Visual aversive learning compromises sensory discrimination

Lee Shalev, Rony Paz, Galia Avidan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aversive learning is thought to modulate perceptual thresholds, which can lead to overgeneralization. However, it remains undetermined whether 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 the 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 h. 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 with neutral learning. Interestingly, the early visual cortex showed increased brain activity during aversive compared with neutral context trials, with identical visual information. Our findings imply the existence of a central multimodal 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.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)2766-2779
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number11
StatePublished - 14 Mar 2018


  • FMRI
  • Fear conditioning
  • Generalization
  • Learning
  • Visual system

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience


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