How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is one of the greatest (fictional) minds in our history, and was recently reinvigorated by Robert Downy Jr. with a smattering of fisticuffs and banter. However, something that has remained timeless about this eccentric genius (Holmes, not Downey), is his ability to mentally devastate even seemingly insurmountable mental obstacles by carefully, methodically, and creatively picking them apart. Wouldn’t you like to do that, too? Well, we already helped you with how to kick ass, so now you should consider how to train your brain to think like Sherlock Holmes.

Improve your observation skills

Sherlock Holmes has a brilliantly synthetic mind; that is, he can put all the pieces together in a way most others cannot. However, the first step to his doing this is having all the right pieces in the first place. That’s where his unparalleled observational skills come in handy. His ability to encounter a scene and test his memory of it later is critical to his crime-solving abilities.  Other than practice, there are a few things you should do to make yourself more mindful of your surroundings, though practice remains important.  Try these techniques. 


- Observe in 4 dimensions. Rather than walk with your nose slanted downward, make a point about observing what is above, below, and too the sides of you at all times. The fourth dimension, of course, is time – when those things are in the places they are.

- Count off all 5 senses every 5 minutes. Every 5 minutes, when you’re trying to soak up a particular scene, consciously ask yourself what you see, then what you hear, what you smell taste and feel. 

- Talk it out. When you vocalize what you’re observing, you’re more likely to remember it. Studies have suggested that the vocal chords stimulate your memory (naturally), so saying things out loud may seem silly, but it works.

Exercise: It’s hard to do this on your own without cheating, so enlist the help of your own personal Watson. At randomized intervals, have them ask you questions about your surroundings minutes before. Things like the color of a napkin or the number of people in a bank tellers line. Continue for two weeks at least as that is the length of time the human mind takes to internalize a habit.


Improve your reasoning

There are two types of reasoning that exist and that Holmes employs: inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is the type that relies on a few observations to reach a general conclusion. It’s (kind of) like the scientific method. It’s like saying that you saw that tennis ball moves when you hit it with a tennis racket, so surely all tennis balls move when you hit them with any tennis racket. Basically, it uses facts to allow for prediction. Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, uses facts to state something that isn’t necessarily predictive as it is descriptive. It’s the sort of thing that debates are made of – Men are mortal, Socrates was a man, so Socrates is mortal. You get the idea. Here’s how to get better at them both.


- Take emotion out of it. Analyze the facts and propositions involved in your inquiry coolly and unexcitedly – like a coroner might look at a body.

- Buy a book. There are plenty of logic game books available. Here is one of our favorites.

- Take a class. There is an entire formal field of philosophy dedicated to logic. It’s got its own language, it’s own writing system, and it takes formal instruction to truly grasp it. Here’s a free online course from MIT.

Exercise: There’s lots of logic problems like these (here). Try this one yourself then take a course. 

[T]he ideas in poetry are usually stale and often false and (2) no one older than sixteen would find it worth his while to read poetry merely for what it says. (George Boas, Philosophy and Poetry (Wheaton College, Mass.: 1932) Answer

Improve your lateral thinking

This is a term coined in the 60s by Edward de Bono, and it roughly means to think outside the box. All of the same observational, analytical, and logical tips above still apply, but this type of thinking implements a sort of sideways or creative approach to problems. Typically, this is the result of rejecting assumptions and working from the ground up. A good example in the recent Sherlock Holmes movie is when Holmes figures out how a corpse could come back to life to burst out of a grave when at least two of the things that action is predicated on were false. 


- Before you begin solving a particular problem, discard as many assumptions as you possibly can. This is how Google invented Google Wave: by asking what email would be like if it hadn’t already been invented, and was invented today.  

- Do a lot of puzzles. Word games are good for this, but there are several math and spatially-oriented puzzles in books like this.

- Solve and ask a lot of riddles. A great game for this used to be available called Mindtrap. If you can get your hands on it cheap, buy it, otherwise just Google ‘riddles.’

Exercise: Apply a random concept to whatever you are thinking about in order to shine new light on it. Say you are trying to conceive of how a seemingly dead man could possibly have garnered the strength to burst from his own grave without supernatural interference. Flip to a random page in the dictionary and find (we actually flipped) the word ‘fragrance.’ Now, force your mind to think how that word might have anything to do with the above situation.