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Evolution of religious and secular medical treatments

Sacred cures and scientific cures: Science and religion in the evolution of folk medicine

Across cultures, people address health problems with a range of religious and naturalistic ways. Our project will explore the role of these sacred and secular cures in helping people endure illnesses. We aim to understand if treatments for severe and unpredictable diseases draw more upon religious treatments that more benign and predictable ailments.

This question will be addressed in three different ways.

  • First, using a corpus of >2,000 Irish folk cures from the early 20th century, we will explore how treatments vary with disease severity.
  • Second, we will conduct fieldwork in Mauritius where people commonly on religious and secular treatments.
  • Finally, we will conduct a range of experiments to explore how these patterns manifest in contemporary UK populations.

The findings will help us understand how psychological processes shape the evolution of cultural phenomena like medical treatments.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Mícheál de Barra
Dr Mícheál de Barra - My research is concerned with health and behaviour, and it often takes an evolutionary approach. I have examined how infectious disease shaped cognitive evolution, how behaviour alters infection risk, and how maladaptive ideas about health and healing spread and persist. I have a particular interest in the social and cognitive processes that drive overtreatment (the use of ineffective medical therapies).  
Dr Aiyana Willard
Dr Aiyana Willard - Aiyana Willard is a Lecturer (psychology) in the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London and a research associate at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. Her research interests are in the cultural evolution of religion, karma, witchcraft and other supernatural beliefs. Academic career: Lecturer in Psychology, Brunel University London, 2018-current. Postdoctoral researcher, Oxford, 2017-2018 Postdoctoral researcher, University of Texas at Austin, 2015-2017 PhD in Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2015 MA in Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2011

Related Research Group(s)


Culture and Evolution - Evolution and culture are the two most fundamental and powerful influences on human behaviour, and their effects are what we study at the Centre for Culture and Evolution.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 21/11/2023