CERC Personnel

Post Docs

Martin Lang

langMy work lies at the intersection between the humanities and the cognitive and behavioral sciences, combining laboratory experiments with field studies to explore the effects of ritual on the individual and group level. I study effects of music on inter-personal coordination, synchronous movement, decision-making and social bonding. My other research line is focused on understanding the role that ritualized motor sequences might play in alleviating anxiety. I use physiological measurements, motion capture, machine-learning algorithms, and linear and nonlinear data analysis (recurrence quantification analysis).

M. Willis Monroe

monroeM. Willis Monroe earned his PhD (Assyriology) from Brown University in 2016. His research focuses on structures of knowledge during the Hellenistic period in Babylonia, in particular the interaction between different schemes of organization and genres of knowledge including, astronomy, astrology, medicine, and religion. His dissertation translated a large astrological table written on cuneiform tablets from the ancient cities of Uruk and Babylon. Current projects include attempts to subject cuneiform sources to digital humanities methods. He is currently serving the DRH as Associate Director. You can see his current list of publications and talks here.


Amelia Barker

I am currently enrolled as an MA student in the Department of Archaeology at SFU.  I am interested in cultural transmission processes and the evolutionary analysis of cultural behaviour. I am particularly interested in the evolution of religion and my research is focused on using phylogenetic systematics to test different hypotheses about the development of religious traditions.


Jessica McCutcheon

mccutcheonJessica McCutcheon received her PhD in Classics from Yale University in 2012 and taught at Amherst College for two years before joining HECC.  Her research focuses on how cognition and emotion affect narrative flow in Latin literature and on how the way people think about their gods can help to elucidate the intersection of cult and myth in Roman religion.  As one of the Regional Editors for the Ancient Mediterranean, Jessica is also working on developing the Database of Religious History.  Contact Jessica at jessica.mccutcheon [at] ubc.ca or visit her webpage here.

Rita McNamara

I am interested in the cultural evolutionary implications of religion’s impact on prosocial behaviour and the cognitive biases that distinguish religious believers from non-believers. I study the differential effects of Christian vs. traditional ancestor-worshiping religious beliefs on prosocial behaviour in Yasawa, Fiji. I also study how different backgrounds of religious belief may influence various cognitive biases among religious believers and non-believers in Canada.

Jessica Munson

I am an anthropological archaeologist who studies the development of religious and political practices in prehispanic Maya society. My research investigates the ways social cooperation and competition in everyday life intersected with the establishment of institutionalized beliefs, practices, and roles in Preclassic Maya society (ca. 1000 BCE-250 CE). Currently, I am a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California Davis.

Ryan Nichols

The driving reason leading me to join HECC as a postdoctoral researcher is straightforward: no research team in all of academia is asking better questions–let alone offering such compelling, fascinating answers to them. These are questions that cannot be adequately answered by working alone. I’m here to play a role in addressing these questions with data-driven answers, answers that unify research across disciplines including cultural and ecological history, evolutionary psychology, philosophy, cross-cultural and religious psychology, and quantitative literary analysis. Drop me a line at ryan.nichols [at] ubc.ca.

Kristoffer L. Nielbo

Kristoffer L Nielbo received his PhD from Department of Culture & Society, Aarhus University, and has held a postdoctoral position at Aarhus University
(2012). His primary interests are: a) causally under-determined and opaque actions (e.g. ritualized behavior); b) expectation modulation of perception; c)
induction of cultural prior. His research fields include: cognitive science of religion, ritual studies, experimental and computational psychology. Currently,
Kristoffer is working on experience-based modulation of eye-movements patterns during observation of ritual actions and induction of false priors in implicit learning.

