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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2019 Aug;148(8):1426-1434. doi: 10.1037/xge0000551. Epub 2019 Jan 21.

Threat learning promotes generalization of episodic memory.

Author information

Center for Studies and Research in Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University of Bologna.
Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Medical Centre.
Department of Psychology, Columbia University.
Department of Psychology, New York University.
Department of Psychiatry.


The ability to generalize from and distinguish between aversive memories and novel experiences is critical to survival. Previous research has revealed mechanisms underlying generalization of threat-conditioned defensive responses, but little is known about generalization of episodic memory for threatening events. Here we tested if aversive learning influences generalization of episodic memory for threatening events in human adults. Subjects underwent Pavlovian threat-conditioning in which objects from one category were paired with a shock and objects from a different category were unpaired. The next day, subjects underwent a recognition memory test that included old, highly similar, and entirely novel items from the shock-paired and shock-unpaired object categories. Results showed that items highly similar to those from the object category previously paired with shock were mistaken for old items more often than items from the shock-unpaired category. This finding indicates that threat learning promotes generalization of episodic memory, and is consistent with the idea that threat generalization is an active process that may be adaptive for avoiding a myriad of potential threats following an emotional experience. Enhanced generalization of aversive episodic memories may be maladaptive, however, when old threat memories are inappropriately reactivated in harmless situations, exemplified in a number of stress- and anxiety-related disorders. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

[Available on 2020-08-01]

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