Unconscious learning fosters a belief in God, study finds

Brook Hays | UPI

People capable of subconsciously recognizing patterns are more likely to believe in an intervening God, according to new research. Photo by Pikist/CC 
People capable of subconsciously recognizing patterns are more likely to believe in an intervening God, according to new research. Photo by Pikist/CC 

People who unconsciously predict complex patterns are more likely to hold a strong belief in God — a god who creates order in an otherwise chaotic universe — according to research published Wednesday in Nature.

“Belief in a god or gods who intervene in the world to create order is a core element of global religions,” Adam Green, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University, said in a news release.

“This is not a study about whether God exists, this is a study about why and how brains come to believe in gods,” said Green, who also serves as the director of the Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition. “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.”

For the study, researchers used cognitive tests to measure the prevalence of the ability known as implicit pattern learning among religious communities in the United States and Afghanistan.

The test called for participants to press buttons that corresponded with a sequence of dots that quickly appeared and disappeared on a computer screen.

Participants with the strongest implicit learning ability were able to subconsciously learn the pattern of the dot sequence, even pressing the correct button prior to the appearance of the next dot. None of the participants were aware that the dots were following a pattern.

Follow-up surveys helped the researcher team study the link between implicit pattern learning and religious beliefs among the two groups.

Researchers confirmed the pronounced prevalence of implicit pattern learning among true believers. The implicit pattern learning ability was strongest among participants who believe in a God who intervenes to establish order in the universe.

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