Fear but not awareness predicts enhanced sensory processing in fear conditioning


  • We thank Leonie Koban and Ursula Lommen for help with data acquisition. Research was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

Address reprint requests to: Stephan Moratti, Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Konstanz, P.O. Box D25, D-78457 Konstanz, Germany. E-mail: Stephan.Moratti@uni-konstanz.de.


It is not clear whether enhanced cortical processing of reinforced stimuli as reported by neuroimaging studies is due to expectancy of an aversive event alone or to activation of the fear system. The present study investigated cortical and autonomic responses of aware participants using an instructed fear conditioning design. Steady-state visual evoked fields (ssVEF) and heart rate change were recorded to assess sensory processing and activation of the fear system by reinforced (CS+) and nonreinforced stimuli (CS−). Participants who showed heart rate acceleration demonstrated increased ssVEFs in visual and parietal cortex during CS+ in acquisition trials. Heart rate decelerators did not show enhanced cortical activation with respect to the CS+. Participants in both groups reported awareness of CS–US contingencies. Awareness of stimulus contingency in fear conditioning seems not to be sufficient to elicit enhanced visual cortical processing.