Visual Aversive Learning Compromises Sensory Discrimination Academic Article uri icon


  • Aversive learning is thought to modulate perceptual thresholds, which can lead to over-generalization. However, it remains undetermined if this modulation is domain specific or a general effect. Moreover, despite the unique role of the visual modality in human perception, it is unclear whether this aspect of aversive learning exists in this modality. The current study was designed to examine the effect of visual aversive outcomes on perception of basic visual and auditory features. We tested the ability of healthy participants, both males and females, to discriminate between neutral stimuli, before and after visual learning. In each experiment, neutral stimuli were associated with aversive images in an experimental group and with neutral images in a control group. Participants demonstrated a deterioration in discrimination (higher discrimination thresholds) only after aversive learning. This deterioration was measured for both auditory (tone frequency) and visual (orientation and contrast) features. The effect was replicated in five different experiments and lasted for at least 24 hours. fMRI neural responses and pupil size were also measured during learning. We showed an increase in neural activations in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and amygdala during aversive compared to neutral learning. Interestingly, the early visual cortex showed increased brain activity during aversive compared to neutral context trials, with identical visual information. Our findings imply the existence of a central multi-modal mechanism, which modulates early perceptual properties, following exposure to negative situations. Such a mechanism could contribute to abnormal responses that underlie anxiety states, even in new and safe environments. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Using a visual aversive learning paradigm, we found deteriorated discrimination abilities for visual and auditory stimuli, associated with visual aversive stimuli. We showed increased neural activations in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and amygdala during aversive compared to neutral learning. Importantly, similar findings were also evident in the early visual cortex during trials with aversive/neutral context, but with identical visual information. The demonstration of this phenomena in the visual modality is important, as it provides support to the notion that aversive learning can influence perception via a central mechanism, independent of input modality. Given the dominance of the visual system in human perception, our findings hold relevance to daily life, as well as imply a potential etiology for anxiety-disorders.

publication date

  • March 14, 2018