Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. Don’t let your mind wander.

The crowded Jepson Alumni Center becomes perfectly quiet as the audience centers its mind on the simple act of breathing. Inhale. Exhale. In. Out. Long moments creep by. Finally, psychologist and bestselling author Maria Konnikova calls captivated audience members back from their reveries.

“That was 20 seconds,” said Konnikova.

In the opening of her presentation “How to Make Smarter Choices,” Konnikova has shown her audience exactly how unfamiliar and uncomfortable practicing mindfulness can be in a fast-paced culture that values multitasking.

“It’s called switch-tasking,” said Konnikova, and according to the psychologist, it is hurting our critical-thinking and decision-making abilities. That is why the Konnikova is encouraging audience members to take time to be alone with their thoughts.

Konnikova, who delivered the first lecture in the 2015-16 Jepson Leadership Forum series “The Fix: Health, Science, and the Future,” used the famed fictional detective Sherlock Holmes to translate concepts from modern psychology to reach her audience, pointing to Holmes’ mindful observation and his careful, logical examination of facts as a methodology for thinking more clearly and making better informed decisions.

Konnikova’s decision to use Holmes as a model for her research was a “fortuitous accident.” In a conversation with Jepson professor Al Goethals before the lecture, Konnikova, who describes herself as someone who was not a “lifelong Sherlockian,” said, “What came to mind wasn’t actually one of Langer’s studies [on mindfulness] but this scene from Sherlock Holmes where Holmes asks Watson how many steps lead up to 221B Baker Street. And Watson doesn’t know.”

Konnikova’s message is that we can fall into the pattern of thinking like Watson—we see, but we don’t observe. By striving to think more like Holmes, we can start to change that. So how does the methodology work?

“Memory is an art,” Konnikova told Goethals.

As we observe more closely, we can more carefully code our memories to create an “organized brain attic," which enables us to draw upon our knowledge and use logic to make smarter decisions. Konnikova’s dynamic presentation led audience members through a series of questions to show how these principles can be applied to everyday life—from making potentially life-altering decisions to deciding which cell phone would be a better buy.

 “It’s never too late to start learning,” Konnikova reminded the audience. “Keep your brain growing. Keep your brain nimble.”


The Jepson Leadership Forum lecture series will continue in October when paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman, a professor at Harvard University whose research focuses on the look and function of the human body, will present “Is Exercise the Best Medicine?” 


Conversation with Maria Konnikova