Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The dual-process theory assumes that contexts are encoded in an elemental and in a conjunctive representation. However, this theory was developed from animal studies, and we still have to explore if and how elemental and conjunctive representations contribute to, for example, contextual anxiety in humans. Therefore, 28 participants underwent differential context conditioning in a newly developed flip-book paradigm. Virtual rooms were presented similar to a flip-book, that is, as a stream of 49 consecutive screenshots creating the impression of walking through the rooms. This allowed registration of event-related brain potentials triggered by specific screenshots. During two acquisition phases, two rooms were shown in this way for six times each. In one room, the anxiety context (CTX+), mildly painful electric stimuli (unconditioned stimuli [USs]) were administered unpredictably after 12 distinct screenshots, which became threat elements, whereas 12 selected comparable screenshots became nonthreat elements (elemental representation); all screenshots represented the anxiety context (conjunctive representation). In the second room, the safety context (CTX−), no USs were applied; thus, all screenshots created the safety context whereby 12 preselected screenshots represented safety elements. Increased US expectancy ratings for threat versus nonthreat or safety elements reflected elemental representation. Conjunctive representation was evident in differential ratings (arousal and contingency) and increased P100 and early posterior negativity amplitudes for threat and nonthreat CTX+ versus safety CTX− screenshots. These differences disappeared during two test phases without US delivery indicating successful extinction. In summary, we revealed the first piece of evidence for the simultaneous contributions of elemental and conjunctive representation during context conditioning in humans.