Conscious and unconscious emotional learning in the human amygdala

Abstract

If subjects are shown an angry face as a target visual stimulus for less than forty milliseconds and are then immediately shown an expressionless mask, these subjects report seeing the mask but not the target. However, an aversively conditioned masked target can elicit an emotional response from subjects without being consciously perceived1,2. Here we study the mechanism of this unconsciously mediated emotional learning. We measured neural activity in volunteer subjects who were presented with two angry faces, one of which, through previous classical conditioning, was associated with a burst of white noise. In half of the trials, the subjects' awareness of the angry faces was prevented by backward masking with a neutral face. A significant neural response was elicited in the right, but not left, amygdala to masked presentations of the conditioned angry face. Unmasked presentations of the same face produced enhanced neural activity in the left, but not right, amygdala. Our results indicate that, first, the human amygdala can discriminate between stimuli solely on the basis of their acquired behavioural significance, and second, this response is lateralized according to the subjects' level of awareness of the stimuli.

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Figure 1: Stimulus parameters and experimental design.
Figure 2: Response to the presentation of masked faces.
Figure 3: Response to the presentation of unmasked faces.

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Morris, J., Öhman, A. & Dolan, R. Conscious and unconscious emotional learning in the human amygdala. Nature 393, 467–470 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/30976

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