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A neuroscientist delves into the science of self-help

In ‘This Book Could Fix Your Life’, scientist and science writer Helen Thomson explores the often surprising truths behind things that are said to improve us

How do self-help tools really work?
How do self-help tools really work? (Katie Rodriguez/Unsplash)

As a self-confessed skeptic about most self-help books and programs that promise total transformation if you follow their guidance, science journalist Helen Thomson’s decision to name her own self-help book ‘This Book Could Fix Your Life’ feels laced with more than a little irony. It’s as if the author is saying ‘ I know tons of books promise to do that, but this? This really will’.

Whether she delivers on her promise or not depends on your ask. If you want your self-help books to tell you how to live your life or at least how to think about it for optimum mental peace—at the very least give you a sort of mantra, like learning the “subtle art of not giving a f*ck”—this book is not for you. It doesn’t so much as tell you how to live better as tell you how the things that are supposed to help you live better—therapy, meditation, antidepressants, good sleep, good relationships— actually work. The book aims to tell the reader more about the science of self-help, and in the pantheon of self-help literature, this feels like a unique approach.

In the introduction to her book, Thomson explains how she got here: “I’ve lost count of the the number of times I’ve read about some novel philosophy that guarantees a happier life, a brilliant new exercise routine promising maximum results with minimal effort, or a brain-training app that helps you to improve your willpower, attention or creativity. Most times, I find myself mentally screaming, ‘Has anyone actually checked that this works?”

Through chapters titled in a style that sounds like more ironic commentary on the self-help canon—‘How Not To worry’, ‘How To Be Happy’, ‘How to Find Love’—Thomson explores themes like stress, anxiety, happiness, confidence, love and friendship, intelligence, and fitness through the lenses of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience. Thomson has a degree in neuroscience, and her previous book, Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World's Strangest Brains, delved into the human brain's quirks through the stories of nine people with extraordinarily rare aberrations of the brain, from a man who thinks he's a tiger to the doctor who feels the pain of others just by looking at them to a woman who hears music that’s not there.

Given her training as both a neuroscientist and a journalist, in this book Thomson is able to parse thousands of studies which are the result of a collective effort by scientists, from nutritionists to geneticists, to investigate and test the ways that we can improve our lives. Her problem with most self-help is that it is a lot of mumbo-jumbo, which feels redundant and unnecessary when science actually has most of the answers.

This book does reveal some of those answers, and yes, it may even come close to fixing your life.

This Book Could Fix Your Life: The Science of Self-Help by Helen Thomson; available from Hachette India;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
This Book Could Fix Your Life: The Science of Self-Help by Helen Thomson; available from Hachette India; 599

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