2016 Ken Nakayama Medal for Excellence in Vision Science – Horace Barlow

The Vision Sciences Society is honored to present Horace Barlow with the 2016 Ken Nakayama Medal for Excellence in Vision Science.

The Ken Nakayama Medal is in honor of Professor Ken Nakayama’s contributions to the Vision Sciences Society, as well as his innovations and excellence to the domain of vision sciences.

The winner of the Ken Nakayama Medal receives this honor for high-impact work that has made a lasting contribution in vision science in the broadest sense. The nature of this work can be fundamental, clinical or applied. The Medal is not a lifetime career award and is open to all career stages.

The medal will be presented during the VSS Awards session on Monday, May 16, 2016, 12:30 pm in Talk Room 2.

Horace Barlow

Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge

Perhaps more than any other vision scientist, Horace Barlow has shaped the way we think about how seeing depends on the underlying machinery of vision. His articulation of the single neuron doctrine—that the activity of a single neuron is significant for seeing—and the corollary idea that the visual stimuli to which a neuron is most sensitive tell us about the neuron’s perceptual role, are now taken so much for granted that it is hard to appreciate how primitive were notions of the relationship between visual physiology and perception before him. His unfailing concentration on the act of seeing drove his efforts to use psychophysical and physiological insight to drive experimental measurement, and brought a clarity and incisiveness that was unlike anything that preceded it. The approaches he pioneered provide the foundation for much of contemporary visual neuroscience.

An important conceptual theme that runs through his career is information. In early work, this was evident in his rigorous application of statistical theory to understanding psychophysical and physiological thresholds. Later he applied it to higher-level perceptual decisions such as pattern recognition, symmetry perception, and perception of random dot motion. The interplay of information and efficiency underlies his work in encoding and entropy, and forms the basis of many of his theoretical contributions, notably his work on redundancy reduction and efficient coding. Information theory is now a standard part of the tool set of vision science, but it was Barlow who brought it to vision science and taught us to use it.

His profound influence on the way we think about vision should not overshadow the importance of his particular contributions, including: characterizing the nature of eye movements during fixation; establishing the quantum efficiency of vision both psychophysically and physiologically; learning the spatio-temporal organization of visual adaptation; discovering and deducing the behavioral significance of retinal ganglion cells with highly specific response properties; elucidating directional movement selectivity in retina; analyzing binocular disparity selectivity in cortex; and many more.

Barlow trained in medicine at Harvard and University College Hospital before his graduate studies with E D Adrian in Cambridge. He held faculty positions at Cambridge and at the University of California, Berkeley. He has received many honors, among them elected Fellowship, the Ferrier Lectureship, and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London, the Australia Prize, the Tillyer Award of the Optical Society of America, the Karl Spencer Lashley Prize of the American Philosophical Society, and the Swartz Prize of the Society for Neuroscience.

Barlow feels happiest, and proudest, about having worked in a community of scientists who are leaping towards a deeper understanding of the relation between brain and mind.  This goal once seemed utterly unreachable, and was openly mocked until quite recently. And in the end what he feels most grateful for is his own long association with Trinity College, where he learned the importance of arguing fiercely for strongly held beliefs.