Fear Conditioning to Subliminal Fear Relevant and Non Fear Relevant Stimuli
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A growing body of evidence suggests that conscious visual awareness is not a prerequisite for human fear learning. For instance, humans can learn to be fearful of subliminal fear relevant images – images depicting stimuli thought to have been fear relevant in our evolutionary context, such as snakes, spiders, and angry human faces. Such stimuli could have a privileged status in relation to manipulations used to suppress usually salient images from awareness, possibly due to the existence of a designated sub-cortical ‘fear module’. Here we assess this proposition, and find it wanting. We use binocular masking to suppress awareness of images of snakes and wallabies (particularly cute, non-threatening marsupials). We find that subliminal presentations of both classes of image can induce differential fear conditioning. These data show that learning, as indexed by fear conditioning, is neither contingent on conscious visual awareness nor on subliminal conditional stimuli being fear relevant.
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