5 stars
Learning to love the learning brain

Are we born with brains that are blank slates waiting only to be filled with experience? And if so, why is it so difficult to simulate that same experience in a computer? Why can a sophisticated AI be easily tricked into thinking that a cat is guacamole or that a Granny Smith apple is an iPod? How have human brains managed to adapt to the diversity of environments across the globe, from the Stone Age to the Space Age?

In How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine … for Now, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene shows that the “blank slate” hypothesis does not withstand scrutiny. Our brains are equipped, from birth, with specialized neural circuits that shape a child’s intuitions about physics, arithmetic, geometry, and probability.

Dehaene cites a large body of research (including his own) that shows how young infants’ brains make sense of the world using this “core knowledge”. This research has forced a re-appraisal of older psychological models that have become popular wisdom:

Incidentally, these results overturn several tenets of a central theory of child development, that of the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). Piaget thought that young infants were not endowed with “object permanence”—the fact that objects continue to exist when they are no longer seen—until the end of the first year of life.

He also thought that the abstract concept of number was beyond children’s grasp for the first few years of life, and that they slowly learned it by progressively abstracting away from the more concrete measures of size, length, and density.

In reality, the opposite is true. Concepts of objects and numbers are fundamental features of our thoughts; they are part of the “core knowledge” with which we come into the world, and when combined, they enable us to formulate more complex thoughts. [p. 58]

Brains vs. Machines

Like a budding scientist, an infant’s brain forms predictions about the world and then adapts its wiring based on whether the predictions match reality. This neuroplasticity is powerful, but it is highest during early sensitive periods, and dependent on innate cognitive skills—a number sense, the ability to detect faces, to acquire languages, and so on.

Dehaene contrasts this with the current generation of artificial networks, which are closer to a “blank slate” on which the characteristics of a training dataset are gradually inscribed. As a result of this naive approach, AIs lack the human brain’s multifaceted reasoning skills—”for now”, as the book’s subtitle puts it.

Hinting at what tomorrow may bring, Dehaene cites examples of artificial neural networks modeled after human cognition. For instance, a 2008 algorithm for predicting the optimal structural representation of various datasets “rediscovered” human knowledge representations like the tree of life.

One may quibble with the author’s assertion that human brains learn “better” than machines, given that the latter have already excelled in specific domains. Just ask Go player Lee Sedol, who retired from professional play and called AI “an entity that cannot be defeated”.

A Theory of Learning

But the focus of the book are humans, not machines. The author’s goal is nothing less than a theory of learning that teachers, parents, and students can apply in practice. He suggests a model based on “four pillars of learning”: attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation.

From these four pillars he develops concrete recommendations for educators. Many of them may match the instincts of progressive teachers: anxiety and stress prevent learning; students need to be engaged as individuals; sleep is essential. However, Dehaene is highly critical of unassisted discovery learning and the popular idea of learning styles.

Dehaene does not take a one-sided view in the “nature versus nurture” debate; instead, he explains the complex interplay between our biology and the world we inhabit. Biological evolution has placed constraints on us, but it has also allowed us to reason about the workings of our own brains, and to journey to other planets.

The Verdict

As a whole, I highly recommend Dehaene’s book. As befits the subject, he is a great (occasionally witty) teacher who uses straightforward explanations and illustrations in order to systematically advance the reader’s understanding of a complex subject.

While I found the author’s level of certitude—when he talks about animal intelligence or learning styles, for example—a bit off-putting at times, that too can be the mark of a teacher in love with their subject. It is a passion he successfully passes on to the reader.


5 stars
Behind one mask after another, the stories of troubled souls

If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is a gift—literally. The indie game by Laura Hunt and Thomas Möhring is completely free, but you could easily mistake it for a commercial title. Its pixel art compares favorably both to classic point and click adventure games by LucasArts, and to modern ones like Kathy Rain. Möhring’s other credits include stunning concept art for the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, and each scene in the game feels like a small work of art in its own right.

The four titular travelers meet at a masquerade ball that takes place on a train in the late 1920s. Most of the story is told through flashbacks in which you experience a defining episode in the life of one of them. Behind their masks are troubled souls—as the player, can we only experience their stories, or change them? Like Italo Calvino’s book that inspired the game’s title, the game suggests that we interrogate it, not merely consume it.

This is not a lighthearted romp—think I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream, not Monkey Island. You’ll be confronted with themes like mental illness and homophobia, and with graphic depictions of violence. Hunt and Möhring invite us to put on a mask and imagine the lives of these characters, whose worlds come alive in the game’s art and music. For the soundtrack, the developers have drawn on freely available recordings of classical music and songs from the depicted era.

The protagonist of one of the stories walks through a dark hallway and knocks on a door. Light fills the hallway as a woman opens it.
Lighting effects and subtle animations make even small scenes, like this brief encounter in a hallway, highly memorable. (Credit: Laura Hunt and Thomas Möhring. Fair use.)

There are small puzzles you have to solve to advance in the story, but none are likely to stump you for very long. That’s in part because there’s no inventory—you occasionally have to pick up an item, but you then immediately use it elsewhere in the scene. It’s point and click reduced to its essence.

With these simple mechanics, the game achieves surprising depth. For example, in the first story, you choose whether to interpret a telegram you have received from a lover positively or negatively. Depending on your choice, many subsequent interactions and observations will be different. In another story, you have to pay attention to sounds and voices instead of hunting for pixels.

Hunt and Möhring have made it clear that they do not want to be paid for the game, but they have suggested that an artbook and soundtrack may become available for purchase at a later date. If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers, then, is like a book you can pick up at any time from the library called the Internet. If you’re in the mood for a story that shows a little more darkness than light, I strongly encourage you to check it out.


1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die
3 stars
A hefty tome that does not quite live up to its ambitions

Since the ascent of “casual” gaming, the explosion of online game publishing, and the rise of esports, video games have become mass culture for people of all ages. It’s only natural then to come across books like 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. The title a suggests grand curatorial ambition which the book never quite realizes.

It covers games across all devices and is organized chronologically, starting in 1971 (The Oregon Trail) and ending in 2013 (Bioshock Infinite). The book inexplicably focuses the bulk of its attention on titles from the 2000s (pages 416 to 921). So, prepare to read lots about the various Grand Theft Auto titles and Guitar Hero type games. On the other hand, Sierra Online’s entire catalog of adventure games is reduced to a single title (The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery).


Most games in the book are as lavishly illustrated as the ones visible here. Some reviews, however, are entirely without screenshots. (Credit: Universe Publishing / Quintessence Editions Ltd. Fair use.)

The reviews of each title include plenty of criticism (sometimes so much that one has to wonder why the game made the cut at all), but no scores. With a large number of contributing writers, the quality of the writing is inconsistent. Some authors do an excellent job capturing a game’s ambience, story and gameplay; others barely describe the game at all, dwelling instead on development history and other minutiae.

My biggest frustration was that some games were included without any screenshots whatsoever—and we’re not talking about text adventures here, but titles like Elite or Nintendogs. This is the exception, but it’s still a cardinal sin for this kind of book, and the reason I can only give it three stars.

All in all, I don’t regret keeping this hefty compendium on my shelf, but if you’re looking for video game curation done well (with a lot more love for older games), I would recommend checking out the many titles by Bitmap Books instead.

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