Samuel Mehr winner of Prime Minister's emerging scientist award

Prize-winning psychologist studies why humans make music.

Dr Mehr with Prime Minister Chris Luxon and science minister Judith Collins
Dr Mehr with Prime Minister Chris Luxon and science minister Judith Collins

Dr Samuel Mehr, the School of Psychology scientist investigating the psychology of music, including why humans make it, won the Prime Minister's $200,000 annual prize for an emerging scientist. 

The 2023 Te Puiaki Kaipūtaiao Maea, Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize was awarded on 1 May at Parliament for his work on the cognitive science of how humans perceive and produce music.

“He works across an impressive range of disciplines from music to psychology, from data science to health research, and from evolutionary anthropology to statistics to understand what music means to us and why it matters,”  according to the judging panel.

A Rutherford Discovery Fellow at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, Mehr is also a faculty member at the Child Study Center at Yale University in the US. His citizen science research project The Music Lab has attracted millions of participants.

“He is an impressive communicator, a fierce leader in interdisciplinary research, who publishes regularly in high-impact journals across many disciplines – something few can achieve,” the judges said. 

Scientists who completed their PhD or equivalent within the past eight years are eligible for the emerging scientist award.

The prize money will let Mehr bring on new talent to help with technical computational aspects of his research. 

“One of the things that we can certainly conclude about our species is we are built in some way to make music,” says Mehr. "There’s always something there in the minds of people all over the world, wherever they are, whatever their background is, that prepares them to hear music and understand music and motivate them to produce music in the first place.”

It's certainly a pervasive part of what it means to be human, but why did we evolve this way?

Music “is not exactly keeping us alive. It’s not exactly keeping us well fed, but we all do it,” he says.  “One of the things that is exciting about being a psychologist and working on this topic is that we get to dig into these everyday behaviours and try to figure out why we are the way we are.”

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