Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mastermind

.I just finished an interesting book that uses a fictional character, albeit a world famous one, in getting the subject across - the technique of scientific thinking. Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional detective is used as a guide to develop a ‘mastermind’, in a non-fictional work loaded with interesting insight from a Harvard trained psychologist. Her prose is interesting at times but clinical and dense most of the time, possibly because her work started as a PhD thesis and evolved into a book. The author cites several writers whose work I admire like Daniel Pink, Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman- the Nobel Prize winning economist. Her work follows the trendy oeuvre of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Nassim Taleb and the writers of ‘Freakonomics’, intelligent books that dispel common truths and deliver counter-intuitive conclusions, opening a new world with the vision of new eyes, after revealing the ‘real truth’ behind the everyday fa├žade. These works attempt to explain or popularize new theories in economics, cognitive research, psychology, statistics and social science in a hip and modern style with a conscious attempt to avoid academic taint; oftentimes upending the prevailing wisdom

http://www.mariakonnikova.com/

Sherlock Holmes in my mind, typified the rigor of disciplined thinking, of pure logic, like Mr. Spock the Vulcan in Star Trek, transplanted in Victorian England to solve mysterious crimes. But the author goes farther than that, focusing on the idea of attention and stillness, more Eastern in theory than Western, but effective nevertheless. One of her statement is ‘the most powerful mind is a silent mind,’ a sentence that would not be misplaced in a Buddhist sutra or a Zen manuscript, which makes her writing all the more appealing, a mix of the standard Aristotelian logic and the mindfulness teachings of Buddhism. She points out that mindfulness and focus is the key, at the same time encouraging the mind to wander; to increase its stock of knowledge, a contradiction that would exist in any ‘koan’ or Buddhist aphorisms. Hence, Sherlock Holmes is revealed to be a modern version of a ‘mastermind’ that combines the scientific discipline of clear logical thinking and the mindfulness achieved through meditation and focus; recognizable to Eastern mystics or later day practitioners like Eckhart Tolle and Werner Erhard.

Perhaps it is her Russian background, where the east and west comingle, the influence of Europe and the renaissance coupled with the mysticism of Central Asia, where the blood of the Khans and the Moguls mixed with the Caucasian hue of Christian orthodoxy (like a journey to Harvard via Moscow). The concept of a ‘mastermind’ is an interesting idea that can be used for every day problem solving, at work or at any task, in correcting one’s thinking or removing cognitive bias; by improving meditation and mindfulness, thereby increasing productivity and reducing stress – ingredients of a readymade bestseller in the best tradition of DIY. What is the lesson for aspiring writers? I guess it is to create focus when writing, to use creativity and the imagination when creating stories and having the discipline to work (or to write regularly). The sections of her book offer a road toward developing a ‘mastermind’:

1.    Understand Yourself
2.    From Observation to Imagination
3.    Art of Deduction
4.    Science and Art of Self-Knowledge

As one can see in the outline, one does not normally associate these topics to solving crimes or scientific or logical thinking but to self-help works of improving one’s cognition as in psychological therapy. Nevertheless, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, original and enriching book.

During the weekend, as I rushed to finish reading the book, we watched a marathon 10 hours of Downton Abbey’s Season 3, a wonderful glimpse of English lords and their estates during and after the first world war, just about the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional detective at their peak. Downton Abbey is arguably one of the greatest series ever created, the portrayal of the English upper class is magnificent; not only the story of a certain family but the epitome of refinement and panache of a race of man, when the British Empire ruled the world with their application of clear logical thinking and their appreciation of Shakespeare with his keen understanding of politics and the ruling class (i.e. a glimpse inside their brain attic). To complete the circle, I also watched the classic Laurence Olivier’s film ‘Richard III’ and the Broadway play ‘Hamlet’ directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton, possibly the best Hamlet ever. To balance the whole picture, I am listening to Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ about India during the time of independence from England, an enjoyable book that should rank as a modern classic – a template for aspiring writers on the subject of national identity.

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