How do we generalize from past emotional experiences?

The ability to generalize from past experience is critical to behavior and has generated considerable interest in psychological science for over a century. However, much of this research has historically focused on animal learning, with surprisingly little attention to how humans generalize from emotional experiences. A primary interest in our lab is to investigate the neurobehavioral mechanisms of generalization during and after an emotional experience in humans. We investigate perceptual generalization (that is, things that look or sound alike, such as colors, sounds, shapes, or faces) and conceptual forms of generalization (that is, objects within semantic categories such as different animals or tools). Our research on conceptual-based generalization has shown how the organization of conceptual knowledge in the brain contributes to behavioral generalization of negative or positive emotions, and that conceptual knowledge is incorporated into emotional processing networks in the brain. This research has implications for understanding broad overgeneralization of fear and anxiety characteristic of a host of psychiatric conditions, including Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Specific Phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Panic Disorder.

Reviews on generalization

Dunsmoor JE & Murphy GL (2015). Categories, concepts, and conditioning: How humans generalize fear. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19, 73-77. | 

Dunsmoor JE & Paz R (2015). Fear generalization and anxiety: Behavioral and neural mechanisms. Biological Psychiatry, 78, 336-343. |  


How do we learn to regulate or overcome negative emotional experiences?

Once learned, it is often necessary to update a long-term memory with new information in order to regulate behaviors that are no longer relevant. Research on overcoming unwanted behavior relies extensively on the principles of extinction—in which omission of expected events diminishes learned behavior. A prominent example in the treatment domain is exposure therapy. A challenge to successful extinction treatments, however, is that extinguished behaviors return under a variety of circumstances (Reviewed in Dunsmoor, Niv, Daw, & Phelps, 2015, Neuron). Put simply, behavioral change is difficult to preserve. In our lab, we are trying a range of innovative behavioral strategies to optimize basic models of extinction to persistently alter maladaptive memories and prevent the return of fear. This research has implications for mental health research, providing the opportunity for productive collaborations with experts in clinical psychology and psychiatry.

Review on fear extinction

Dunsmoor JE, Niv Y, Daw N & Phelps EA (2015). Rethinking extinction, Neuron, 88, 47-63. | 

How does emotion shape our memory?

A longstanding question in psychology and neuroscience is why some experiences are remembered while other experiences are forgotten. It is widely appreciated that memory is malleable, and emotional relevance increases the chance that an experience will be remembered. In our lab, we see how emotional learning enhances memory for information encoded before, during, and after an emotionally meaningful experience. The novelty of this line of research is the incorporation of associative learning designs with episodic memory. These paradigms have allowed us to investigate how learning affects long-term episodic memory for intrinsically neutral stimuli or situations that have acquired emotional value. A better understanding of the factors that promote long-term memory enhancement has implications for targeting intrusive persistent memories.

Representative publications

Dunsmoor JE, Murty VP, Davachi L, & Phelps EA (2015). Emotional learning selectively and retroactively strengthens episodic memories for related events. Nature, 520, 345-348. |  

Ritchey M, Murty VP & Dunsmoor JE. (2016) Adaptive memory systems for remembering the salient and the seemingly mundane. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.