Brain Indices of Nonconscious Associative Learning

P. S. Wong, E. Bernat, Scott Bunce, H. Shevrin

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58 Scopus citations


Using a classical conditioning technique, this study investigated whether nonconscious associative learning could be indexed by event-related brain activity (ERP). There were three phases. In a preconditioning baseline phase, pleasant and unpleasant facial schematics were presented in awareness (suprathreshold). A conditioning phase followed, in which stimuli were presented outside awareness (subthreshold, via energy masking), with an unpleasant face (CS+) linked to an aversive shock and a pleasant face (CS-) not linked to a shock. The third, postconditioning phase, involved stimulus presentations in awareness (suprathreshold). Evidence for acquisition of a conditional response was sought by comparing suprathreshold pre- and postconditioning phases, as well as in the subthreshold conditioning phase itself. For the pre-postconditioning phase analyses, significant ERP component differences differentiating CS+ and CS- were observed for N1, P2, and especially P3. For the conditioning phase, significant differences were observed in the 100-400 ms. post-stimulus region reflecting a CS+ processing negativity. Brain activity does indeed index the acquisition of a conditional response to subthreshold stimuli. Associative learning can occur outside awareness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)519-544
Number of pages26
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1997

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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