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New study uncovers a neurocognitive process that predicts differences in belief in God

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Individuals who unconsciously learn patterns tend to hold stronger beliefs that there is a god who intervenes in the world and human affairs, according to new research published in Nature Communications. The study provides new insight into the relationship between neurocognitive processes and religious belief.

“One of my main research interests is to understand how implicit or ‘bottom-up’ processes influence our more explicit, consciously-accessible beliefs, including religious belief,” said study author Adam Weinberger, a postdoctoral scientist at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics and the Laboratory for Relational Cognition at Georgetown University.

“In other words, do individual differences in religious beliefs stem from various forms of implicit, biologically-rooted processing? Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this project is that the study was conducted in the United States and Afghanistan. This gave us the opportunity to examine whether associations between implicit processes and religious belief can replicate in two different religious and cultural samples.”

In the study, 199 participants recruited from Georgetown University, 148 participants recruited from Kabul, and 96 European participants recruited online completed the serial reaction time task, a well-established cognitive test to assess the implicit learning of visual patterns.

Participants watched as a sequence of four dots appeared and disappeared on a computer screen. The participants were asked to quickly and accurately indicate the position of every dot, which corresponded with keys on the keyboard.

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 actually appeared.

Out of six trials, three included a pattern and three were random. After each trial, the participants were asked to guess whether or not the previous sequence of dots included a pattern.

The researchers found that implicit learning of the patterns — but not explicit awareness of them — was associated with stronger beliefs about god.

“We found that individuals who were better able to implicitly learn visuospatial patterns reported stronger belief in an intervening god, and also increased in their strength of religious belief from childhood to adulthood. Data also indicate that better implicit pattern learners have stronger intuitions of universal order,” Weinberger told PsyPost.

“So, people who are good at implicitly (or non-consciously) learning patterns in their environment may be inclined to ascribe those patterns to an intervening god; explicit beliefs about god as an intervening force in the world may therefore stem from implicit, evolutionarily-favored processes (in this case, the ability to implicitly learn surrounding patterns). Results were similar in the U.S. and Afghanistan, suggesting that these effects may occur irrespective of one’s faith.”

The new study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Although our study had an internal, cross-cultural replication (we found similar results in the U.S. and Afghanistan), there is certainly a need for additional replication and tests of generalizability. For example, future work should explore whether the observed effects hold for different kinds of implicit pattern learning paradigms,” Weinberger explained.

“It’s also important to note that religious belief is highly complex, which means that there are a vast number of implicit processes that may shape belief. How implicit pattern learning operates alongside such additional processes is unknown.”

“Finally, we found that implicit pattern learning was associated with increased strength of belief since childhood. However, change in belief was estimated retrospectively (participants reflected on their strength of religious belief at different ages). This kind of approach is not uncommon in the study of religious belief, but truly longitudinal work would be even better,” Weinberger said.

“It’s also important to acknowledge the amount of work that went into adapting all of the experimental components for the Afghan sample. Not only did all measures have to be translated, there were also all kinds of legitimate concerns about cultural appropriateness as well as how to ask about belief in God in a way that would make the participants feel safe and comfortable. We also had to train local Afghan experimenters to administer the tasks. All of this work was spearheaded by one of the co-authors, Zach Warren.”

In a news release, Warren said that seeing the results replicate across two diverse cultures was the most interesting aspect of the study for him.

“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.

“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,” added co-author Adam Green.

The study, “Implicit pattern learning predicts individual differences in belief in God in the United States and Afghanistan“, was authored by Adam B. Weinberger, Natalie M. Gallagher, Zachary J. Warren, Gwendolyn A. English, Fathali M. Moghaddam, and Adam E. Green.

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