Evidence for a minimal role of stimulus awareness in reversal of threat learning
journal contributionposted on 24.11.2021, 04:00 by P Homan, HL Lau, I Levy, CM Raio, DR Bach, David Podhortzer CarmelDavid Podhortzer Carmel, D Schiller
In an ever-changing environment, survival depends on learning which stimuli represent threat, and also on updating such associations when circumstances shift. It has been claimed that humans can acquire physiological responses to threat-associated stimuli even when they are unaware of them, but the role of awareness in updating threat contingencies remains unknown. This complex process-generating novel responses while suppressing learned ones-relies on distinct neural mechanisms from initial learning, and has only been shown with awareness. Can it occur unconsciously? Here, we present evidence that threat reversal may not require awareness. Participants underwent classical threat conditioning to visual stimuli that were suppressed from awareness. One of two images was paired with an electric shock; halfway through the experiment, contingencies were reversed and the shock was paired with the other image. Despite variations in suppression across participants, we found that physiological responses reflected changes in stimulus-threat pairings independently of stimulus awareness. These findings suggest that unconscious affective processing may be sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing circumstances.