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Context, fear learning, and fear extinction

Mark E. Bouton
Department of Psychology, University of Vermont , USA

This talk will review basic behavioral research and theory on fear learning. When a signal and a painful event are associated, the signal can evoke anxiety or fear, emotions that control systems of behaviors that function to prepare the organism for the painful event. That fear or anxiety can be reduced if the signal is presented repeatedly without the painful event; the phenomenon, procedure, and process are all called “extinction.” Extinction is generally important because it allows us to adapt further to a changing environment. It is also used in clinical settings. However, extinction does not destroy the original learning, but instead creates new inhibitory learning that is highly dependent on the context for retrieval. The talk will discuss some of the implications for understanding lapse and relapse. It will also critically examine several behavioral and pharmacological treatments that might facilitate extinction learning and cause a more permanent reduction of fear (such as spacing extinction training different ways in time or adding “chemical adjuncts” such as d-cycloserine or yohimbine).

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