Discriminative Fear Learners are Resilient to Temporal Distortions during Threat Anticipation

Timing Time Percept. 2016;4(1):63-78. doi: 10.1163/22134468-00002063.


Discriminative fear conditioning requires learning to dissociate between safety cues and cues that predict negative outcomes yet little is known about what processes contribute to discriminative fear learning. According to attentional models of time perception, processes that distract from timing result in temporal underestimation. If discriminative fear learning only requires learning what cues predict what outcomes, and threatening stimuli distract attention from timing, then better discriminative fear learning should predict greater temporal distortion on threat trials. Alternatively, if discriminative fear learning also reflects a more accurate perceptual experience of time in threatening contexts, discriminative fear learning scores would predict less temporal distortion on threat trials, as time is perceived more veridically. Healthy young adults completed discriminative fear conditioning in which they learned to associate one stimulus (CS+) with aversive electrical stimulation and another stimulus (CS-) with non-aversive tactile stimulation and then an ordinal comparison timing task during which CSs were presented as task-irrelevant distractors Consistent with predictions, we found an overall temporal underestimation bias on CS+ relative to CS- trials. Differential skin conductance responses to the CS+ versus the CS- during conditioning served as a physiological index of discriminative fear conditioning and this measure predicted the magnitude of the underestimation bias, such that individuals exhibiting greater discriminative fear conditioning showed less underestimation on CS+ versus CS- trials. These results are discussed with respect to the nature of discriminative fear learning and the relationship between temporal distortions and maladaptive threat processing in anxiety.

Keywords: Duration discrimination; anxiety; emotion; fear conditioning; individual differences; timing and time perception.