The Cognition of Belief

How are the beliefs we hold about the world, including both religious and nonreligious beliefs, determined by neurocognitive processes ranging from bottom-up learning of relatedness in patterns to relational schema representations of people and even of gods? We are conducting studies of these underlying mechanisms of belief through both behavioral and neuroimaging methods (Green & Moghaddam, 2018). This work engages commonalities and differences among diverse sets of believers, e.g., samples in the U.S. and Afghanistan, and samples who vary in their levels of belief and disbelief.

Does the way a person sees the world (really sees – including unconscious, bottom-up processing of visual information in subcortical structures) shape their religious and spiritual intuitions? In particular, do innate individual differences in unconscious processing of relations between elements of visual information shape intuitions that events in the world are related to each other and attributable to supernatural influence (i.e., an interventionist god)? One ongoing project is exploring these questions, using complex visuospatial stimuli in associations with measures of belief and of the development of belief from childhood to adulthood. This project includes data collection at a research site in Afghanistan as well as collection of both live and online data in the U.S. We are thus able to test the extent to which different sets of belief in different (and frequently opponent) sets of believers may actually be based on shared cognitive mechanisms.

This research has found that implicit learning of patterns (i.e., unconsciously picking up on order within complex visual sequences, as pictured above) predicted belief in a god that orders the universe (Weinberger et al., 2020). This connection replicated across disparate socio-religious contexts in the U.S. and Afghanistan. In both countries, individuals exhibiting stronger implicit learning not only showed stronger adult belief in an ordering/intervening god, they also increased in belief more from childhood to adulthood. The relationship between implicit learning and belief was mediated by intuitions of an ordered universe, suggesting that unconsciously detecting order in the environment may yield intuitions of order that ultimately influence individuals toward belief narratives that emphasize ordering gods.

How much is the thought of God (as manifested in the brain) like a thought of something objectively real or something objectively not real? How similar or different are God representations, and especially relational schemas about how God relates to people, in the brains of believers and nonbelievers? To address these questions, we are conducting a project that leverages new advances in machine learning of neuroimaging data and the technique of representational similarity analysis (RSA). RSA differs from traditional brain imaging in that it focuses on mosaic features of neural representation, seeking information in patterned relationships between tens of thousands of “voxels.” Critically, RSA defines a concept representation not by its mosaic alone, but also by its relationship – or distance – to other mosaics representing other concepts. RSA has yielded new insights in many areas of cognition, but has not previously been applied to religious concepts. Using RSA to analyze functional magnetic resonance imaging data, we will investigate how God is represented in the brain relative to other entities that are real or not real (e.g. Father, Superman). We are exploring whether and how God representations are similar and/or different in the brains of believers and unbelievers. Pairing RSA with analysis of psychological dimensional structure, we are further seeking to identify why some entities are represented similarly or differently (i.e. what shared psychological dimensions explain similar representation and how these dimensions are manifested in neural patterns).