Lessons from Sherlock Holmes on How to Think, or The Mind Palace

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most interesting characters in detective fiction, not because of his silly hat, or his endearing relationship with John Watson, but because of his methodology for thinking. He even proves an excellent model for cognitive scientists and psychologists to study. As we begin the study of the mind, and specifically the process of thinking, there is one overriding metaphor we must use. I borrowed it from the dear detective, who was the first to start to enlighten me to what I’m about to say.

Sherlock calls his mind a “brain attic,” which the BBC production of Sherlock Holmes turned into “mind palace.” In this attic, or palace, ideas exist as furniture, boxes, and bits of regular attic junk. When Sherlock is faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem, he gets somewhere quiet, dark, and alone, and ascends into his mind palace where he stores everything he’s ever learned. Some areas of the mind palace are well-lit and regularly traveled while others are dark, dank, and covered with a thin patina of disuse. Sherlock seems to have cracked the code because his mind palace is thoroughly real, organized, mastered, and readily available.

These four aspects are what I want to zero in on because I think they are the most important to the process of thinking. To reverse the current trends in America and become one of the few who can successfully think their way out of a paper bag, you’ve got to master these four aspects of your mind palace. The problem is, the palace has distinct default settings, just like an attic does. It is full of rotten furniture, empty boxes, and entire rooms filled with unknown clutter, shrouded by darkness. It gets cluttered really quick. It gets dusty and things fall out of order. Your mind palace, like the world around you, is subject to entropy, and it is your duty to keep it in shape.

That duty is something most people run from, after all, it isn’t necessary to have a clean attic in order to have a well-functioning house below, right? No one sees the attic, so it doesn’t abide by social norms and rules–no accountability; or, so the argument goes. Pragmatism. How classically American of you. The point is, people avoid thinking at all costs. But when they do think, they stick to their few well-lit, well-traveled rooms–usually rooms filled with patterns and routines they have history with. Their furniture may be listing to the side with a film of patina all over it, but they are used to it, and so they become numb to it–out of sight, out of mind.

The problem with this, to take a quick detour, is that this creates people who don’t really think, they just enact patterns. In comes a stimulus that needs handling, and out goes the pattern of actions required to solve it. Done. But this isn’t human. This is what zombies and robots do. These people are happy being robots when they have the genetic makeup and inherent ability to think, make decisions, be creative, connect what before was unconnected, in a word: to act like God. This entire series presupposes the fact that you, as my reader, value intelligence and excellence, and you realize that life is more than patterns and stories, it’s about making well-informed calculated decisions which change the world in some way. And if you don’t want to end up drinking somebody else’s Kool-Aid, you’re going to need to implement these principles and make them a top priority.

Your mind palace is always changing. Unfortunately, its default setting is the same as the world’s: chaos. And since you see that and know it is up to you to reverse the chaos, let’s talk about what you are up against.

What is a mind palace, really?

Your mind is the center of your reality. If you think the world is flat, then to you, it is, irregardless of how round it may be, really. You convince yourself of how things are by making mental models of the world around you. These mental models are what comprise your knowledge-base, and when you lack a mental model–as I do with, say, quantum physics–then you are totally unaware of the way things are in that area. Those things may be so in the world around you, but since you don’t have a representative mental model, it is nowhere in your mind palace, therefore, to you, it’s as if it doesn’t even exist.

A metaphor commonly used to discuss mental models is story. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of life. Our mental models are really stories of how the things really are in the world around us. Since we are human, we tell stories from only one angle. It’s part of our being limited and finite. Being finite definitionally means we jump to conclusions that are short-sighted, thus leaving us bent in one direction or another. And since we are proud, emotional creatures, we hold onto those biases as if they were capital-T Truth. We go to war over our mental models (our stories), rarely ever measuring those stories against capital-T Truth to see if what we believe is right or wrong.

"Rule your mind or it will rule you. ~Horace"

Our culture is shaped by the way we view the world, and that vision shapes our actions. Not only are we finite, proud, and emotional, we are also deadly loyal to self. We believe what we believe to be true, no matter what the evidence suggests. That’s why propaganda works. If you can indoctrinate people with stories that aren’t true, convincing them they are in fact true, you’ve just brainwashed them. For example, if you want to start a war between the state of California and animals, all you have to do is go on a massive propaganda campaign in order to brainwash those green-thinkers with the way you think animals really are–how horrid, cruel, dead-eyed and stink-brained they are. You try to convince them of your story (that animals must die); you try to infiltrate their brain attics with new furniture in hopes they accept them and throw out their old ones. You tell them (or, rather, you sell them) stories that contradict their own, and if you can convince them it was their idea to start with, you’re into Inception.

