Study: People adept at unconscious learning more likely to believe in God

WASHINGTON — Attempting to use science as a means of understanding faith and religion sounds like a fool’s errand at first consideration. But, a new study just released by Georgetown University offers up a fascinating take on why certain people tend to hold stronger religious beliefs than others.

The study finds that people who are naturally adept at unconsciously predicting complex patterns are more likely to believe in an all-powerful creator who has created and pre-set patterns of events within our universe. The ability to predict complex patterns on an unconscious level is typically referred to as implicit pattern learning.

This is the first research projects to ever investigate the relationship between implicit pattern learning and faith. It’s important to note that these findings were confirmed among two distinct cultural and religious groups: 199 predominantly Christian Americans and 149 Muslim Afghanis.

“Belief in a god or gods who intervene in the world to create order is a core element of global religions,” says senior study investigator, Adam Green, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown, and director of the Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition, in a release.

“This is not a study about whether God exists, this is a study about why and how brains come to believe in gods. Our hypothesis is that people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power,” he continues.

How religious cues in childhood impact our view of God

According to the findings, implicit pattern learning begins influencing religious perceptions from a young age. For example, if a child or adolescent starts unconsciously picking up on patterns within their environment at an early age, their faith or belief in some kind of higher power will likely increase as they mature. This held true even among kids brought up in unreligious households.

This pattern appears to stay valid in the opposite sense as well. If a child isn’t picking up on patterns, they’re less likely to grow up to be religious as an adult.

Implicit learning was measured among participants using a widely-accepted cognitive test. Each person watches a pattern of dots continually appear and then disappear on a computer screen quickly. Each time a specific dot appears, participants were are to press a specific button. Some subjects, however, started to predict the pattern of the dots and press the correct button before the next dot even appeared. These individuals display a high level of implicit learning ability.

However, none of the participants (even the best implicit learners) could actually tell researchers they were noticing a pattern. That’s because it happens on a subconscious level.

“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,” co-author Zachery Warren explains. “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,” Green concludes. “Optimistically, this evidence might provide some neuro-cognitive common ground at a basic human level between believers of disparate faiths.”

The study is published in Nature Communications.

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