Fear in the Theater of the Mind: Differential Fear Conditioning With Imagined Stimuli

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Many symptoms of anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder are elicited by fearful mental imagery. Yet little is known about how visual imagery of conditioned stimuli (CSs) affects the acquisition of differential fear conditioning. Across three experiments with younger human adults (Experiment 1: n = 33, Experiment 2: n = 27, Experiment 3: n = 26), we observed that participants acquired differential fear conditioning to both viewed and imagined percepts serving as the CSs, as measured via self-reported fear and skin conductance responses. Additionally, this differential conditioning generalized across CS-percept modalities such that differential conditioning acquired in response to visual percepts generalized to the corresponding imagined percepts and vice versa. This is novel evidence that perceived and imagined stimuli engage learning processes in very similar ways and is consistent with the theory that mental imagery is depictive and recruits neural resources shared with visual perception. Our findings also provide new insight into the mechanisms of anxiety and related disorders.