In Memoriam: Dr. Jacques Mehler (1936-2020)

Last Tuesday, we learned the sad news that Jacques Mehler had passed away. We send our condolences to Marina, his family, colleagues and friends. 


Jacques was one of the founders of the modern Science of Cognitive Development. Born in Barcelona the 17th of August of 1936, his family moved to Buenos Aires, where Jacques attended the Instituto Libre de Segunda Enseñanza. In 1954 he enrolled in the University of Buenos Aires, graduating in Chemistry in 1958. He continued his graduate studies first in Oxford University and then at the University College of London where he obtained his Bachelor in Science. In the early days of the Cognitive Revolution, he studied at Harvard University, where he obtained his Phd in Psychology, in 1964, with George Miller as his advisor. 


Jacques was a true revolutionary in the use and development of ingenious experiments to study the infant and newborn mind. It is impossible in this short text to fully describe his contributions to science. Briefly, after a stay at Piaget’s Lab, in 1967, together with Tom Bever, he published an important paper questioning the dominant constructivist Piagetian paradigm that postulated a sort of linear view of the infant mind development. Mehler and Bever very convincingly showed that when children are faced with a relevant dilemma, they do estimate numbers. Jacques and his students then launched a series of pioneer experiments that today are foundational for the vibrant field of numerical cognition. His other main passion was language acquisition, where he studied what the infant mind knows, how humans were equipped at birth with mechanisms to learn languages and how they acquire their native language. He and his collaborators contributed to show not only that humans are born with an instinct to learn the art of language, but also what this instinct is made of and how it is implemented in the human brain. 


He created and directed the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique (LSCP) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris from 1982 to 2001. Outstanding as a scientist, Jacques was unique in his capacity to train a number of young Cognitive Scientists. In his laboratory he attracted a group of brilliant students that, together with Jacques, completely changed the face of Developmental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at different places of the world. Those who were part of the LSCP at the time, concur that this was THE place to be to learn Cognitive Science, and judging by the relevance of what has come out of his Lab, this was indeed the case. In 2001 Jacque moved to SISSA Italy, to continue sowing his wisdom in the minds of his students and collaborators. 


Many of us who feel touched by his departure were not his students. Still, he had a great impact on our careers. He was one of the motors behind the establishment of the Latin American School for Education, Cognitive and Neural Sciences (LASCHOOL). To do so, he brought together a group of enthusiastic Latin American researchers including Marcela Peña, Mariano Sigman and Sidarta Riberio. Jacques got the generous support of the James S. McDonnell foundation to launch an incredible series of LASchools where neuroscientists, psychologists, educators, computer scientists, and many others got together to, discuss how Cognitive Neuroscience can impact upon Education and which new avenues of research need to be explored. These schools have brought the most important Cognitive Scientists closer to our LA countries, giving young researchers in Latin America the incredible opportunity to listen, meet, spend time, discuss, talk and live with them, forging ties of collaboration and friendship.

LASchools were Jacques’s gift for Latin American scientists. From his wise perspective, he always chose to see the best of each person, and promote his/her development. He never stopped believing in LA as a source for innovative science, one source that he has in his heart until his last days, As a founder, Jacques was a regular participant to the LASCHOOLS. Those of us who shared time with him there all agree that talking to Jacques was an exhilarating experience. He was witty, sharp and liked to engage in scientific discussions. He always had something important to say about our research or about the way we organize the Uruguayan Cognitive Sciences. From the beginning he was one of our mentors, encouraging the Uruguayan community to move forward and supporting the organization of the 2014 LA School in Uruguay. With the years we frequently enjoyed conversations in Spanish, sharing our first language, and bringing us close as friends.


In this short period that we knew him, Jacques transformed our way of conceiving science. We want people to know who Jacques was. As the psycholinguist Christophe Pallier, one of Jacques’ students, said “Jacques showed us that one can do serious science and have fun at the same time. It was an incredible privilege to have him as a mentor”. We were not as lucky as his students, but we were lucky to meet him. This conference, this Society, and everything we tried to do in Education, was molded on Jacques scientific life. 


We will be always grateful to Jacques and we will miss him a lot