Another thing about us humans is that we are sure we are right–another pride thing. And so, if you are skilled enough to convince me that it was my idea that animals must die, I will go to any length to protect that idea. If someone pushes me for reasons, I’ll make up stuff in an attempt to convince not just them but myself that what I believe is a viable option–despite the evidence.

By default our brain attics are messy, dusty, chaotic, and eager to change without any reason whatsoever. Think about it. The entire marketing world depends on your impressionability. If you see an incredible advertisement for a can of soup, and it features a whole family laughing and getting along together, you want that soup, even if you won’t admit it. When you see the soup, you feel the story (happiness, family, union, fellowship, food and love). Our default setting is to parrot knowledge. We hear something we like and we spit it right back out at our friend-group, gratified by their admiration for such a deep quote. But it wasn’t about the quote or the truth behind it, it was about how it made us look. The moral of the story: if you couch your idea in enough pleasing rhetoric you can convince people to do just about anything, because most people aren’t really thinking, they are just parroting what is socially more acceptable, least painful, and most beneficial for their self-image.

ROMA: Learning to handle your own brain

We have to reverse this trend. We need people who can think their way out of a paper bag. Religion has been accused (and most of the time, rightly so) of giving brain-dead people lies couched in pleasing rhetoric. But that is not the sole fault of religion, that is the fault of evil people using religion to their gain. But how are we as free-thinking, fully-human independent agents to steer clear of this error? How are we to know that we know what really is capital-T Truth? Let’s go back to our four aspects of the mind palace. In the future I will flesh these out individually as the tag “thinking” continues to grow.

1. Reality: Banishing your rot and emptiness

Since you are human, your mind palace is filled with rotten furniture and empty boxes. Both give the appearance of substance, but both are lies you tell yourself in order to feel good about yourself. Furniture gets rotten when you don’t maintain it, when you don’t spend the time to get to know it and what it needs from you in order to stay solid and functioning. Boxes get empty when you don’t ever open them up, assess what’s really in there, and what you need in order to fill them.

A simple example of this in the evangelical sub-culture is what J. I. Packer calls writing blank checks.[1] Packer’s point is that we, like any other subculture, have jargon. We talk about specialized concepts which non-religious people have no familiarity with, and, that we ourselves sometimes don’t even grasp. This is one of my main burdens for the American church. We say we pray, that we study our Bibles, that we love you, and we encourage each other to just have faith, to hope in God, to place all your cares on Him, and we pray for God to increase our faith, but really, we don’t know what any of those words really mean.

If God were to answer us by saying, “Ok, I will do that for you if you can give me the necessary next-action steps to fulfilling your dream,” then we’d scramble around for new answers, fresh explanations, and with renewed rigor we’d plunge back into our Bibles with a real, tangible agenda: to see the clues God has given us and find out how this business of sanctification works so we can ask Him for exactly what it takes for spiritual growth. American Christians have been lulled to sleep in the 20th century by (mostly) well-meaning ignorant evangelists, starting with the Great Awakening movements, and our reward for our generational laziness is brain-rot.

Take this concept to its more general conclusion, and you’ll begin to see that you know very little at all about life, about the way the world works, and that is why you run from your ignorance. You see the furniture that is rotten, the boxes that are empty, the rooms that are dark and dank, and you run past them, happier to maintain your illusion that they are all solid, filled, and organized, than face the truth that you aren’t as smart or able as you believe yourself to be. This is the main reason why people are afraid of being alone. Boredom sets in because they are trapped in their own minds, confined to the one or two rooms they are comfortable in.

In your haste to be free from the oppression of ignorance you have confined yourself to two rooms of your mind palace. You’ve chosen to confine yourself to a couple rooms. You’ve chosen confined slavery over unbounded freedom all because you can’t let go of your own opinions about yourself. Who is the dictator now? The educator who pushes you to change, or your self, who confines you from change?

Go take a good look around. Explore your mind palace. You’ll begin to see what I’m saying is true. Why could Sherlock sit still for hours without moving, happily engaged in deep thought, while we millennials can’t stand to be alone for 5 minutes?

The process of banishing brain rot is not simple, nor is it easy. It takes hard work and dedicated sacrifice. You’ve got to want it bad. Remember, your default setting is to use life itself as a recurring means of proving to yourself that you are in fact as smart, suave, and super as you think you are, or hope everyone else thinks you are. Everyone knows that pride is the enemy of learning (Prov 3:34 [cf. Jam 4:6]).

2. Organization: Decluttering the chaos

Everyone has tons of junk in their attic. We live in the information age, for goodness sake. You’ve got more up there than you will ever use, and that is the main problem. My generation is known for our narcissism and addiction to the drug of self, social media, the fear of missing out (FOMO), and information. We need a constant stream of data, otherwise we descend into depression and unmeaning. Our very lives are propped up by our clutter. It’s as if our mind palaces are jam-packed with these little tupperware containers which last a few days and then disappear, and we are deathly scared of being alone. So we pile in more boxes, more, more, more, but the cycle never ends.

