me realize that you have to double-check yourself as much as possible.

Rumpus: You talk a lot about our mental “attics” as a way we can store important information. One thing that Holmes didn’t have was the ability to store information digitally. Does this change how we use our minds, and the kind of information we remember?

Konnikova: I think that’s a really interesting area of research. There was a study in Science last year about the effects of Google on memory. Basically, one group was primed with the idea of a computer, or told that they’d be able to access information on the computer, and the other was not. The people who were primed with computers didn’t end up remembering the information as much as the people who didn’t think that they would be able to access it at a later point. Right away, there’s a really important caveat to that—they did remember where and how to find the information. So it’s not that they didn’t remember anything, but their brains were making a smart choice. They said, “Oh, I don’t need to waste precious real estate with this, because I know it’s going to be right here.”

sidney paget holmes 2I think there’s something great about that. It doesn’t mean our memory is getting worse, but it’s changing how we prioritize what we need to remember. Google really opens up a lot of possibilities if we use it wisely. Even Holmes had his filing system—he didn’t memorize every single case. He’d say, “Watson, give me the file on Mr. X,” because he knew he had all this information—he made the choice not to put all of it in his mind attic. So if we know that and use it productively, it can open up huge possibilities. The challenge is not relying on it too much, otherwise our brain attics become really empty. I find myself always thinking, I read this great piece…what was it? I’ve tried to become more active about encoding the pieces that I really want to have in my mind. I have noticed a tendency to forget if I know that it’s somewhere online, or in my e-mail.

Rumpus: My friends and I are always asking, “What was the name of that movie?” when we’re sitting around together, and someone (I do it often) rushes to their iPhone.

Konnikova: You make a really excellent point, which is that looking up right away is not the right thing to do. We should train our mind to try to find it. The best thing to do is to let the question lie and your mind will start working on it. The result is much more satisfying when you’re the one who came up with it, not your smartphone. I think we’ve become much less able to delay gratification because we have this instant gratification all the time. We know that we can get the answer right away. I think we’ve become much more impatient than we used to be.

Rumpus: It seems that the premium we place on speed, finding the answer immediately, can have wide-ranging implications, affecting everything from our own minds to how we report on news stories, especially in the age of social media.

Konnikova: It’s a bad evolution of the way that society works, the expectations that everyone has of one another and that we have of ourselves. We don’t spend the time we need to do things well. I’ve often been asked what I think about pressure interviews that give you problems to solve. My answer is that it depends on what you’re looking for, but normally it’s not a great idea, because if someone is a good thinker, they’re going to take time to reflect. I hope we learn to take a step back and slow down a little bit—speed comes at a great cognitive cost. We’re not as productive or as smart as we otherwise would be.

Rumpus: You say that the key lesson from reading this book should be for us all to step back and proceed with tasks more slowly, one thing at a time. Let’s talk about multitasking. As you’ve said, there’s actually no such thing as multitasking—you can only pay attention to one thing at a time. What we call multitasking is just rapidly switching our attention from task to task. But why is “multitasking” so difficult to overcome?

Konnikova: The modern version of multitasking feeds into our brains’ tendency to wander. There’s interesting work done by a team led by Dan Gilbert—they tried to look at mind-wandering, whether our minds stay in the present moment or if they really are always wandering. They were going off the theory that the mind’s default state is in mind-wandering, which makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary standpoint, where you’d need to pay attention to the environment in case there was some threat. The modern approach to multitasking makes it easy to indulge in our mind-wandering tendency because we have so many possible things to do.

sidney paget holmes 3There are two things that happen as a result. First, as you mentioned, multitasking doesn’t exist: it’s just task-switching. It’s incredibly cognitively challenging and depleting. Task-switching is really taxing. And when we do focus on one thing, we’re already starting at a lower point. Attention is a finite resource and you have to keep replenishing it. The other thing is that mind-wandering makes us unhappy. Our minds wander more than half of the time, and it doesn’t matter if what we’re doing is pleasant or not. Participants in the study received iPhone alerts asking what they were doing in that moment and whether they were thinking about something other than what they were doing. It turns out that what we’re doing doesn’t make a difference in whether our minds wander. And when our minds are wandering, we’re far less happy than when we’re focused on the present moment and engaged in what we’re doing. I don’t think people realize this. There’s a strong link between depression and a serious lack of concentration.

Rumpus: I was actually a participant in that study—I would get those texts and e-mails asking, “What are you doing right now?” I’d get them crossing the street or wherever, and wouldn’t always feel like answering. But they actually did make me think, Wait, am I happy in this moment? It’s interesting to assess yourself.

Konnikova: It’s interesting to think that we don’t normally ask ourselves these questions. It’s not something you stop to ask: Am I happy now? Am I happy now?

Rumpus: In a piece for Slate you talk about being “desperately chained to your online self,” which I loved, because it’s so true. What did that realization teach you about yourself and how to overcome this obstacle?

Konnikova: Oh man, that was really not a good realization! I have always prided myself on having high self-control. When I started working on the book, I’d been writing full-time for a number of years, so I thought, I can do this. I didn’t think I needed anything to guide my behavior. I was so upset with myself when I realized what I was doing.

The biggest realization came when I downloaded the trial version of Freedom, the software that blocks the Internet. I thought, I’m not going to pay for it, I’m just going to download the ten-day trial and see how it works. I thought it seemed like a fun idea. Probably, my unconscious mind realized I needed it, but my conscious mind was saying, Of course you don’t need this, you have very high self control. I turned on the program for two hours, and it wasn’t five minutes before I found my hands going to the key combination that opens my e-mail. I was like, Oh my god, what am I doing! I saw how often I wanted to go online because every time I wanted to, I couldn’t. I couldn’t check my e-mail, I couldn’t check Twitter—I had to write.

It was scary to realize that I needed the software, that it was preventing me from every single time I stopped a sentence and wasn’t sure how to continue, going straight to the Internet. Instead of embracing that moment, like I should’ve done, I was filling it with something like e-mail, which is not the right approach. I was far more dependent on it than I thought I was. Your mind makes excuses for why you need to go online, like, Oh, I need to look up this fact right away. And I realized, no, I don’t. I can look it up when I’m done with writing. I can put a little “to come” sticker or highlight it and return to it. It’s just a procrastination tactic that we use to justify bad behavior. It made me much more aware of how little I’d come to trust myself and how much I relied on these bad habits I write about in the book. I was trying to fill time, when it would’ve been better to sit quietly.


Hope Reese is a freelance writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky. She contributes to TheAtlantic.com, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. Find her online at hopereese.com or follow her on Twitter @hope_reese. More from this author →