His book is divided in two. The first part describes much of his own pioneering work, including the use of MRI scans to explore the development of the brain in very young children. It is perhaps too bold in linking the biochemical processes in the brain to precisely how that demonstrates learning or behaviour. In the second half, there is less sourcing and arguably too great a certainty in his summaries of sweeping conclusions drawn from wider scientific literature.
Yet this is a readable work, well translated from the French with some touching references to his upbringing, from the cult film La Jetée to the writing of Daniel Pennac, who describes helplessness at school in the system of “grades as punishment”.
In his last 100 pages, Dehaene turns to how learning can be improved. His “four pillars” — attention, active engagement, error feedback and consolidation through sleep — are not novel ideas, but they are grounded in how the brain really works. Prioritising them could have significant real-world results. Attention is particularly interesting, partly because artificial intelligence still struggles to direct it efficiently. An AI algorithm tends to look at all the data, while human brains rapidly focus on what is relevant.