Dr Ben Seymour, Computational and Biological Learning Lab, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1PZ


Center for Information and Neural Networks, National Institute for Information and Communications Technology (NICT), 1-3 Yamadaoka, Suita, Osaka 565-0871, Japan.

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New paper in eLife: Value generalization in human avoidance learning

Our new paper is out - here's the eLife digest:

People apply what they have learned from past experiences to similar situations, a phenomenon known as generalization. For example, if eating a particular food caused illness, a person will likely avoid foods that look or smell similar in the future. Generalization can be helpful because it allows people to decide how to act in new situations. But over-generalizing after a bad experience could lead an individual to fear benign scenarios. This may lead to unnecessary anxiety. It can also create a negative cycle where people avoid certain situations or objects, which prevents them from learning that they are safe.

Now, Norbury et al. show what happens in the brain when making decisions that involve generalization. In the experiments, volunteers were told seeing a particular flower design would lead to a painful electric shock, unless they pushed a button to ‘avoid’ that image. Individuals completed this task in a magnetic resonance imaging machine so Norbury et al. could observe their brain activity while they completed the task. A second group of individuals were asked to complete a similar task online, but instead of being shocked they lost money if they failed to hit a key when they saw the ‘dangerous’ flower. The online participants also filled out a survey about their experience of various psychological symptoms.

Norbury et al. used computer modeling to reconstruct how people decided whether or not to avoid images that looked similar to the harm-associated images but were in fact safe (did not lead to pain or losing money). The experiments showed that different parts of the brain were involved in different parts of the generalization process. Areas of the brain that interpret vision, fear, and safety played distinct roles. People who generalized more from harmful outcomes were more likely to report feeling anxious and having intrusive negative thoughts in their everyday lives. A better understanding of the brain processes that cause these symptoms in different situations might help scientists develop better treatments for conditions like anxiety in the future.

This was picked up by a number of news sites, for example ScienceDaily

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