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Unconscious learning fosters belief in God, study finds

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 

Sept. 9 (UPI) -- 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.

"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.

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"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.

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

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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.

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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.

"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," said Georgetown neuroscientist Zachery Warren.

"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," Warren said.

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Researchers published the findings Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications.

"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 said.

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"Optimistically, this evidence might provide some neuro-cognitive common ground at a basic human level between believers of disparate faiths," he said.

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