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Biol Psychol. 2012 Feb;89(2):300-5. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2011.11.002. Epub 2011 Nov 23.

Role of conceptual knowledge in learning and retention of conditioned fear.

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Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA.


Associating sensory cues with aversive outcomes is a relatively basic process shared across species. Yet higher-order cognitive processes likely contribute to associative fear learning in many circumstances, especially in humans. Here we ask whether fears can be acquired based on conceptual knowledge of object categories, and whether such concept-based fear conditioning leads to enhanced memory representations for conditioned objects. Participants were presented with a heterogeneous collection of images of animals and tools. Objects from one category were reinforced by an electrical shock, whereas the other category was never reinforced. Results confirmed concept-based fear learning through subjective report of shock expectancy, heightened skin conductance responses, and enhanced 24h recognition memory for items from the conditioned category. These results provide novel evidence that conditioned fear can generalize through knowledge of object concepts, and sheds light on the persistent nature of fear memories and category-based fear responses symptomatic of some anxiety disorders.

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