Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wisdom is not automatic

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, thinking, psychology

In his late 90's, Art Linkletter was asked the secret of his success interviewing children, most famously on his long-running TV program Art Linkletter's House Party. He said, "It's simple, but you probably can't do it: they must know that you are on the same intellectual level." With this gentle dig at himself he revealed that connecting with anyone is to reflect them. He knew he was just a big kid, and the kids could tell.

On a similar note, if someone could ask Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, or even the author Arthur Conan Doyle, what was the secret of his deductive abilities, I imagine him replying, "It's simple, but you probably can't do it: you must exclude no possibility without a reason to do so."

We are, by habit, quick to close doors and slow to open them. Our everyday language is full of door-closing phrases:
"I can't do that."
"This must be so."
"Why would you think that?"
"That is impossible."
"It won't work."
In the film The Help I found it extremely touching when the nanny holds a small girl and repeats to her, "You is good, You is Kind…" and so forth, and the girl trustingly repeats with her, "I am good, I am kind…" How can this fail to establish a helpful basis for the girl's character?

At this moment, I am less concerned with the things we tell our children than with what we tell ourselves. "What you think is what you get" could be a mantra for Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Having grown up hearing the Holmes stories read aloud by her father (and a great many other good books, she hints here and there), Ms Konnikova in eight chapters, jam-packed with examples and exhortations, shows us how to re-form our ways of thinking, and problem-solving in particular.

You and I may never need to solve a crime or find a kidnapped prince. We may never cross wits with a purblind and misguided police inspector. But our lives are full of conundrums big and small that a bit of Holmes-style thinking can help us resolve. It is more than just "thinking outside the box," though that is helpful; first we must know what the box is!

Throughout the book the author uses the analogy of an attic. In what state is our memory? Certainly, it contains thousands of things, but how are they stored? We're not talking psychobiology here but mental discipline. Continuing the analogy of an attic, or even better, a vast warehouse, how are its contents arranged? Is everything in piles like in the house of a hoarder, such that you can barely squeeze your way hither and yon to find things? Perhaps things are in boxes, but are things grouped with similar things or just jumbled together, box by box by myriads of boxes? Is anything labeled?

I think of interior views of the shelves in M5 on Mythbusters, such as this image. Jamie and Adam didn't rise to the top of the special-effects field by being sloppy curators of their "stuff". The boxes, bins and jars may exhibit a wondrous diversity of their own, but they are sorted alphabetically. I reckon that beats trying to sort them functionally; Jamie would need a taxonomy of function, and there would inevitably be an "Other" category that would soon grow out of control. Better this way. (But note in the bottom row that "Small Pumps" is misplaced. Would you sort that with S or P? Who knows how it got between T and U!)

Anyway, key #1 to Sherlock Holmes's method is having a mental attic with much of the "stuff" labeled and sorted. He is able to quickly retrieve what he needs.

This doesn't happen by accident. I suppose it will always be true that most of what we take in and retain (and we retain a very small percentage) is quickly strewn helter-skelter, and there is little we can do about that. It is probably one function of sleep to sort through recent new memories and nudge them this way and that into some sort of order. You and I may not consciously be good curators of our memories, but some amount of curation is carried out anyway. We must be thankful for that. But we are all different, and if that curation is too sloppy, we are called "scatterbrained" at best, and probably other, less flattering terms behind our backs.

But we read in Mastermind of observing with intention, of taking in what is most likely to be useful, then curating that properly. Like many others, I collect a number of things. My stamp collection is, for the most part, labeled and sorted. My minerals, not so much. I have a rather small number of minerals on display, a somewhat larger amount stored in boxes, but it is more of an accumulation than a collection. Then the books! There are a few thousand, and I have certain subsets well arranged in special places. The rest simply line the shelves of three rooms. One friend has at least this system: all his books are arranged by the color of the spine, so his main library is a rainbow. Another, now deceased, had a true library, with a Dewey Decimal notation in white ink on every book, and a card catalog in the corner. Now that is a collection!

A second key is the extent to which we allow our emotions free reign. In the Holmes stories, Dr. Watson is a kind of Everyman. He represents nearly all of us, jumping to a premature conclusion and then falling in love with it, which makes it quite impossible to proceed in any useful way. Let us remember the maxim that I foisted on Dr. Bell in my imagination: "Exclude no possibility without a reason to do so." Holmes is a master of the creative back-step. When formulating hypotheses he quite automatically pulls back to take in a wider view and be sure he is excluding nothing that might be useful. He (usually) did not allow his fondness for a neat explanation to deter him from discerning other explanations. Thus, when the first "neat" explanation is found wanting, he would have further avenues to explore. Watson-style thinking far too often confronts us with a blank wall and empty pockets.

Some people are openers, some are closers. Both are needed. More rare are those who can both open and close with equal ability. I am referring to opening up more and more possibilities in the early stages of a project or puzzle, followed by closing off one possibility after another as each is proved impossible or unfeasible, to drive to an appropriate conclusion. Holmes's most familiar dictum is, "When you have excluded everything that is impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." And suppose you have excluded everything you could think of? Time for more opening exercises. Conan Doyle has Holmes make a few mistakes, and they tend to be in this category: closing off possibilities too early or not thinking of them in the first place. If every avenue is blocked, back off and look for others. Oh, how loath we are to retrace our steps! Yet sometimes that is most necessary.

Later in the book Ms Konnikova dwells on the value of getting away. Holmes will sometimes simply go elsewhere for a day, or he might spend an hour playing violin (Einstein did so also, to world-changing effect!). Conscious mental effort is not always, or even usually, the most effective. I built a nearly 40-year career writing scientific software on the following practice: At the end of a period working, I'd focus on the most troubling puzzle (usually some algorithm that was hard to code) and deliberately arrange all the pertinent facts and parameters in my mind (closing my eyes lets me "write" on a mental "screen"), then sort of say, "Away with you, now" as I push it to "somewhere else" in my mind and go do something else. I might get something to eat, or talk to someone or, if it is late in the day, go home and sleep. I frequently awoke at 3 AM or so with a neat package on my mental doorstep, so I would write it all down, in earlier days, or log in and code it all out on the spot in later years.

Here and there in the book we find suggestions for exercising the mind, and it is easy to get overwhelmed and think, "Oh, it is all too much for me." Everything is too much for us if taken all at once. Remember how to eat an elephant: one forkful at a time…and it helps to have a large room full of chest freezers! We can do any number of things to improve the arrangement of our mental attic, to distance ourselves from over-fondness for first ideas, and to improve our skepticism for overly simple solutions. One thing at a time. Pick one, any one, and have a go at it. It is like learning to juggle, which nearly everyone can do with about 3 months of daily practice. It doesn't come in a single day. And once learned, it has to be continued by juggling at least once or twice a week, or the skill diminishes. No matter at what stage we are, we can improve. And that is what this author is telling us. In place of the door-closing statements above, let us tell ourselves,
"I can do that."
"There must be a solution somewhere."
"Why should this not be so?"
"It had to happen somehow."
"If a question is never asked, the answer is always NO. Ask!"

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