Nencki Institute Seminar

Dear All

This Thursday, March 18th at 3pm, Michał Szczepanik, a PhD student from the Neurobiology of Emotions Lab led by Prof. Ewelina Knapska, will give a lecture entitled: Learning fear from others: observational fear conditioning in humans


Behaviours and emotional expressions of other people are powerful cues supporting social learning of threat and safety. We studied this process with a modified observational fear conditioning task which was performed simultaneously by pairs of friends: one was the demonstrator, and underwent differential fear conditioning while being observed by the other (observer). The stimuli used to signal threat to the demonstrator were then presented to the observer to test the social acquisition of fear. While most previous studies used videos as social stimuli, we relied on live observation of a familiar person to increase immersion and ecological validity of the procedure.

I will discuss our methodology and present the results of two experiments: the first was psychophysiological, and allowed us to validate the real-time observational procedure in 35 pairs of friends. The second experiment was based on fMRI, and involved 48 pairs of friends, in which demonstrators were video streamed to the observers (‘friends’ group), and additional 47 participants (‘strangers’ group) who watched video recordings of the demonstrators from the ‘friends’ group. This allowed us to compare learning from a friend versus an unknown person, using visually identical stimulus material.

In the psychophysiological experiment, learning was evaluated across skin conductance responses, fear potentiated startle reflex, and declarative measures. In fMRI, the main effects of fear acquisition and fear expression were similar in both groups of observers (friends and strangers), and again confirmed the effectiveness of social fear learning. Notably, we observed activations in the amygdala, anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex (the set of structures activated also by direct fear conditioning), as well as in the superior temporal sulcus and fusiform gyrus (the structures involved in processing of social stimuli). However, we did not find differences between observation of a friend and observation of an unknown person. This suggests that social learning of threat can be considered primarily as a transfer of information, of which strangers are equally reliable sources as friends.

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Best regards,

12 March 2021
2021-03-18 15:00:00
2021-03-18 17:00:00