The 3-Pipe Solution: The Underrated Creativity of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes is often portrayed as a mechanical logician, but his approach depends more on outside-the-box thinking that, according to modern research, really does help solve problems.

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Warner Bros.

When most people think of Sherlock Holmes, they see a paragon of calculating logic: a chilly, computer-like machine with endless powers of reason. As the UK's Telegraph put it, "If Holmes is not cold, inhumanly calculating ... he's just not Holmes"—echoing the words of such prior Holmesians as David Grann, who wrote in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes that "Holmes is a cold, calculating machine, a man who is, as one critic put it, 'a tracker, a hunter-down, a combination of bloodhound, pointer, and bull-dog." Even Holmes's creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, tried to dismiss him as "inhuman as a Babbage's calculating machine" when he tired of his creation, just a year before he tried to kill him off entirely in "The Final Problem." But in reality, that perception is far from the truth. In working on my new book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, it occurred to me that what allows the detective to attain the heights of deduction that he does is the very thing a computer lacks entirely: the power of imagination.

Consider: When Sherlock Holmes is asked to investigate a mysterious death on the shores of a small village in Sussex, he realizes that the cold-blooded, vicious murderer—the victim has terrible weals all along his back, "as though he had been terribly flogged"—is not exactly of the human variety. While the police focus their efforts on Ian Murdoch, a competitor for the affections of the dead man's fiancée, Holmes follows instead a lead of a different sort: the dead man's last words, "lion's mane." Those words, in turn, lead him to the real killer, none other than a deadly jellyfish.

How does Holmes come upon his solution? He not only opens his mind to the possibility of the nonlinear and improbable, the very hallmarks of creativity, but he makes certain that he has that mind stocked with the most esoteric of knowledge. It's easy to remember Holmes's famous rant to Dr. Watson on the necessity of keeping a pristine mind attic (Holmes's metaphor for the human mind). Far harder is recalling the major asterisk that is attached to that warning: A mind attic is only as useful as its contents and how you use them. If you store only the essentials, and follow only the most obvious path, you can be a t-crossing, i-dotting Scotland Yard detective bar none, but aren't likely to advance much beyond that. Your mind will never be able to make those elusive connections that could lead you to identifying a fish as a killer if you don't have the requisite knowledge base to begin with—and if you aren't willing to risk the possibility of letting a killer go free while you take the time to figure things out.

We remember Holmes's organized logic. We forget that in his mind space, there dwell not only jellyfish with stings that kill, but polyphonic motets and obscure paintings, tomes on bee keeping and discussions of philosophy. Holmes knows that the earth goes round the sun, and then some. And he isn't afraid to employ that knowledge in a non-traditional way. How can he discover the real killer unless he is willing to consider a possibility so seemingly outlandish that it makes him look like a doddering old man? Over and over, his is not the approach of a ruthless logician, but rather one of someone who knows all too well the power of the creative mind.

Why, then, do we tend to forget this essential element of Holmes's approach? As it turns out, it's not at all uncommon to sweep aside the uncertainty of imaginative meandering in favor of the certainty of hard science. Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman often expressed surprise at just how often people did that very thing: forget how central creativity is to the scientific method. "It is surprising that people do not believe that there is imagination in science," he once told an audience, echoing the lament of fellow physicist Albert Einstein who, too, bemoaned our propensity to embrace logic at the expense of imagination and intuition—and did so as early as 1929. Now, there is evidence that this tendency to dismiss the imagination of the scientific approach goes much deeper than mere observation. In their frustration, Feynman and Einstein captured what appears to be a basic tendency of the human mind.

In 2011, a team of psychologists led by Jennifer Mueller decided to test a common paradox: Even though we say we value creativity, we often tend to reject creative ideas. The problem, they hypothesized, might lie in our inherent distrust of uncertainty. To test their assumption, they asked a group of participants to take part in a task known as the IAT, the implicit association test. Originally designed to test racial biases, the IAT has since been used to look at bias in any number of areas—age, sex, weight, and the like—by measuring the time it takes for someone to react to a given characteristic that's been paired with a label of either "good" or "bad" by pressing a previously designated key. If we're slower to respond when the trait of interest is paired with negative labels than when it's paired with positive ones, that discrepancy is taken as evidence of bias. In this particular instance, the target concept was creativity.

The researchers first assigned participants to either a certain or an uncertain condition. In the one, subjects had no opportunity to earn extra money, while in the other, they were told that they would potentially receive extra payment, as determined by a future lottery. Both groups then completed the IAT, where creativity-related words, like "novel" or "original," and practicality-related words, like "constructive" and "useful," were paired with positively and negatively valenced stimuli, like "rainbow" and "vomit," respectively. They were then asked to rate their explicit attitudes toward creativity.

What the psychologists discovered might seem counterintuitive, in the age of Apple and Steve Jobs's "Think Different" motto: When faced with uncertainty, we tend to be biased against creative thought. Despite their explicit assertions to the contrary, participants in the uncertain condition—the one in which they believed they had a chance to win money—repeatedly favored practicality over creativity.

Perhaps it's not so surprising, then, that we forget the very thing that makes Holmes, Holmes: his willingness to embrace that uncertain path. The view of Holmes-as-machine is both simpler and safer. It is a line of thinking more in tune with our implicit biases than its alternative—after all, isn't the world as uncertain a place as they come?

Creativity requires novelty. Imagination is all about counterfactuals and untested possibilities that don't yet exist. It is, in short, all about uncertainty. And uncertainty is as frightening as it is potentially embarrassing (there's never a guarantee of success, is there?). Why do you think Conan Doyle's inspectors are always so loath to depart from standard protocol, to do anything that might in the least endanger their investigation or delay it by even an instant? Holmes's imagination frightens them. They aren't willing to take a step back, pause in their headlong pursuit of the culprit, and see whether their path is in fact the best one to take.

But that shortsighted linearity need not be the status quo. After all, many a thinker realer than Holmes manages to overcome to overcome that fear of uncertainty and failure to come up with ideas of incredible daring and imaginative reach. So, how to master that unacknowledged predilection for the tried and true? The answer, once again, might come from Holmes's habits, specifically, from his practice of mindfulness.

When faced with a problem, Holmes often favors the three-pipe solution: Rather than spring into action, he sits with his pipe and allows his mind the time and space to process the case at hand. Such mindful concentration, new research shows, may lead to increased connectivity in the brain's default network, the connections that are active when our brain is in its so-called resting state, in between overt, directed activity. And that connectivity? It may, in turn, allow us to be more creative.

In a study published this fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Oslo found that connectivity in the default network was related to the quality of past recollection and future speculation in a group of more than 100 children and adolescents: The greater the neural ties, the better the subjects performed on a standard cue-word task, where they had to either recall a past event or imagine a future scenario as prompted by neutral prompts like "forest" or "travel."

Could increased creativity, then, be a mere quiet pipe away? If we rush too quickly to be scientific, to begin our experiment or catch our criminal as soon as possible, we risk never getting to the answer at all. But if we not only remember just how central imagination is to the very scientific method, but then make a habit of quietly reflecting on whatever problem confronts us instead of jumping right in, we may find ourselves over time becoming more creative to begin with, strengthening those very neural connections that will in turn allow us to arrest that jellyfish—and avoid the very embarrassment that we thought we'd escape by sticking only to the path of the tried and true.