A new study by the neuroscientists at Georgetown University has used implicit pattern learning to investigate religious Belief. The goal was to test whether implicit pattern learning is a basis of Belief and, if so, whether that connection holds across different faiths and cultures.
The study suggests that individuals who can unconsciously predict complex patterns, an ability called implicit pattern learning, are likely to hold stronger beliefs that there is a God who creates patterns of events in the universe. It found that implicit pattern learning appears to offer a key to understanding a variety of religions.
Adam Green, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown, said, “Belief in a god or gods who intervene in the world to create order is a core element of global religions. This is not a study about whether God exists, this is a study about why and how brains believe in gods. We hypothesize that people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power.”
“A fascinating observation was what happened between childhood and adulthood. The data suggest that if children are unconsciously picking up on patterns in the environment, their Belief is more likely to increase as they grow up, even if they are in a nonreligious household. Likewise, if they are not unconsciously picking up on patterns around them, their Belief is more likely to decrease as they grow up, even in a religious household.”
Using the well established cognitive test, scientists measured implicit pattern learning. Participants watched as a sequence of dots appeared and disappeared on a computer screen. They pressed a button for each dot.
The dots moved quickly, but some participants – the ones with the strongest implicit learning ability – began to subconsciously learn patterns hidden in the sequence, and even press the correct button for the next dot before that dot appeared. However, even the best implicit learners did not know that the dots formed patterns, showing that the learning was happening at an unconscious level.
Co-author Zachery Warren said, “The most interesting aspect of this study, for me, and also for the Afghan research team, was seeing patterns in cognitive processes and beliefs replicated across these two cultures. Afghans and Americans may be more alike than different, at least in certain cognitive processes involved in religious Belief and making meaning of the world around us. Irrespective of one’s faith, the findings suggest exciting insights into the nature of Belief.”
“A brain that is more predisposed to implicit pattern learning may be more inclined to believe in a god no matter where in the world that brain happens to find itself, or in which religious context.”
“Optimistically, this evidence might provide some neuro-cognitive common ground at a basic human level between believers of disparate faiths.”
- Weinberger, A.B., Gallagher, N.M., Warren, Z.J., et al. Implicit pattern learning predicts individual differences in Belief in God in the United States and Afghanistan. Nat Commun 11, 4503 (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-18362-3