Could Unconscious Learning Underlie A Belief In God?

An article on Science Daily done by the Georgetown University Medical Center suggests that – “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.”

Just a head up before we continue,, the link to the original article can be found below this.

For some reason the link just pastes that way, perhaps copy the whole text and paste it into the top of the browser tab.

“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.”

So what exactly is pattern learning? Let’s start with the word pattern, which is defined as an arrangement of lines or shapes, especially a design in which the same shape is repeated. Most sources refer to pattern recognition or machine learning which is what some machines do now to learn new skills, they use a system of trial and error. Much like a human does. I believe, if I am not mistaken that a similar if not identical pattern was employed in the AI used to defeat a world GO champion, an impressive feat, because while chess may have numerous outcomes, the potential outcomes in a game of GO are as many as we have atoms in the observable universe. I will cover GO and my fascination with it in a future article.

Ok so I found a video that more or less shows what I was just talking about, the name of the AI is AlphaGO.

Game Of GO

I managed to find one source of a really good explanation of pattern learning, here it is below, all of this information is attributed to a – Nicolas Garcia Belmonte.

Another factor that affects learning is the degree to which a particular pattern is already familiar. We would not expect much change in a subject’s ability to identify letters of the alphabet in a short experiment, because most people have already been exposed to millions of alphabetic characters. Rapid learning can only be expected for patterns that are unfamiliar. The change in rate of learning over time is captured by the “power law of practice” , which has the following form:


This law states that the loglog of the time to respond on the nth-trial (Tn)Tn) is inversely proportional to the loglog of the number of trials. The constant CC is the time taken on the first trial (or block of trials).

The power law of practice is usually applied to manual skill learning, but it has also shown to apply to the perception of complex patterns. Kolers (1975) found that the power law applied to the task of learning to read inverted text. (…) Initially, it took subjects about 15 minutes to read a single inverted page, but when over 100 pages had been read, the time was reduced to 2 minutes. (…) Consider a hypothetical task where peopole improve by 30% from the first day’s practice to the second day. Doubling the amount of practice has resulted in a 30% gain. According to the power law, someone with 10 years of experience at the same task will require a further 10 years to improve by 30%. In other words, practice yields decreasing gains over time.

Taken from Information Visualization – Perception for Design by Colin Ware.

A bit complex but not impossible to follow. Below is a brief summary of what a learning pattern is.

“Introduction. A learning pattern is conceptualized as a coherent whole of learning activities that learners usually employ, their beliefs about learning and their learning motivation, a whole that is characteristic of them in a certain period of time.”

Now that we have laid down an understanding of learning and patterns, we can delve into what makes this article compelling or not so compelling depending on your taste.

“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.”

I suppose the first thing to make me skeptical about this article were the demographics they chose, Afghanistan? Seems a bit of a random choice, as far as I know most of those religions are not generally open to discussion if you know what I mean. If you are an atheist or perhaps just secular like myself, you will probably be opposed to this, but try to keep an open mind. I think my issue is further made apparent by the next line – a variety of religions. Not very diverse there guys, just saying. As they say this was no attempt at proving the existence or non existence of god but rather the effects this may have on learning.

“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.

“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 study used a well-established cognitive test to measure implicit pattern learning.” – I would have liked it if they actually reference the test itself so that we could see just how effective it was, on top of that, most of the time when people do not mention the tests by name, it is not always accurate. As we have seen with Marijuana. Also bear in mind that this was conducted by an institute that quite proudly touts itself as a Christian place, so take that as you will. All that said I do actually find this experiment quite interesting as I believe that something is going on with religious people, if any of you have ever seen religulous by Bill Maher, in a specific scene he is talking to a neuroscientist I think and the scientist is trying to tell him, yeah something is going on in their brains when they speak in tongues (referring to the act of speaking in tongues done by religious folk) yet Bill refuses to acknowledge his statement, choosing instead to say, well it is all just nonsense anyway right?. While I do not necessarily like or partake in religious beliefs, I think it is foolish to dismiss them so readily, they have after all endured so many years for a reason.

I found this a very interesting piece to write about, and put some effort into getting what I think is a nicely rounded view of this research. This will sort of serve as a starter piece for all future articles. A few of my older articles will be deleted soon, so check them out while stocks last.

Anyways. Follow my twitter. Getting my Insta and Facebook started up soon. Stay tuned for that. Next article, Farm Murders In South Africa.

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