As I've been binging on the series Sherlock from the UK, I've been admiring of the skill the detective has in sherlocking to pull the pieces together and solve the mystery and the crime at the heart of the episode.  He even sherlocks when he's deducing background and information about a person.  It seems pretty incredible that a long hair on a short-haired person's coat can reveal the unhappy domestic life of the individual, leading them to an affair in tawdry hotels (revealed through the smell of cheap cigarette smoke emanating from the same coat), and other seemingly intimate details that are only shared with therapists and the closest of confidants.  Is it too good to be true?  Is the Mind Palace really just a figment of the author's imagination?  Or does it really exist?  Can someone sherlock for themselves?

I think the answer is yes.

In qualitative research, at least as we practice it, we look for those little details.  The contradictory clues that define the paradox in someone's story.  It helps us get to the truth of the matter.  You end up using your all of your senses so its not just hearing what is being said, but looking around the setting for additional clues, paying attention to body language, sensing with that 'sixth sense' what else is present in what's being said.

Of course, that's just the fact finding, the gathering of information.  Lots of little data points.

"To sherlock" is to identify the meaning in a pattern of pieces of information in a new and significant way.  It's about accessing the seemingly random pieces of information, seeing how they interlock together and create a larger story that hasn't been seen before.  And the newness of it - thinking about it in a way that hasn't been thought of before, becomes the real skill behind 'sherlocking'.

When I sherlock - I find it helps me see the 'Mind Palace' by jotting down the various pieces of information on individual index cards.  (SIDE NOTE: The Mind Palace is a real thing from Ancient Greece - here's a great guide on how to build one yourself.  I think of the Mind Palace as something different - more the accessing of information in the brain, not just a mnemonic tool to recall various facts.)

Sherlock in his Mind Palace
Sherlock in his Mind Palace

The act of writing down the information helps bring it forward and cement it, plus I can look at it endlessly.  As the information comes together, you can move the cards around, literally look at them upside down or from any perspective you desire.

Then I tend to move to whiteboarding.  Again, the kinesthetic learning act of writing it down helps me start to see the patterns and think about the interconnectedness of the information that is coming forward.

Whiteboarding in action
Whiteboarding in action

While sherlocking, I try not to edit myself too much.  Let the intuition flow uninterrupted.  This is the 'no idea is a bad idea' phase.  Let it come out and see how it links together.

Of course, contemplation is a chamber within the Mind Palace.  Stepping back and looking at the information.  Pondering it.  Sleeping on it.  Letting the data steep a bit.  Then, return to it with fresh eyes.

Having someone to bounce ideas off of also builds the power of your sherlocking skills.  After all, that's part of the role that Watson plays. The sounding board allows you to test your theory, have them (constructively) poke holes in it.  It helps you get to a stronger conclusion as well as finessing your skills for the next time.

Finally, have fun with it.  Fortunately you are, most likely, not solving a murder or curing cancer.  A little laughter can be liberating and also releases endorphins that can stimulate your thinking.

Give it a try and let us know how it goes.  If you need some help, just ask us. -Rob

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