Classical fear conditioning has been used as a model to explain fear learning across species. In this model, the amygdala is known to play a critical role. However, classical fear conditioning requires first-hand experience with an alarming event, which may not be how most fears are acquired in humans. It is not yet determined whether the conditioning model can be extended to indirect forms of learning that are more common in humans. For example, witnessing someone else undergo a stressful event, in which instills fear.
A recent study shows that fear acquired indirectly through social observation, with no personal experience of the alarming event, engages similar neural mechanisms as fear conditioning. The amygdala was engaged both when subjects observed someone else being submitted to a distressing event, knowing that the same treatment awaited themselves, and when subjects were later placed in a similar situation.
These discoveries confirm the primary role of the amygdala as acquiring and expressing observational fear learning. This also validates the addition of the fear conditioning model to learning fears through a social context across species. Our findings also provide new insights into the relationship between learning from, and empathizing with, fearful others. This study suggests that indirectly attained fears may be as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences.
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