Mental imagery can generate and regulate acquired differential fear conditioned reactivity


Mental imagery is an important tool in the cognitive control of emotion. The present study tests the prediction that visual imagery can generate and regulate differential fear conditioning via the activation and prioritization of stimulus representations in early visual cortices. We combined differential fear conditioning with manipulations of viewing and imagining basic visual stimuli in humans. We discovered that mental imagery of a fear-conditioned stimulus compared to imagery of a safe conditioned stimulus generated a significantly greater conditioned response as measured by self-reported fear, the skin conductance response, and right anterior insula activity (experiment 1). Moreover, mental imagery effectively down- and up-regulated the fear conditioned responses (experiment 2). Multivariate classification using the functional magnetic resonance imaging data from retinotopically defined early visual regions revealed significant decoding of the imagined stimuli in V2 and V3 (experiment 1) but significantly reduced decoding in these regions during imagery-based regulation (experiment 2). Together, the present findings indicate that mental imagery can generate and regulate a differential fear conditioned response via mechanisms of the depictive theory of imagery and the biased-competition theory of attention. These findings also highlight the potential importance of mental imagery in the manifestation and treatment of psychological illnesses.