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A Link Between Noticing Patterns & Belief in God

Medically reviewed by Christopher Conti, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 6, 2023

People from ancient civilizations looked up at the stars and saw images of lions, bears, and the hunters chasing them. They told stories about these pictures and shaped their cultures around them. They created gods and heroes from tiny specks hanging in the sky. 


Thousands of years later, our modern religions offer the same comfort that our ancestors sought. Belief in God or any kind of Higher Power provides a sense of order and fulfillment. People who believe in God have a knack for finding meaning in ordinary occurrences. A missing appointment, a chance encounter, or just a feel-good day at the beach all can hide secret messages from the Divine. This correlation is not a coincidence either. A research team studying implicit learning of patterns/order within visuospatial sequences (IL-pat), found that the ability to detect visual patterns in your environment may indicate that it’s more likely for you to have a belief in God or another Higher Power.


What is IL-pat?


While the term “implicit learning of patterns/order within visuospatial sequences” is quite a mouthful, it is an important factor in the construction of religious belief. It describes the ability to subconsciously learn patterns from a visual display. People with high levels of IL-pat are not even aware that they are picking up on these visual patterns. As they unconsciously create patterns in their surroundings, they make meaning out of randomness. 


This type of learning can lead to an internal conviction that a generalized sense of order exists within the universe. The ability to form patterns and detect meaning in the environment aligns with the ideals of most religions. Belief in God or a Higher Power often indicates faith in order and meaning in the universe. Someone with a strong internal order-based belief system may be drawn to belief in an intervening God and religious principles. While IL-pat doesn’t directly lead one to a life of religious devotion, it does form the belief in order that may cause someone to find meaning in religion.


The Study


199 American Christians  and 148 Afghani Muslims were asked to complete a serial reaction time task (SRTT). Participants watched a target circle appear on a screen in one of the four corners. They were asked to mark the position of the circle as quickly and accurately as possible. Some of the circles appeared as a part of a pattern and others appeared at random intervals. After each series, participants were asked to guess whether the series they just completed was a pattern. This was to test whether the participants were consciously aware of the patterns. After the task, participants completed an assessment to evaluate their belief in the divine, the supernatural, and their intuitions of order in the universe.


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Chicken or the egg?


A consideration that comes up when determining IL-pat’s effect on belief is, “what influences what?” Are people with high IL-pat more likely to believe in religion because they are already good at noticing patterns and are drawn to religion (implicit learning)? Or are religious individuals more likely to have high IL-pat levels because they learn from religion to notice patterns in the world (explicit learning)?


To address these questions, there is evidence suggesting that IL-pat is the influencing factor in this relationship. Several studies indicate that IL-pat may form during early childhood and remain stable throughout a lifetime. There may also be a genetic component as well. These findings suggest that an individual who already has strong IL-pat inclinations may be more likely to join or identify with a religious order. 


Furthermore, research has found that explicit awareness reduces the ability to find patterns implicitly. If a participant actively attempts to look for patterns within the SRTT, they will perform more slowly and have a difficult time discovering patterns. The researchers in the current study did not find a relationship between IL-pat and explicit awareness. Therefore, the explicit belief in a religious order and deity is unlikely to increase the implicit ability to detect visual patterns.


Although this study focused on the impact of implicit belief, that does not mean that explicit belief cannot have a reverse effect toward the subconscious. “Belief” in general is a complex construct and derives from many factors. Conscious and unconscious push against each other and influence each other to unveil a dynamic human experience. 


Our internal beliefs affect our behavior, and our behavior affects our internal beliefs. IL-pat, order, and religion are just a few aspects that make up the human condition. Sometimes we can face our fellow man to see differences in appearance, behavior, and convictions. Yet, looking internally can reveal similarities, too: the desire for comfort, order, and meaning. The more we unveil about human actions and motivations, the more we can understand ourselves and our neighbors around us. 


Written by Chani Bonner

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