Maria Popova has an amazing breakdown of Maria Konnikova’s new book Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes. The fictional detective was a crime-solving case study in the limits of human mindfulness and observation. Can any mere mortal actually train their own mind to observe as he did?
It turns out that our attention spans are a bit paradoxical. Being a better observer might seem at first to be about taking in and processing all the information that you can. However, our minds have evolved to filter out a great deal of the sensory input (and noise) around us. Multi-tasking and division of our attention only seems to impair our mindfulness and creativity:
Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another. Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in that same room. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity. Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time. One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other — or others — more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out. Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.
Becoming a more thoughtful observer of the world around us is more about observing better, not observing more. It’s about being selective and engaged simultaneously, and taking time out to do one single thing, and do it well.
In my efforts to become more Sherlockish, I’m already well on my way to “strikingly handsome Cumberbatchian looks”, so I guess it’s time to begin training the brain! There are so many more great tidbits about attention and observation over at Brain Pickings. Do check them out. I’ll be picking up this book as soon as I can.