Moran Cerf has a tendency to depress people who are not Moran Cerf.
When we imagine a neuroscientist doing some of the most cutting-edge work in brain research around the world, we don’t think of a 37-year-old who has also, in turn, been a pilot, a radio host, an inventor, a furniture designer, a filmmaker, an award-winning storyteller for one of the world’s most edgy indie collectives, and a hacker-turned-bank-robber-turned security specialist for the Israeli government.
And yet, just over a decade ago, brain research didn’t figure on Moran’s horizon. Along with two friends, he ran a hacking operation that, in its early days, easily infiltrated the security systems of giants like Amazon and eBay. In a move straight out of Hollywood, they then decided to start breaking into banks’ security systems to demonstrate how easily someone could walk away with the money. “Ten years ago,” he says in a YouTube video that details his journey from hacking to brain science, “I used to steal $7,000-$10,000 a week. I was part of a team of three hackers, and together we would hack into the bank, withdraw the money and go to the bank’s owners and say: ‘Look, we stole your money. Why don’t you give us a little of this money and we’ll help you secure the bank better?’”
It was lucrative, adventurous and challenging – he may well have stayed behind a computer screen forever if it hadn’t been for a chance encounter with the world of consciousness and the brain at a conference he was attending. When an expert at the event pointed out that hacking into the human brain was quite like hacking into a computer, Moran’s eureka moment arrived: he decided to move from his native Israel to California; six months after he arrived in the US, he ditched his day job, applied to Caltech, and simply transferred his disruptive genius to this brand new field.
Turned out there were similarities in the way both fields work. “Hacking is a very Sisyphean enterprise,” he said to Israel’s leading newspaper Haaretz in an interview last year. “You work for hours and hours, and most of the time nothing comes out of it. You have to be patient and to try all the possibilities. It’s similar to science. There’s another similarity in terms of the tools: You use programming, mathematics, statistics, a lot of exact science.”
Then there’s the challenge, in both cases, of dealing with the unknown – an unknown that holds the key to incredible knowledge. “As a hacker, you get a black box. You know that you’re putting something into it and something else is coming out, but you don’t know what’s happening inside. You have to learn about it by trial and error. You have to be creative, because it’s not something that others have already done. The brain works in the same way: You see what goes in and what comes out, but you don’t know what’s happening inside.”
In the past decade, he made it his business to make the brain a little less of a black box than it was before. His work addresses some of the most fundamental questions about how our minds work. How, for example, can we control our emotions? Which brain mechanisms determine if we find content interesting and engaging? What is the neural activity, basically, that goes into decision-making? These are everyday challenges Moran takes up, and how he arrives at the answers is no less compelling than his hacking escapades.
At the heart of his work is a fascinating experiment he set up at Caltech – the only lab in the world where brains are mapped by attaching electrodes deep inside the brain of patients awaiting surgery. What he was able to do using ingenuity, imagination – and five years of intense labour – was to ‘read’ the activity of neurons inside the brain well enough to project a patient’s unspoken thoughts onto a screen in front of his eyes.
This game-changing work – verified and published in the world’s most respected science journal Nature – has made him one of the stars of the neuroscience world. He holds multiple patents and has lectured globally, from academic conferences and universities to geek haunts like PopTech and Google Zeitgeist; from the BBC and Wired to MSNBC, Gizmodo, TED, Scientific American and Slate.com, they’ve all showcased his work.
What has always made Moran unique, though, is the way in which his multiple passions inform each other. Hacking, of course, laid the foundation for his ‘break-ins’ into the brain – and a physical break-in into a bank in Tel Aviv – but his unique mix of talents doesn’t end there.
He is, intriguingly, a core part of LA and New York’s vibrant storytelling scene, from NPR’s ‘Unfictional’ to the Moth – a fascinating organisation that hosts compelling storytelling sessions across the US, where Moran is a 12-time Story Slam winner and a two-time Grand Slam champion. He also teaches an annual screenwriting class on science writing in film at the American Film Institute in LA.
If you’re tempted to take his medical research lightly – he’s an award-winning storyteller, after all – think again. His credentials are impeccable: a PhD in neuroscience from Caltech, a BSc in Physics and an MA in Philosophy of Science from Tel Aviv university. As everyone from harried bankers to frustrated online security experts, and fellow neuroscientists have found, it doesn’t pay to underestimate Moran Cerf.