Unconscious Learning Underlies Belief in a God

Summary: People whose brains are more predisposed to implicit pattern learning are more likely to believe in a deity, researchers report.

Source: Georgetown University Medical Center

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, according to neuroscientists at Georgetown University.

Their research, reported in the journal, Nature Communications, is the first to use implicit pattern learning to investigate religious belief. The study spanned two very different cultural and religious groups, one in the U.S. and one in Afghanistan.

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 researchers indeed found that implicit pattern learning appears to offer a key to understanding a variety of religions.

“Belief in a god or gods who intervene in the world to create order is a core element of global religions,” says the study’s senior 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.

“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 adds.

“A really interesting observation was what happened between childhood and adulthood,” explains Green. 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.

The study used a well-established cognitive test to measure 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 actually 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.

The U.S. section of the study enrolled a predominantly Christian group of 199 participants from Washington, D.C. The Afghanistan section of the study enrolled a group of 149 Muslim participants in Kabul. The study’s lead author was Adam Weinberger, a postdoctoral researcher in Green’s lab at Georgetown and at the University of Pennsylvania. Co-authors Zachery Warren and Fathali Moghaddam led a team of local Afghan researchers who collected data in Kabul.

This shows a man praying
The study used a well-established cognitive test to measure implicit pattern learning. Image is in the public domain.

“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,” says 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.”

“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 adds, though he cautions that further research is necessary.

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

A scholar of the Middle East, Moghaddam is a professor in Georgetown’s Department of Psychology. Warren, who received his doctorate in Psychology at Georgetown and also holds a masters of divinity, directs the Asia Foundation’s Survey of Afghan People. Additional authors include Natalie Gallagher and Gwendolyn English.

The authors report having no personal financial interests related to the study.

About this neurotheology research article

Georgetown University Medical Center
Karen Teber – Georgetown University Medical Center
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Implicit pattern learning predicts individual differences in belief in God in the United States and Afghanistan” by Adam B. Weinberger, Natalie M. Gallagher, Zachary J. Warren, Gwendolyn A. English, Fathali M. Moghaddam & Adam E. Green. Nature Communications.


Implicit pattern learning predicts individual differences in belief in God in the United States and Afghanistan

Most humans believe in a god, but many do not. Differences in belief have profound societal impacts. Anthropological accounts implicate bottom-up perceptual processes in shaping religious belief, suggesting that individual differences in these processes may help explain variation in belief. Here, in findings replicated across socio-religiously disparate samples studied in the U.S. and Afghanistan, implicit learning of patterns/order within visuospatial sequences (IL-pat) in a strongly bottom-up paradigm predict 1) stronger belief in an intervening/ordering god, and 2) increased strength-of-belief from childhood to adulthood, controlling for explicit learning and parental belief. Consistent with research implicating IL-pat as a basis of intuition, and intuition as a basis of belief, mediation models support a hypothesized effect pathway whereby IL-pat leads to intuitions of order which, in turn, lead to belief in ordering gods. The universality and variability of human IL-pat may thus contribute to the global presence and variability of religious belief.

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  1. I do and Than do not believe so per the interesting article I must have up and at other times do not have up.as I suffer. A childhood. Traumatic damage to brain this supports. Your outstanding article

  2. This helps me somewhat in understanding people who believe in invisible supreme beings, but I still need help comprehending why so many people are drawn to tangible beings that bark, stink, drool, lick their testicles, sniff strangers’ butts, and eat shit, i.e., dogs.

  3. Yeah honestly for science purposes, the test doesn’t state that people who do not practice faith or believe in a god (or gods) were included in this experiment.

    So the title is misleading. Now if you were measuring the strength of belief in correlation to the learning patterns, comparing them to those who believe in a god but not as much, then it would make sense.

    Interesting insight though, very intriguing

  4. Sciences. Step away from your petri dish and open your heart and maybe if you really mean it he’ll talk to you and that’s God with a big G.

  5. Since leaving the service, My Lord Jesus Christ guided me to Chief Executive of the company who commercialized SMS (txt msging), witnessed The FIRST commercial connection to the Internet (GE/Sprint June 22, 1991 Skenecktady NY @ 1:22pm), and the FIST ever telemedicine alpha (Ellictville NY to Buffalo) in ’92…., I have witnessed His living reality, and a world devoid of coincidence. Being trained as a scientist,and leader, Cynicism is my default but no matter how hard I tried, the Godhead proved Jesus Christ is Lord. Bless all who read this. And may His Grace bless those who discover The Gospel !

  6. As a Christian Physicist, EE, Mathematician, Stratic Intelligence Officer (DIA), and Nuclear Surety Officer (#1 rated in Usaeura ’83 -’88), we call this “The Elect”!

    In Him,

  7. This is bullshit…. saying that only those who believe in a god or in gods are the only ones who are able to perceive complex patterns…….the test is biased they only performed test on those who were already believers in a faith….why didn’t they perform the test on the same amount of non believers …this is retarded

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