How to Develop Sherlock Holmes-Like Powers of Observation and Deduction

Nov 16, 2012

If there’s one spy skill we all envy, it’s the Sherlock Holmes-like ability to quickly read a situation and come up with a theory that explains it (like the toothpaste stain that reveals your co-worker overslept, or the nervous twitch that shows your friend drank too much). Luckily, anyone can hone these same skills, and it isn’t that hard. Here’s how to do it.

Observing people and situations is an incredibly valuable tool. It gives you the ability to notice subtle cues during conversations, job interviews, presentations, and anywhere else so you can react to situations more tactfully. These are the trademark tools of Sherlock Holmes, as well as modern day detectives you see on TV shows like Psych, Monk, or The Mentalist. To figure out how to train your brain for Sherlock Holmes-esque intuition, I spoke with journalist and psychologist Maria Konnikova, author of the upcoming book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. The two core values of Holmes’ skills are simple: observation and deduction.

Increase Your Powers of Observation

Most of us don’t pay attention to the world around us. What makes a detective good is the ability to notice small details. Konnikova suggests this is all about building the habit of being mindful of your surroundings:

It’s not a superhuman ability. It’s important to note when talking about Holmes that he has spent a lifetime cultivating the habits of mindfulness. So it’s not like he was just born with this ability to be in touch with the world. What we choose to notice or not notice is a way of framing it in our own mind. We have a lot of bad habits in our mind, and we have to retrain ourselves to really notice the world. Everything we do rewires the brain, but we can rewire it in a way that mindfulness eventually becomes less of an effort.

Our worst habit is that we simply don’t pay attention. We’re always trying to get things done quickly, and because of that, we lose the childlike wonder of focusing in on the smaller details and asking “why is that there?” So, like any habit, increasing your powers of observation means first identifying your bad habit (you prioritize getting things done fast and miss the smaller details), and cultivating new habits (slowing down and paying attention). The first step is to just stop and pay attention every once and awhile, but here are a few things you can do to train your brain along the way.

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