Self help literature can be filled with clichés. If we’re not being told to “think positive”, then we’re hearing that health, wealth and happiness can be ours, if only we learn to know ourselves a little better.

Complete life satisfaction is possible, if we just got more in touch with our thoughts and feelings. It’s a genre that often urges you to better know what you think, but a new book by University of Guelph-Humber psychology professor Mandy Wintink wants you to learn more about how you think. In Self Science: A guide to the mind and your brain’s potential (Iguana Publishing), Dr. Wintink brings to bear the lessons of neuroscience to help the reader get a better understanding of their mental processes. She wants readers to understand all the ways their brain chemistry and patterns can affect them and their actions.

Dr. Wintink, though, isn’t just interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, she wants to show how neuroscience can improve your life. “With neuroscience, a lot of people are focusing on disease, health and prevention, but there’s a lot of wonderful everyday things that the brain does,” she says. “I want to help people to use their brains a bit better.”

By getting a better understanding of how our brains work, Dr. Wintink says we can be empowered to make better decisions and act differently. One of the most striking places we can feel this effect is when it comes to deciding whether to try something new or not.

“Most of us hate and fear failure, so we’ll sometimes avoid doing things because we don’t want to fail,” she says. “In the book, I talk about how failure is good and encourages us to change our behaviour.”

If, for example, you gave someone a baseball and had them try to throw it at a target, chances are they’d miss at first. And maybe again, and again, but each time they’ll likely improve a little, making the small changes needed for success.

“Your brain will learn and adjust, so you end up with greater accuracy. In fact, studies have shown that people with more errors to begin with end up doing better at the end – they were learning from their mistakes and improving,” she says. “Our brains are wired for trial and error, but first we need to try.” Dr. Wintink’s book also has an answer to the “think positive” cliché too. It may be trite advice, but there’s a kernel of truth to it.

“We often hear ‘be positive’, but it’s actually something we can train ourselves to do. If we’ve always looked at things from a negative perspective, our brain is trained to think that way. We can literally fail to see some of the positives,” she says. “If we can flip that and train our brain to do otherwise, we activate our neuroplasticity and change our brain.”

Neuroplasticity is the process that makes many of these changes possible. We used to think that the brain was malleable in youth, but became set in its ways by adulthood, but Dr. Wintink says that’s not the case.

By Andrew Stokes, University of Guelph-Humber