Prof. Moshe Bar
Adventures in memory
A conversation with cognitive neuroscientist and Weizmann Institute alumnus Prof. Moshe Bar offers a real-time encounter with the subject he examines in his 2011 book, Predictions in the Brain (Oxford University Press).
A multi-disciplinary look at how the “nuts and bolts” of memory support whole-brain experiences, the book is a collection of essays describing the complex neural activity required for a person to recall his or her past, process the present, and imagine the future.
“Thinking back on my early days-a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, followed by my time at the Weizmann Institute studying for my masters in computer science and applied math-I would never have predicted that I’d end up in neuroscience,” says Prof. Bar, who today heads Bar-Ilan University’s Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center. “But the path you take informs your thinking. My academic training combined biomedical engineering, math, medicine and psychology-a combination of influences that led to a wide open, and not-very-traditional approach to neuroscience. Maybe it’s because I’m naturally distractible; my curiosity led me in many different directions.”
Born in the small town of Dimona in the central Negev, Prof. Bar attended high school in Tel Aviv, then returned south to attend Ben-Gurion University. It was there-a half hour’s drive from his childhood home-that he first encountered the subject that would send him around the world and back again.
As an undergrad majoring in image processing and biomedical engineering, Prof. Bar was introduced to tools that allow scientists to observe and quantify biological processes. Later, in parallel with his service in the Israeli Air Force, he completed his masters at the Weizmann Institute, working on projects relating human vision and computer vision in the lab of Prof. Shimon Ullman of the Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. Prof. Bar fondly recalls his training under Prof. Ullman–a world leader in the field–calling him “an exceptionally generous mentor who is still a major inspiration to me.”
Despite his busy schedule, Prof. Bar found time to be inspired by someone else at the Institute-the graduate student, Maria Lando, who would eventually become his wife.
“When I first saw Maria, in the Ziskind mathematics building, I literally fell off my chair,” Prof. Bar says. Maria’s post-Weizmann career led her to Hollywood, where she used her math skills to design spectacular special effects for films including “Air Force One” and “Godzilla”. Later, she also launched themathmom.com, a website that provides creative resources for parents who want to integrate mathematics education into daily life.
young couple’s Los Angeles sojourn began when Prof. Bar was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Southern California-a move he credits to the many hours he and Maria spent in the Weizmann Institute’s Charles Clore International House, studying together for his qualifying exams.
As a PhD candidate, he trained under Prof. Irving Biderman, a pioneer of theories surrounding the psychological and neurological basis of vision. Later, for his postdoctoral research at Harvard University, the family relocated to Boston. There, he worked with Prof. Daniel Schacter, a noted psychologist whose research focuses on the psychological and biological aspects of human memory and amnesia. He also trained with Prof. Roger Tootel, one of the first scientists to use fMRI to study human visual perception.
After his postdoc, Prof. Bar attained a joint faculty appointment at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. During that time, his growing body of published work—elucidating how the brain extracts and uses contextual information to generate predictions and guide cognition-led to professional offers from universities all over the world. Eventually, however, the Bar family decided it was time to come home. With their two older kids, they arrived in Israel in time for the birth of their third child, who is now five years old.
“We were happy in Boston, but we wanted to be closer to the extended family, and also wanted to establish a healthy balance in life,” he says. On a recent birthday-his 50th-he illustrated the balance he strives for by sharing with guests a famous Hassidic story about the two notes people should always carry in their pockets, one saying “I am as worthless as dust,” and the other saying, “The entire world was created for me.”
“In neuroscience, the ability to hold two opposing convictions is called bi-stable perception,” Prof. Bar says. “It also helps sum up my experience, all those years ago, as a student at the Institute. On the one hand, you feel the entitlement that comes from being, in a sense, on the very top of the scientific world. On the other hand, living in a community with so many brilliant people keeps you humble. This is certainly not the only lesson I learned from the Weizmann Institute, but it’s one of the most valuable.”
Prof. Mosher Bar with his wife Maria Lando