The sign of a mature man or woman is that he or she is comfortable being alone with themselves. But pop culture is telling a different story. We’d rather have information over understanding, entertainment over education. “Better” is faster, easier, and more fun, and we need better life, every day. But the problem is life isn’t about all that. Life is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We have to let go of our busyness and our clutter in order to accept a streamlined agenda of what we can and can’t accomplish, and what’s more, we need a reason to accomplish things that are hard.

I think the first step toward this is implementing something like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. It is really just a process of staying clear, organized, and uncluttered. Think of it as a foyer for your mind palace which functions as the inbox to your life. Everything comes in and out of there, and once you’ve developed clarity and organization, GTD helps you stay on top of it. See my introduction to GTD here.

3. Mastery: Owning your own ideas

In your mental palace, you have ideas there that were given to you by someone smarter than you–college professors, authors, speakers, YouTubers. Whole pieces of furniture were shipped in fully installed, prefabricated, and it’s your job as gatekeeper of your palace to make sure you live with them in integrity. You’ve got to fight for those pieces, not to build them up from scratch, but to take them apart, see how they work, and then build them up again. This is what it takes to maintain intellectual integrity. Without that process all you’re doing is doing what a parrot does: parroting meaningless words. Learning is discovery, and whether it is aided or unaided, it must be discovery, not rote memorization of data.

There are two types of people. Those who finagle every situation so that they get the credit, and those who don’t care who in the world gets the credit. There are those who use life as a podium for self, and those who use it as a platform for philanthropy. An example of the former is Hollywood, and an example of the latter is Ronald Reagan. On his desk he had a plaque with this quote, “There is no limit to what a man can achieve if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”

The first kind are people who parrot ideas, glomming onto every passing word and phrase they think looks fancy so that everyone is intimidated by their apparent mastery of the subject. The latter kind are people who don’t care what anyone says or thinks, they are just absorbed in trying to solve the problems. The former are the type who hate to read because it’s boring, the latter steal time away from entertainment in order to read more because they can’t get it out of their heads. The former use knowledge for their ends, the latter lets what they learn change their lives. The former bend the world to match their mental models, the latter break their hard-earned mental models, repeatedly, in order to be more like the capital-T Truth of the world.

The former are frauds, the latter are authentic. The problem is, our default setting is proud, selfish, fraudulent, subversive, and most of all, lazy. Parroting ideas is our bread and butter. This is a problem. And since you know that your ideas shape your mental models which shape your worldview which determines what you believe which motivates how you act, it is a moral imperative that you get control of your ideas. You must learn to master truth. Who knows, that sofa you just got may have a bomb in it, and if you don’t process it, you won’t know until it is too late. That is the very thing ISIS is relying on right now. They believe what they are doing is right, but their mental models do not coincide with reality–and they don’t even know it.

4. Availability: Memorizing for recall

This is all quite a heavy load to consider for the first time. But the heaviness comes in the realization that this is a recurring thing. This isn’t something you check off on a to-do list. This is a lifestyle, a pattern, and it is something you will fight for your entire life. Your goal in life is to maintain order amid the chaos of your mind palace. You have three main duties: challenge your thinking (this banishes brain rot and makes sure your owning your own ideas), process and organize what you ingest (this maintains organization and prioritization), and finally, memorization.

"Memory is a by-product of sense-perception; understanding, an act of the intellect." ~Mortimer Adler

You need to memorize things. Just because I read a book on building rockets doesn’t mean I’m now a rocket scientist. Availability and recall are the key buzzwords here. You need to be able to have instant recall to the actual facts, the capital-T Truth about stuff, and your recall is limited by your memory. Since your memory is limited by your coding agenda and your repetition, maintaining order is not just a recurring checklist either, it is a philosophy, an entire way of learning and thinking. It is at the core of the discipline of mastery. This I hope to address in the series “Education.” More on that later.

Start giving some thought to thinking

You have a moral obligation to be like Sherlock, to at least try to be better at thinking and analyzing your own thoughts. If you wonder why you do what you do, and yet confine yourself to one room of your mind palace, you are wasting your time. As Christians, we can pray that God will illuminate our hearts and minds with the capital-T Truth, but if we don’t work it out ourselves, if we don’t learn how the process really works, we are telling God we expect a miracle from Him, but aren’t willing to do the work ourselves. That’s a bum deal that takes your relationship with the divine and makes it all about you.

I want your mind palace to be thoroughly real with no brain rot, organized with no clutter, mastered with no borrowed thoughts, and readily available with no buried treasure. And it’s my goal to get you there in this series on “Thinking.”

Sources: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. For more info, read this excellent post on Farnam Street Blog.