Selected publications

  • ˆ (2011) `Spontaneous processing of functional and non-functional action sequences,’ with J. Sorensen, Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1(1), 18-30.
  • ˆ (2012) `Computing Religion: A New Tool in the Multilevel Analysis of Religion,’ with D.M. Braxton & A. Upal, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 24(3), 267-290.
  • ˆ (2012) Spontaneous and Hierarchical Segmentation of Non-Functional Events, PhD Dissertation, Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University.
  • ˆ (in press) `Prediction error during functional and non-functional action sequences: A computational exploration of ritual and ritualized event processing,’ with J. Sorensen, Journal of Cognition and Culture.
  • ˆ (in press) `Experience in Ritual Action: A Proposal for a Ritual Meaning Layer,’ in Religious Ritual, Cognition and Culture, Equinox Publishers.
  • ˆ (in review) `Hierarchical organization of segmentation in non-functional action sequences,’ with U. Schjoedt & J. Sorensen.
  • ˆ (in review) `Cognitive Resource Depletion in Religious Interactions’ U. Schjoedt, U., J. Sorensen, D. Xygalatas, P. Mitkidis, & J. Bulbulia.

Benjamin Purzycki

Benjamin Purzycki recently earned his PhD (anthropology) at the University of Connecticut and currently is a post-doctoral research fellow at CERC. He works on the evolution of religious systems and religious cognition, particularly how people make sense of their gods’ minds. He has conducted fieldwork in the Tyva Republic (Tuva) and has published works in a variety of journals including Cognitive Science, Religion, Brain and Behavior, Journal of Cognition and Culture, and Skeptic Magazine. His professional website and publications can be accessed here.

Brenton Sullivan

sullivanPh.D., Religious Studies, University of Virginia (2013).

M.A., East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Kansas (2007)

B.A., Political Science and Spanish Literature, University of Notre Dame (2003)

My research is focused on the development of “mega monasteries” in Tibet in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. My general research interests include the scaling up of religious organizations, the administration of religious communities in Tibet and China, Sino-Tibetan relations in the late Ming and Qing dynasties, and the religious history of northeastern Tibet (Amdo) / western China.

Fred Tappenden

tappendenFred Tappenden holds a PhD in New Testament and Early Christian Studies from The University of Manchester (UK) and is currently a Fonds de recherche du Québec Postdoctoral Research Fellow at McGill University (Montreal, QC). His research focuses on patterns of meaning creation, sharing, and maintenance in early Christianity, particularly with an emphasis on categories of cognition, memory, and performance. While his doctoral work focused on the writings of the apostle Paul, his current postdoctoral appointment examines early Christian interpretations of Paul in light of the embodied foundations of human imagination. Within the CERC network, Dr. Tappenden is conducting a study on Ethnicity and Cooperation in Pauline Christianity, and also developing the Latium portion of the Database of Religious History.

Penny Tok

I received my PhD (Psychology) from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and am currently working in a postdoctoral position at Masaryk University’s Department of Psychology in the Czech Republic. My speciality is in development and cognitive psychology as well as Theory of Mind with my main area of interest lies in the field of autism research. I have always been curious about developmental disabilities but my experience with people with autism during my undergraduate days cemented my interest in the field of autism both as a clinician and as a researcher. I am specifically interested in the cognitive developmental aspect of autism and have researched on areas involving the use of inner speech (silent, verbal self-talk) and its role in higher order executive functioning within the autism population. I am currently working on two research projects in the Czech Republic and in Singapore: (a) the link between Theory of Mind and religious beliefs and practices of people with and without autism (b) the developmental progression and role of inner speech use in Theory of Mind.

Robban Toleno

tolenoRobban Toleno graduated from UBC in 2015 with a Ph.D. in Asian Studies, specializing in premodern Chinese social history and writing on food and nourishment in premodern Chinese Buddhism. His research aims to deepen our understanding of how religious attitudes influence patterns of food use in China. His recent projects include an investigation of food in a tenth-century Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia and a study of longevity patterns in Chinese history. He formerly served as Managing Editor of the Database of Religious History (DRH). 


Aiyana Willard

I am interested in how cognitive capacities, formed through evolution, give rise to religion and culture. My research looks at the cognitive origins of, and the cultural influences on, supernatural belief. I am interested in how we learn about and make sense of the world can lead us to superstitious, supernatural and spiritual beliefs and how different cultural practices support or hinder these tendencies.