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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Multi-Instrumentalist Who Wants to Understand Why People Make Music

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
Eastman School of Music. (Photo: Jiyang Chen/Wikimedia Commons)

Eastman School of Music. (Photo: Jiyang Chen/Wikimedia Commons)

Samuel Mehr, 26, Psychology and Education

“Music is an odd phenomenon,” Samuel Mehr says. “It’s universal, it’s ancient, it’s an activity enjoyed by humans of all ages, and yet it’s not at all clear why it exists in the first place.”

Mehr hopes to help figure out, from an evolutionary perspective, why people make music. “Brilliant people have been speculating about this for a very long time,” he says, “including the likes of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, William James, and James Cattell, but the topic is only beginning to be studied empirically.”

Samuel Mehr. (Photo: Jon Chase/Harvard)


Mehr didn’t set out to be an academic. He plays the clarinet, the flute, the saxophone, the bassoon, and the oboe, and was wrapping up his bachelors degree at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music when he needed one last elective to graduate. He signed up for a cognitive development course taught by Richard Aslin, a well-known infant researcher. “As a totally naïve undergrad, I had no idea who he was,” Mehr says. “The class was wonderful.” At the end of it, Aslin introduced Mehr to a few people at Harvard, including Elizabeth Spelke.

“In an incredible coincidence,” Mehr says, “Liz had a stalled project about music and cognition that needed attention from a musician.” She hired him as her lab assistant. Almost four years later, in late 2013, their collaborative work was published in PLoS One. Essentially, Mehr says, “We found no overall effect of six weeks of participation in parent-child music classes on four assessments of cognition.”

Following a university press release, the study got an immediate flurry of media attention. Headlines like “Music Doesn’t Make You Smarter, Harvard Study Finds” dominated the coverage, which spanned more than 100 articles coming out of some 40 countries. Most of the journalists made a critical error, however: They said that Mehr’s findings disprove "music makes children smarter" claims.

“This, of course, is false,” Mehr clarifies. “In experimental research, we assume a null hypothesis—no effect—and look for evidence for an alternative hypothesis—some kind of effect. That means that a negative result doesn't mean that no effect exists. Rather, it means that we found no evidence for an effect. It's like the judicial system: We never find a defendant innocent, only not guilty.”

In an attempt to mop up the media mess, Mehr responded to every press request he got and made a Reddit AMA (“ask me anything”) appearance that received more than 150,000 views. He also wrote a New York Times op-ed in which he asserted: “Despite the widespread belief in the cognitive benefits of music lessons, only five published randomized controlled trials have tested this claim. The findings are far from conclusive.... Our studies cannot rule out the existence of cognitive benefits of music lessons.”

(It’s worth noting that about two months after Mehr’s study came out, the National Association for Music Education announced a policy shift away from emphasizing music education’s cognitive benefits in favor of a "music for music's sake" advocacy strategy.)

Mehr is glad, though, that the public is more interested in scientific findings than ever before: “Overall, it is a positive outcome of today's incredibly fast pace of journalism,” he says. “A corresponding outcome is that academics have a new responsibility to ensure that their findings are accurately disseminated. In our case, the issue was one of scientific and statistical literacy, which has obvious, widespread importance for educating the public on what research can and cannot do.”

After his project with Spelke ended, Mehr didn’t know how to continue doing research. “It’s not typical for a conservatory graduate with practically zero background in psychology to be accepted to graduate school,” he says, “so it wasn’t clear how to proceed.”

Then he talked to Ellen Winner, the chair of Boston College’s psychology department. “In a single meeting,” he said, “Ellen convinced me to apply to graduate school. Essentially, she told me that nobody worthwhile cares about who you know or what your background is. Rather, if you’re smart and have interesting ideas, a good Ph.D. advisor will want to work with you.”

That Ph.D. advisor ended up being Winner’s husband, Howard Gardner, known for having developed the theory of multiple intelligences. The happy ending is that Mehr gets to keep doing psychology studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where he’s on full scholarship.

“I find science to be an incredibly humbling enterprise,” he says. “Everyone stays up late thinking up new questions to help better understand the world and then stays up later trying to answer them. Ideally, everyone who works hard gets a seat at the table and gets to say what they think. What an earnest, incredible idea.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.